Online harassment against two prominent Australian personalities within the last fortnight has ignited fresh calls for the regulation of cyber “trolling”. The recent episodes experienced by television host Charlotte Dawson and by Wests Tigers rugby league captain Robbie Farah have brought public attention to this all-too-common online experience.
It has been unfortunate, though, that the ensuing discussion on trolling has neglected to highlight the particularly gendered nature of this abuse.
But it has emerged today that Farah, himself, may have engaged in such trollish behaviour. Last year, responding to the question of what to buy Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her birthday, Farah suggested “a noose”.
I’m certain Farah is not the only person on the internet to suggest Gillard take her own life or is in some way deserving of violence. Farah’s tweet demonstrates that being in a position of power in no way shields women from abuse online. This and other pervasive examples of misogynistic abuse directed at women online is a form of censorship and a signal to women across the internet that their views are not welcome and to watch what they say.
None of this is to say that women are the exclusive victims of trolling or that women are never themselves trolls. As the case with Farah has shown, men certainly cop a share of online harassment and, as Dawson discovered in tracing one of her trolls, women do harass women. What is too infrequently discussed, though, is the way that women are disproportionately subjected to a high level abuse that is based almost entirely on their sex.
Stop the trolls
The incidents have sparked calls from the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and from NSW Police Minister Michael Gallacher for a review of commonwealth telecommunications laws and closing of any loopholes that prevent legal action against online harassment. In a press conference earlier this week, Gallacher claimed the police need to be more empowered to arrest perpetrators of trolling.
We’ve got to empower police with the ability to replace their keyboards with handcuffs, grab them by the ears from mummy’s basement and take them down to the local police station and make them understand the offensive matters that they continue to raise on the internet [bear] a terrible price.
It is encouraging to see the authorities taking the issue of trolling more seriously. For too long the anonymity and interconnectivity of the internet has provided avenues for people to express their hatred and use the internet as a means for bullying and harassment. What the authorities seem to be neglecting, though, is the fact that women bear the brunt of this cyber violence. Trolls are more often males and their victims more often female.
The internet is a dangerous place for women
For most women, putting yourself out there in cyberspace means opening up to a range of online harassment, from sexual harassment, virtual rape, intimidation, cyber-stalking, and threats.
Women are routinely undermined by the posting of doctored photographs of themselves either nude or as the victims of violence, by the posting of their home address alongside suggestions that they are interested in anonymous sex, and by technological and verbal attacks on blogs and websites.
Dawn Foster, an American blogger, said of her experience of trolls:
Being a woman on the internet seemed to be enough to anger people, regardless of what you were writing.
Women’s experience of online harassment is facilitated by the internet’s virulent environment of woman-hating. A quick perusal of any news article or blog post about gender issues will show a flood of misogynist comments. Being a female and writing about feminism invariably elicits responses along the line of “shut up or I will rape you,” “you should kill yourself,” “you deserve to be raped or killed,” or “you’re too ugly to be raped.”
Trolling is a contemporary form of silencing that trivialises what women have to say and reducing the female speaker to a sexual object. It is a tactic women have experienced offline for centuries. The online form just happens to be more numerous and vitriolic.
Instead of engaging with the opinions of the female writer, commenters rely on gender stereotypes to portray the author as somehow deficient or inferior. The attacks are personal, focusing on personal attributes such as age and frequently calling the author “ugly” and “disgusting.” The women on the receiving end of the abuse are frequently encouraged to kill themselves.
The court of public opinion
There is also a stark difference in how the public has reacted to these two prominent victims of trolling.
Many in the media and public discourse blamed Dawson for “flaming” or “feeding” the trolls. She was better off, according to most, “just ignoring it”. Farah, on the other hand, has received widespread sympathy and support from the public and from public officials. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has publicly lent his support to Farah’s appeal while the Prime Minister’s office has made arrangements for a meeting between Farah and Prime Minister Gillard, arranged before Farah’s derogatory tweet about the PM became public.
When women complained about their treatment online using the #mencallmethings hashtag and in a series of online articles and blog posts about the harassment they experience on a daily basis, there was very little political will demonstrated to do something about trolling. Should we be asking why it took a prominent (and particularly masculine) male raising the issue to garner the political attention needed to make a change?
The interesting solution is also one rarely discussed – we currently have the means to prosecute harassment in its various forms. We do not need the prime minister or state premiers to discuss new legislation.
Queensland authorities have successfully jailed one troll, Bradley Paul Hampson from a Brisbane suburb, for “using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence.” The case showed the potential for using Section 474.17 of the Commonwealth Criminal Codeto punish trolling. It also highlighted the glaring absence of cases tried under this code – a clear demonstration of the persistent lack of will to criminalise this behaviour.
Part of me would like to be encouraged by the new-found interest of politicians in this old-as-the-internet phenomenon. Still, I can’t help but worry that any proposed solution that neglects the gendered dimensions of trolling will fail at stemming this tide of abuse.