Dangers of trolling

When internet users post deliberately extreme and obnoxious online comments from the safety of anonymous cyberspace, the effects can be devastating and sometimes, fatal. APNZ reporter Abby Gillies explores the dark world of trolling.

When Dean Dunbar learnt gruesome and pornographic photos had been posted on a tribute page dedicated to his son and the other 28 men who died in the Pike River mine blasts, he felt pity.

"I guess if they are that way and are that incompassionate and that backward thinking then I guess I feel sorry for their children. They hop off that computer after giving themselves a thrill or whatever drives them. Hopefully they haven't got children under their roof."

During the "torturous time", Mr Dunbar was trying to cope with the devastating loss of his 17-year-old son Joseph in the explosions.

On the tribute page, internet trolls also posted messages saying the tragedy was funny and that people did not care about the lives lost.

At the time, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn described the posts as "the lowest thing anybody can do".

Mr Dunbar did not look at the images or read the messages. Instead, his focus was protecting his other children.

"You've just got to be very very careful to keep these types of people away from your children - that's paramount to us."

When high-profile criminal lawyer Greg King died last week tributes of love and support flowed for his family.

But amid the outpouring of grief were was something else.

"Karma", tweeted on person. Other defamatory comments were swiftly removed from message boards.

Facebook tribute pages for murdered Auckland teenager Emily Longley also had to be removed after they were defaced with lewd photos and nasty comments.

Across the Tasman, celebrity and ex-pat New Zealander Charlotte Dawson was hospitalised after a torrent of abuse from Twitter trolls.

Among the hate campaign were death threats, and calls for the 46-year-old TV presenter to "stick your head in a toaster", "kill yourself" and "go hang yourself".

The relentless tirade got too much for Dawson, who told the media she was "pushed to the very brink by these creeps".

After recovering, she went on to track down and unmask some of her trolls.

When British singer Adele and her boyfriend Simon Konecki recently had a son, their news was quickly tarnished by trolls saying they wanted to murder the baby.

Not so far from its original wicked fairytale creature meaning, trolling is generally defined as posting obnoxious, abusive or simply distracting messages or images to provoke a response.

While usually done under the guise of anonymity, trolls have sometimes been unmasked.

When "inappropriate and disturbing" images of dead Canadian teenager Amanda Todd whose suicide was attributed to cyber-bullying were posted on her memorial page, it sparked widespread outcry.

Specialist cyber crime teams traced the posts to New Zealand, where some were found to have been posted by 17-year-old Raglan teen Corey Hartstone.

He and his family were spoken to by police, the images removed and his Facebook account shut down.

There was little more that could be done legally, but the case served as a warning about the impacts of what is written online.

"'Trolling' or posting inflammatory/disruptive comments, while offensive to some people, will not necessarily be an offence in law. Again it depends on what is said and the circumstances," a spokeswoman for the New Zealand Police said.

She advised people subjected to internet harassment that was physically threatening or contained racial, sexual or religious overtones to report it to police and keep a record by taking screen shots.

Not everyone took offence to Corey's actions though.

A 19-year-old American, known online as 'Thaddeus Cyburverminn Trohll', supported his actions "because I think it's funny".

"People would just attack him and he thought it was funny. We thought it was hilarious."

"They were quite hypocritical if you ask me, like they were telling Corey (on his profile page) to kill himself. They were telling him to drink bleach. All this terrible stuff, man."

Cyburverminn spends 10 or more hours a week posting deliberately obnoxious and extreme messages to provoke a response when something catches his interest.

The payoff is entertainment, he says.

"It's for the lols. We do it for the laughs. We do it for reactions."

Nothing appears to be off-limits with anything from politics, religion, race, and appearance to music and grammar providing a rich hunting ground of material for the hungry troll.

The more outrageous and provocative, the better.

"I just leave a comment, look for a reaction, laugh at it and move on."

Does Cyburverminn think about the possible devastating effects his trolling could have on families who have lost loved ones?

"Yes"

Does he care?

"No"

"I've never done anything so severe that it would cause someone to kill themselves. Mostly they aren't offended and just laugh."

The internet is rich pickings for victims, especially when it's a sensitive topic and many are likely to take the bait.

New Zealand laws provide only limited protection against communication that causes mental distress if there is no physical threat.

In August the Law Commission released its report on Harmful Digital Communications with recommendations on how to deal with the practice which was linked to self-harm and suicides, accompanied by a draft bill.

Police said staff were dealing with a growing number of complaints from members of the public who have been "intimidated, bullied, harassed and threatened on the Internet".

Independent research suggests that as many as one in ten New Zealanders has experienced harmful communication on the internet - a rate that more than doubles among the 18 to 29-year-olds, who are the heaviest users of new media.

Among the recommendations in the report was the introduction of a new offence targeting digital communications that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character - and which cause harm".

Material posted on websites, message boards, blogs, social media sites, emails and texts would be covered under the proposed law.

The report is with the Government and Justice Minister Judith Collins is expected to make a decision on possible changes as early next year.

Law change was one way of dealing with the "horrible, heinous, vile" practice of trolling, but equally there needs to be more public debate and education around online ethics to shift the culture, says Auckland University Department of Film, Television and Media Studies senior lecturer Dr Luke Goode.

Trolling also should be looked in a broader context.

In a climate of global recession and social media has provided "one more outlet for people to engage in hateful speech in a particularly cowardly way because they usually hide behind anonymity", he says.

"I can't help but think at least we shouldn't separate what's going on online from that wider context. I think it's too easy to just look at this stuff in terms of pathological individuals. It's about individuals but it's also about a wider social climate that we've got at the moment."

Trolling tends to be gendered towards males but beyond that there seems to be no typical troll.

In Ireland, writer Leo Traynor said he and his wife were was maliciously targeted by a troll for more than three years. He was called a "Jewish scumbag", flooded with disgusting images of concentration camps and corpses, abusive emails, and sent a box of ashes with the note "say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz", The Guardian reported.

"I felt physically sick. I was petrified," Traynor was quoted as saying.

He told authorities and, with the help of a friend in IT, traced the source as the 17-year-old son of a friend.

In New Zealand, trolling - which can range from the minor to the extreme - is an emerging trend and one that needs to be stamped out, says Martin Cocker, director of NetSafe, an organisation that promotes cyber safety.

"It's one of those things that you see happening in other jurisdictions and know that it will emerge here."

He agreed education worked to discourage some people from causing offence online, once they learned the effects of their actions.

The proposed law change was "a great idea" by providing for police to more broadly prosecute online harmful behaviour, said Mr Cocker.


Tips for reducing risk

- Be wary of the information you put about yourself and others online

- Make sure your security settings only allow trusted friends and family to access your information

- Don't feed the trolls - don't get into an exchange with them.

- If you're targeted by a troll, take away their power by removing the posts.

- If you're being targeted, let someone know and parents should take children's concerns seriously

For more information go to www.netsafe.org.nz