Social media offers its users an extraordinary and unprecedented freedom to communicate and let their voice be heard. But the abuse, bullying, harassment and trolling that has taken place in recent months on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and ask.fm has not gone unnoticed.
Today two Twitter trolls who sent abusive tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez have been sentenced to 12 weeks (Isabella Sorley) and 8 weeks (John Nimmo) custodial sentences at Westminster Magistrate’s Court, having already pleaded guilty to sending menacing messages under s127 of the Communications Act 2003. The trolls will also have to pay compensation to the victim. The sentencing remarks of the District Judge can be found here [pdf].
This appears to be a strong message from the Police and the CPS to those who use social media to troll victims and shows that action will be taken. Indeed, only last night, another alleged troll, Peter Nunn, was charged for what are said to be abusive tweets to Stella Creasy MP.
In July 2012, Caroline Criado-Perez, a journalist, successfully campaigned for the Bank of England to keep a woman on banknotes,in this case Jane Austen. Sadly, she herself became a victim of the Twitter trolls.
Ms Criado-Perez received tweets which were plainly abusive as well as numerous rape threats. She sought police action which lead to the arrest of 23 year-old Isabella Sorley and 25 year-old John Nimmo. Sorley sent tweets saying “Die you worthless piece of crap” and told Ms Criado-Perez to “go kill yourself”. She also sent a tweet saying “I’ve only just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried!![sic]”. Nimmo threatened to rape Ms Criado-Perez and told her to “shut-up” as well as threatening “I will find you”.
Those supporting Ms Criado-Perez also became victims of trolling, two well-known examples being Stella Creasy and Professor Mary Beard. Amongst the worst was an image of a masked knifeman sent to Ms Creasy with the message “I’m gonna be the first thing you see when you wake up”. Nimmo also targetted Ms Creasy taunting “the things I cud do to u” and called her a “dumb blond bitch”. Anonymous accounts were even set up such as @killcreasynow and @eatcreasynow. As if this weren’t bad enough, accounts like @rapey1 were set up to torment the MP.
Ms Criado-Perez received abuse from a total of 86 Twitter accounts, which included multiple accounts set up by Nimmo and Sorley. Nimmo had sent 24 tweets to the two women and had used 6 separate Twitter accounts to do so. Sorley had sent 6 tweets and set up 3 anonymous Twitter accounts.
As we have seen, arrests and prosecutions are taking place. This is a promising start. But is it really enough? Ms Criado-Perez herself describes the case against Sorley and Nimmo as a “small drop in the ocean” in the context of the total amount of abuse she received. It has highlighted how slow and frustrating trying to take action through the police can be. Numerous problems are bound to arise through this course of action due to constraints on police time and resources. Issues of jurisdiction arise when a user is based outside of the UK. Problems also remain with trying to take action through Twitter directly. Despite a guilty plea, Sorley’s account remains active and the troll was even posting selfies outside of Buckingham Palace on the day she entered her plea.
But what other remedies are available to those who find themselves the victims of such abuse and how should they combat an anonymised abuser? We hear that the sites themselves do not do enough to help and the police are too slow to act. But what happens when the victim strikes back?
In July 2013 Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University, found herself the victim of twitter abuse following her appearance on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 programme. Oliver Rawlings tweeted “retweet this you filthy, old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.”
Rawlings’ motives hardly matter. But had he considered the consequences of his actions and the repercussions that ensued he may have thought twice. Professor Beard named and shamed Rawlings by re-tweeting his offensive message to her 50,000 followers. An even more astounding turn of events followed when one of Mary Beard’s followers tweeted back to say “Mary, if you would like to send a copy @Rawling153’s tweet to his mother, Joanne, I’d be happy to give you the address”.
Very swiftly Rawlings tweeted a number of times to say “I sincerely apologise for my trolling. I was wrong and very rude. Hope this can be forgotten and forgiven” as well as “I feel this had [sic] been a good lesson for me. Thanks 4 showing me the error of my ways. I wish you all the best”.
James Blunt is another example of the way in which humour and a direct response can be a tactic against trolls. Mr Blunt received a tweet asking “Who the fuck is cheering for fucking James Blunt”, to which he simply replied “My mum’s in the audience”. A series of Blunt’s so-called top 17 tweets can be found here .
This is, however, a risky strategy and one that may well back-fire. Users who decide to tweet back should do so in the full knowledge that it may not stop the abuse, but they may feel a little better having tackled the situation hands on.
There is of course the option to litigate the matter and bring civil proceedings. To date we are unaware of any case of Twitter abuse to have been brought before the civil courts.
Rhory Robertson is a Partner and Aimee Stevens a Paralegal working in the Collyer Bristow Cyber Investigations Unit