What a tragedy it is that it requires another suicide to regenerate widespread interest in cyberbullying, the phenomenon that has become the scourge of the internet age. Charlotte Dawson, the New Zealand–Australian television personality, recently took her own life following a lengthy battle against anonymous Twitter trolls, which has precipitated calls for tougher anti-cyberbullying legislation in Australia (see and sign here).
In an extract from her book, Air Kiss and Tell: Memoirs of a blow-up doll (2012), Dawson writes candidly about her experiences with trolls. She states that they are ‘the creatures that don’t show their faces and unleash a vitriolic stream against others.’
The type of creature Dawson identifies has been labelled an ‘abuse troll’ (see here for a definition) and UK victims are already very familiar with how they operate. These trolls derive pleasure from insulting and harassing their victims using extremely racist, homophobic or misogynistic language. As Dawson notes, these trolls are often reluctant to reveal their true identities, relying on pseudonyms and bogus email addresses as their main forms of disguise.
The trolls’ retort, as always, is likely to be predictable and trite: if you don’t like it, don’t pay attention to us; we are the last remaining bastions of free-speech and any online restrictions on this inalienable right would be unreasonable and unjustifiable. Further, some of these trolls might contend that their abuse is simply “banter”.
This response crudely assumes that victims should be de-sensitised to abuse and/or prepared to sacrifice their own enjoyment of social media so that “freedom of speech” can prevail. Dawson writes, “I know that I shouldn’t respond, and in most cases I don’t, but sometimes, particularly on Twitter, when a heinous comment is directed right at my ‘handle’, I just can’t let it go.” Her reaction is entirely natural and responding to a troll can – albeit in very limited circumstances – result in an end to the abuse.
When Dawson successfully revealed the identity of one of her anonymous abusers, for instance, she was inundated with requests to remove her tweet. At first her abuser claimed that Dawson’s actions were “illegal” but such allegations soon metamorphosed into “a shower of compliments” after the troll had been left to “sweat for a couple of hours”. The apparent reason for this troll’s volte-face was that she was concerned that she would lose her job (which would have been a good example of poetic justice in action).
In the UK last year, Mary Beard adopted a similar approach by naming and shaming one of her abusers on Twitter, resulting in him sending her a grovelling apology.
It does seem then that trolls have feelings of their own. Accordingly, perhaps they should rethink the considerable hurt they cause their victims before deciding to abuse them.
But these trolls are, however, intransigent types, who cling tenuously to the belief that freedom of speech, or more specifically, the freedom to abuse, should not be interfered with. As a result, it is perhaps more likely that these trolls will look to take further steps to conceal their identities and continue to abuse their victims without the fear of being unmasked.
Despite the geographical distance separating the Antipodean and UK abuse troll, it would appear that both creatures are in fact indistinguishable. Indeed, the global nature of the internet means that an Antipodean troll can easily mimic the behaviour of his UK counterpart and vice versa.
A costly reminder
For those trolls not deterred by such a sad story, the first libel trial in Australia (Farley v Mickle), in which the defendant was ordered to pay an eye-watering $105,000 in damages, serves a reminder of the potential financial consequences of a defamatory tweet.
In this case, Mr Farley, an ex-student at Orange High School, made defamatory comments on Twitter and Facebook about Ms Mickle, a music teacher who had taken his father’s job at the same school.
Whilst there is a distinction between vulgar abuse (generally not actionable) and defamatory comments, the recent High Court case of Horne v Dempster shows that this boundary can soon become blurred.
What is particularly significant about Farley v Mickle (and unlike the first two libel trials in England and the US – see Cairns v Modi  EWHC 756 (QB) and Gordon & Holmes v. Love, No. BC462438 respectively), however, is that neither the claimant nor the defendant had celebrity status. Indeed, the defendant in this case was 20 years old and had only recently left school.
Trolls might then be concerned to discover that there appears a growing understanding amongst the general public that libel actions can be pursued for comments made on social media. The initial legal uncertainties about how to deal with unfamiliar obstacles (e.g. proving that the publication is substantial) are being overcome and trolls should crawl out from under their bridge and take note.
Tom Double is a Trainee Solicitor working in the Collyer Bristow Cyber Investigations Unit