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#Trolls and #Trolling: online abuse – Clare Brown

internet-trollSocial media remains an engaging way to be entertained and educated and has many positives. We are increasingly living our lives online and, for some, it is all about forging real life friendships, building business contacts and sharing information (or pictures of their cats). But as with any community – whether online or in real life – there is a dark side.

This article has its genesis in a Soho Skeptics event ‘They see me trolling: What can we do about online abuse’ where Helen Lewis took a semi-serious look at the ‘trolling’ phenomenon. She wasn’t to know that the summer months would see an explosion of online abuse, involving TV academics, politicians, journalists, campaigners and troubled teenagers. Given the nature of social media, everyone has had an opinion and the amount of material generated around this largely appalling abuse is staggering.

What is a ‘troll’?

‘Troll’ is a contentious term because it is a media, and increasingly academic, construct. There are nearly as many types of troll as there are people interacting on the internet. These individuals have different motivations, online experiences and, most of the time, they don’t know when to stop typing and walk away. Wikipedia has a usefully wide definition; ‘a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community’. Or as Helen said, a troll is ‘the lesser known of two people in a twitter argument’.

Types of troll

Helen outlined types of troll according to academic research, namely, ‘abuse’, ‘sub cultural’, ‘grief’ and ‘professional’ trolls. But any potentially controversial subject – politics, religion, sport, celebrities, academia – will attract trolls.

‘Abuse trolls’ are ones we have seen most of recently. Already these categories are problematic because there are many types of ‘abuse – or harassing – troll’. Cases of ‘low level’ harassment have warranted proportional punishments such as formal warnings and restorative justice and/or apologies to victims. The recent arrest of John Nimmo for suspected harassment of Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez has been widely reported. If, however, he is convicted, the more extreme threats made against them and others will no doubt lead to stronger penalties. As of early September, he had been released on bail and will be interviewed by London’s Metropolitan Police at a later date.

‘Sub cultural trolls’ are generally anonymous and make a career out of shock and controversy. One extreme example is Reddit troll, Violentacrez (Violent Acres) who was outed in Oct 2012 as Michael Brutsch. Reddit is a user generated content site that simply aggregates information – pictures, news, blog posts etc. – already published on the internet. Brutsch was collating images in subfolders or subreddits, variously called /jailbait, /picsofdeadbabies, /beatingwomen, amongst others. Reddit initially took a lenient view with outraged users complaining about loss of freedom of speech. However, news investigations lead to the demise of these tasteless collections.

‘Grief trolls’ are particularly repugnant. They are a problem on Facebook memorial pages set up by grieving friends and families. Hannah Smith tragically committed suicide due to severe bullying on social media site but the original Facebook tribute page that her family set up received so many abusive messages they closed it and opened another one. Her father is now campaigning to change the laws regarding online abuse. One so-called ‘grief’ troll, Sean Duffy, was found guilty under malicious communications legislation and jailed for 18 weeks. Magistrates also gave him an Asbo and banned him from using social networking sites for five years.

‘Professional trolls’ are usually journalists and they fit within the definition of troll given above because they write deliberately controversial pieces to provoke reader response. It drives outraged traffic to their newspapers’ websites and the advertisers are kept happy. The inevitable result is bad journalism and cynical readers who would prefer not to be trolled in this way.

Why do people troll?

There is an online disinhibition effect which is ‘a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet’. Essentially, people write things online that they wouldn’t dream of saying to strangers, face to face.

People show off online; they use the internet to air views they know are socially unacceptable and revel in any attention, positive or negative, they get. There has been a suggestion recently that some people are just bored and winding up people online is an easy outlet.

Terry Pratchett once said ‘the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters’, so competing individuals in a group can be encouraged amongst their like-minded peers. So called ‘Gamification’ is the result. This summer has seen women being threatened with rape, then bombing, what is the next new offensive thing? In the aftermath of the Syria vote, is it images of dead people?

How do we deal with trolls?

Twitter recently introduced a report tweet button which was the result of an e-petition campaign over the summer. People can now report individual offensive or harassing tweets to twitter, potentially getting the offending user suspended. Whether this will work remains to be seen. One reported unintended consequence has led to complaints that harmless accounts have been suspended.

The problem remains unsolved where it is a sustained, targeted attack by many people on one person; for instance, the high profile women targeted recently complained that you could spend a lot of time blocking and reporting multiple, mostly anonymous accounts. The block button doesn’t always work because of ongoing abuse across different social media – a huge problem if you are also being targeted on Facebook, Youtube, blogs and other sites.

People have called for an end to anonymity on the net but this isn’t the only problem. It’s lack of consequences; you do it once, get away with it and then carry on, for whatever reason. is currently under the spotlight for its “made for bullying” website design and the company is already responding to pressure by pledging to create a more prominent “report button” for abusive messages, to hire more staff to act as moderators and to urge users to become registered in order to limit anonymity.

What has emerged over the last few months is the number of misconceptions about online trolls. Some can be offensive, yet harmless, but do not give rise to any civil or criminal claims. But others are utterly repulsive and force victims to consider taking one of three actions; 1. Do nothing. 2. Report to the authorities and think about the legal remedies. 3. Do a Mary Beard.

Clare Brown is Library and Information Manager at Collyer Bristow.  Further information about Collyer Bristow’s Cyber Investigation Unit can be found here.

1 Comment

  1. nigelpwsmith

    I was one of the first to suffer toxic on-line dis-inhibition back in 2007. It was known about beforehand as in the case Godfrey V Demon Internet. However, in my circumstances, the outcome was not so helpful, as the courts did not appreciate either the distress caused by trolling, or the effect upon someone’s reputation or career.

    In 2003, I helped the victims of a major market abuse recover their investments. As an active user of the financial information website,, I was frequently on the bulletin boards where you can find information and discussion of various listed shares. Some of the posters can be argumentative or downright abusive, primarily because they have investments they wish to protect. Postings that could be regarded as market abuse are frequently reported to the authorities and prosecutions have been initiated.

    In late 2005, I was approached by a number of shareholders who discovered that they were the victims of a rather pernicious company fraud, Langbar International. This was the largest fraud that ever happened on the Alternative Investment Market. The losses amounted to well over £80 million, although the company was at one time worth over $1 billion. I helped these investors by starting a shareholder action group, obtained legal representation for them, even represented them at shareholder meetings and negotiations. Most of the communications about the recovery were posted to the bulletin boards of ADVFN.
    In mid 2006, it became apparent that the corporate recovery people managing the company did not have the best interests of the shareholders at heart. So the shareholders split into two groups. Those that wished to take independent legal action to recover their investment (which I supported) and those that wished to remain with the company management, accepting no liability for legal recovery, but subject to whatever the management then deemed to give them in return.

    The independent shareholders accepted that they were responsible for their own legal costs if they failed, but they stood to recover a greater percentage of their money if they were successful. The shareholders that remained with the company (Scheme shareholders), resented the independent shareholders, as they believed that if the independents recovered more, it would mean that they ended up with less. This resentment manifested itself in abusive posts on ADVFN about the independent shareholders in general and myself particularly, as the supposed figurehead of this group.

    In April 2007, one of the Scheme shareholders admitted that he had suffered no loss in the fraud, but was still claiming compensation all the same. I and others pointed out that legally speaking, he had no right to claim compensation where there was no loss, even if the company’s poorly written claim procedure allowed such a claim to be processed. When this person refused to withdraw his claim, I suggested that he was no better than the original fraudsters, because he was taking money that would rightfully compensate the victims that had suffered real loss.

    What happened next was that the friends of this person (who was only known by his on-line username – not his real name) then began posting hundreds of abusive posts about me. Some of them even called me a criminal, a fraudster, a blackmailer, an extortionist, a drug dealer, a bankrupt, a scrounger, someone obtaining money by deceit and numerous other libelous and abusive posts, many of which also contained vulgar abuse.

    Naturally, I demanded that those defamatory statements were withdrawn immediately and that the people posting them apologise. They refused and followed this with even more defamation and abuse.

    I suffered under an almost overwhelming avalanche, a hate campaign of abusive posts from over 50 posters for three days until I took action, obtained legal advice, then issued Norwich Pharmacal claims in the High Court to uncover the names of the abusers. The cost of this action was greater than £5k and it did not disclose all the names, as most of the abusers had registered with false names. More Pharmacals followed nearly a year later.

    When some of the abusers realized that legal action was under way, a number of them apologised. The first couple made token payments of £100 to charity by way of apology. In fact, the first person had his payment returned to him, because he was sincerely sorry. After these, several more settled out of court for a total of £4k, £6k and £10k a piece (including the legal costs).

    Even so, the amount of defamation and abuse did not stop, it actually increased and became thousands of defamatory posts. Many people who did not know of my ‘Good Samaritan’ assistance to the victims of a fraud, or who I was (even though my real name was known and used by the abusers) decided to attack me just to join in the fun.

    As a consequence, more Pharmacals had to be issued to obtain the names of the people who registered with false names, as well as the others who joined in the abuse. It was during these applications, that costs orders in the sum of over £80k were run up, just trying to find out who was attacking me. In order to recover these costs, I issued another 30 claims in the High Court against the individuals identified. This is when the Judges started to interfere with the process, not understanding what trolling was.

    The Judges stayed all the actions and passed them to the Head of the Jury List, the senior defamation Judge at the High Court, Mr Justice David Eady. I was made aware that it id standard policy for the Court Service to stay any actions when the Claimant issues more than five claims, on the basis that they might be a vexatious litigant.

    At a preliminary hearing Eady J said that allegations of criminality were obviously defamatory, but vulgar abuse was not. He ordered a further hearing at which the defendants would be allowed to speak and make their defence. This hearing was heard prior to Eady J hearing the well known Mosley V News Group Newspapers libel trial. The Judgment was handed down the very next day after that case.

    Even though Eady J had previously said that he would not make civil restraint order against me, he did so in the judgment. Furthermore, the judgment was contradictory, in admitting that there was lack of merit in the claims, yet he admitted that allegations of criminality or dishonesty were serious defamations.

    Permission to appeal was granted when Eady’s error was pointed out. Even more surprising was that Eady J then issued a second judgment a matter of days later, admitting that he was wrong to impose a CRO and that none would be imposed after all. It is believed that this was an attempt to interfere with the appeal process and prevent the stays being lifted.

    Obviously, this mistake was very serious and in the appeals process afterwards, it was suggested that I focus the legal actions on a few very serious defamations, instead of the rest of the crowd. This had similarities to the handling of the McAlpine case years later, where minor offenders were allowed to settle for a minuscule amount whilst Lord McAlpine went after the more well known offenders.

    Whilst the long drawn out appeals process was under way, I issued a further claim against the Ministry of Justice for Eady J’s mistake (and that of my counsel), because the judgment was reported in the national press where I was subjected to further ridicule. It is my belief that this action prompted the Judiciary to take action to end my cases. The appeal (before LLJs Ward, Richards and Jackson) was referred back to the Queens Bench for consideration of whether they should be dismissed for lack of merit (even though the Court of Appeal decided there was merit) and whether a CRO should be imposed. In December 2010, Tugendhat J dismissed all the claims (except one) and imposed a CRO.

    The only claim he could not dismiss is the one against ADVFN plc, because the defendant’s QC admitted in court that the claim did have merit. That QC is now a High Court Justice himself.

    The fact remains that the Judges did not understand the pernicious nature of the online abuse. They thought that they were dealing with a vexatious litigant, but in fact this was a hate campaign by a number of individuals of unknown name and address, which was not only difficult to find out – seeing that I had to do Pharmacals through their Internet Provider – but also hugely expensive. As a result of these actions, I had cost orders against me totaling well over £120k, which is far more than any ordinary person can handle.

    It’s not only the cost of legal action that is prohibitive, but the damage that such an action can do to your professional reputation, your work reputation or even your social standing. Even if you don’t respond, the allegations can be found should any employer Google your name.

    Some suggested that if I had taken the route of bringing harassment claims against the people concerned that this would have been easier and cheaper. The problem is that it is not guaranteed that the Police will act on such claims and if you have to bring them yourself, you still need to uncover the identity of the offenders through Pharmacals bringing up the cost issue again.

    If the names and addresses of all users were verified by the owners of websites before they could access bulletin boards or social media, verified by credit card information, then if there needed to be legal redress, it would not be so expensive and the defendants could settle the matter without running up ruinous legal bills in the process. That way, it might be easier to offer a simple apology rather than end up losing your house.

    The courts are now issuing Judgments (McAlpine) which do reflect the damage caused by toxic on-line dis-inhibition, but sadly, it is now too late for me to seek compensation for the judgments which wrongly went against me.

    However, it is true that once ‘dis-inhibited’ the troll will continue to post their abuse until the courts rule against them. One of the trolls that attacked me is still doing so, some six years after the original defamations. They now believe that they have the authority of the court to attack me.

    It is to the continual embarrassment of David Eady and the other Judges that they issued judgments purely because they did not wish to have so many claims clogging up their courts. They took the view that if all these people were attacking one person, then there must be a valid reason and they looked for a way to justify that. They ignored the serious defamatory allegations, even though Eady had already mentioned them in his judgments, and instead focused on the plethora of vulgar abuse.

    I should point out that the shareholders I helped managed to recover the majority of the money they lost in the fraud, whilst the people that attacked me ended up with next to nothing. Furthermore, the Eady & Tugendhat Judgments have allowed other internet abusers and trolls to escape liability for serious defamations.

    Lastly, for the past four years I have been unable to find work. Even though I am a highly qualified professional and I’ve made over 3,000 job applications, I have received not one job offer. Toxic on-line dis-inhibition can have serious consequences on your social, your financial and your career wellbeing.

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