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
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
"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
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
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
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
"'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
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
"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,
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
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
Does Cyburverminn think about the possible devastating
effects his trolling could have on families who have lost
Does he care?
"I've never done anything so severe that it would cause
someone to kill themselves. Mostly they aren't offended and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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