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Minor irritant or real threat? Time to decide what a troll is

Know your enemy: trolls come in many shapes and sizes. Dunechaser

Somewhere around 2010, the concept of trolling arrived in the national consciousness with a flurry of news stories: the hateful tweet Tom Daley received about his father during the Olympics; the defacement of Jade Goody’s memorial site; the harassment and death threats sent to Louise Mensch and Nadine Dorries; and most recently, the torrent of rape and sexual assault threats Caroline Criado-Perez received, just for campaigning to have Jane Austen put on a banknote.

Some trolling targets have started to disregard the Do Not Feed The Troll mantra by variously retweeting offensive messages, or by turning the tables on the trolls and making sport of them. In 2012, TV host Jimmy Kimmel ran a four-part Celebrities Read Mean Tweets series which has been watched over 40m times, and comedian Isabel Faye created a catchy, all-singing tribute to her trolls.

But when we look over these examples and more besides, a striking issue presents itself. This so-called trolling ranges from school-playground insults right through to sustained threats of extreme violence. A wide spectrum of behaviour is being described under the same banner. Some trolls can be laughed off but others cause real hurt. This begs the question: what does the word troll even mean? By using one word to describe all kinds of internet harassment, have we artificially inflated beyond all useful limits?

The lack of an answer has crucial consequences. Take, for instance, the grim subject of rape. Most of us probably think that we have a good idea of what this word means, and yet there have been cases, such as that of Lydia Cuomo, where the very definition of rape was so effectively disputed that her attacker was found innocent of the rape charge against him, even though he was found guilty of other horrific sexual offences. The case clearly shows that definitions are of vital importance, since they can effectively determine whether an individual’s actions can even be considered criminal, let alone come to trial.

The fundamental problem is that while many individuals think they know what the word trolling means, as my research shows, we’re actually nowhere near a single, agreed-upon definition. A clear definition can and should determine what behaviours a word like trolling captures. Such a definition might conceivably cover everything from mildly annoying comments through to deeply menacing behaviour. Perhaps more usefully, it might be used purely to describe conduct that is not serious enough to merit criminal action, leaving other, better-suited terms like cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking to capture the extreme, menacing, and persistent behaviours.

Whatever we decide, this is only the start of the issue. Current UK legislation is lacking when it comes to to dealing with online antisocial behaviour. The most recent relevant legislation, the Communications Act, came into force in July 2003. An Act of this magnitude – more than 250,000 words spanning over four hundred sections – takes years to write and enact. As such, the section relevant to online behaviour is based on the internet of the 1990s rather than that of the new millennium. The Act came into force before the creation of massive, ubiquitous social networks like Facebook (founded in 2004) and Twitter (founded in 2006). As sites like these have evolved, so too has trolling, yet the legislation remains largely unchanged to reflect this.

Recognising the need for greater clarification, in June this year, after six months of consultation with the public, the Crown Prosecution Service(CPS) published guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. However, like much current legislation designed for supposedly similar offline behaviours, these guidelines do not explicitly address the critical differences that the online environment offers: the speed at which content can be reproduced; the breadth of audience that can be reached; the inability of targets to entirely eradicate malicious content in some cases; and not least, the expense and difficulty involved in identifying, and then prosecuting even very serious online offences.

This difficulty is further exacerbated by a legislative culture in which offline crime is still generally considered as more serious than any supposed online counterpart. For instance, the CPS provides useful guidance on behaviours such as stalking, harassment, and school bullying, but if one reads these guidelines, it seems that the offline version is considered the norm. Any online variant, where it is even acknowledged, is simply considered a sub-type. This overlooks the fact that supposedly equivalent behaviours like cyber-stalking, cyber-harassment, and cyber-bullying can have their own unique attributes, methods, and consequences and should, as such, be dealt with differently. Indeed, what little the CPS has to say about online antisocial behaviours tends to be vague.

Whatever we want the word trolling to mean, we are nowhere near a consensus, and neither UK legislation nor CPS guidance currently helps to resolve the problem. As we see in the harrowing Cuomo case, where we lack clear legal guidance or definitions, however abundantly morally wrong a behaviour may be, prosecuting an individual for that behaviour may become almost impossible.

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