Rugby league player Robbie Farah’s mother passed away in June from pancreatic cancer. British diver Tom Daley’s father died in similarly terrible circumstances last year. What brought these two together was not their athletic professions and comparable family tragedies but the fact they were both later trolled on Twitter about the deaths. And in both cases, the ugly head of potential criminal prosecutions surfaced.
Daley’s verbal tormentor, a 17-year-old boy, was arrested for his comments in England, where laws regulating online behaviour are far more stringent. The identity of Farah’s bully is murkier, but the State of Origin player is vehement in his belief that stronger laws should further criminalise trolling in Australia. This is despite his own pot-callingthe- kettle-black “noose” tweet attacking Julia Gillard. Though it is currently an offence to harass or menace using a carriage service, police have been understandably guarded in acting upon such legislation. Even on a daily basis, the potential prosecutions would be limitless.
Joining the fray is perennial Twitter target Charlotte Dawson, host of Australia’s Next Top Model, whose “plight” combined a hypocritical 60 Minutes public relations campaign with a willingness to use almost any insult to unleash her own bullying tactics. Even if we disregard the overt double standards, the path to (over)criminalising online trolling is a slippery one fraught with danger.
Regardless, stringent social media laws already lord themselves throughout segments of the online world. Most famously, Welsh student Liam Stacey’s racist tweet about Fabrice Muamba netted him a 56-day jail sentence. Providing some perspective, many active participants in the 2011 London riots copped less severe punishments. A new breed of court cases, particularly in the UK, focus on prosecuting individuals for insults of a kind regularly heard and even tolerated around licensed venues, public transportation and street corners.
A major difficulty with stronger legislation for Internet trolling is the sheer subjectivity as to whether and how someone is insulted. Words like slut, bastard, dickhead and the c-word are all offensive yet represent simply a fraction of the options for attacking someone. To create an arbitrary distinction based on a family death, race or religion is illogical. So too is one centred on whether the comments were made online as opposed to outside cyberspace, where the impact is usually more personal. The internet allows greater publicity for an abhorrent comment, but one uttered in the workplace, for example, where people actually know each other, can be even more detrimental. Additionally, Farah’s situation only became well-known after Farah himself retweeted the verbal barrage to his nearly 30,000 followers.
Moreover, what about insults to someone’s appearance? Taunting someone who is either overweight or outside conventional standards of beauty can be just as, if not more, hurtful to an individual as a vindictive family, racial or religious swipe. So can comments regarding disability, socio-economic or educational status or other perceived vulnerabilities. Australia’s police numbers would need to triple or perhaps quadruple just to keep track of the constant stream of online vitriol. Because this increase is impossible, the consequence would be inconsistently laid charges, often determined by whether the victim was famous enough to generate substantial attention to their situation, or if the abuse fell into selective categories of political incorrectness —hardly an ideal situation for a society claiming equality and fairness under the law. In these debates, we also conveniently gloss over the minimal legal sanctions meted out for actual violence. The handiwork of Nick D’Arcy and other thugs require their victims to have titanium screws inserted in their skulls for life, but they escape with suspended sentences, while online trolls will risk actual incarceration under proposed changes to social media laws.
I am against laws targeting this online behaviour, however reprehensible it may be. Even if I were for them, they would need to be applied evenly. As this is fantastical, the only reasonable solution is to attract media attention to the issue and encouraging social networks to police their own websites more vigorously. In an already litigious society, troll court cases is the last thing we need.