Monday 5 December 2016

It's time we took down the trolls

Cyberbullying is a brutal experience and the law needs to change to protect victims

Published 29/11/2015 | 02:30

Digital abuse: Women and young girls are disproportionately affected by 'revenge porn' and 'doxing' and it's time Ireland - which has reported one of the biggest increases in cyberbullying worldwide - followed Scotland, which introduced a dedicated law to combat stalking after the case of Ann Moulds (pictured) who was terrorised for three years
Digital abuse: Women and young girls are disproportionately affected by 'revenge porn' and 'doxing' and it's time Ireland - which has reported one of the biggest increases in cyberbullying worldwide - followed Scotland, which introduced a dedicated law to combat stalking after the case of Ann Moulds (pictured) who was terrorised for three years

You know those annoying runner types? The ones who post pictures of sunrises and seascapes to their social media accounts in the midst of an endorphin-fuelled high?

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The #amrunning squads are a bit like the food porn brigade, only smugger and more virtuous as they're burning instead of devouring calories.

I used to be one of those runners, tweeting and Facebooking all sorts of vistas - I have a thing for beautiful bridges - as I happily clocked up modest victories on my early morning run.

But I stopped doing so after I drew the unwanted attention of an internet troll, a man I do not know who targeted me, bombarding me with abusive messages.

Trolling, sometimes described as the Internet equivalent of road rage, can be a fairly subjective experience - my perception of what constitutes cyberbullying could be perceived as a legitimate contribution on a public forum by the putative bully.

And as a journalist who isn't shy of expressing her opinions, I'm accustomed to robust debate, on and offline, as well as unflattering remarks about my weight, hair etc. that are sometimes directed at you after a TV or radio appearance.

But what was disturbing about this experience was the sheer intensity of the man's campaign, for want of a better word, even after I had blocked him.

On one particular day, he posted material about me at least 15 times in less than an hour.

I felt as if I was being stalked.

On foot of legal advice (and with excellent support at work) I monitored the activity for a short period as anyone seeking to file a complaint of harassment must, under current Irish law, be able to pass a persistence threshold.

I hated every day of it.

Why me? Why was he so angry? Was he unwell? Was he volatile? What did he look like? Where does he live? Does he know where I live? Would he try and approach me in person? Would he try and harm me?

The man eventually directed his activities elsewhere, but for that brief period I was obsessed with his apparent obsession.

And it made me re-assess aspects of my personal safety, hence the abolition of the early morning tweets which gave away clues to the routes I ran and what time I ran them.

The experience was creepy, but it is nothing compared with the cyberharassment experienced by many in this digital age.

This was brought home to me last week when I chaired a Women's Aid conference on digital abuse and domestic violence.

The conference was timely, as the Law Reform Commission is currently undertaking a review of cybercrime, including cyberbullying, as well as examining how online crime is affecting our personal safety, privacy and reputations.

Technology is ubiquitous and continues to revolutionise our lives, mostly for the better. But it has also exposed many people to new dangers, including online harassment and monitoring, increasingly with the use of spyware surveillance in homes and workplaces.

Digital abuse, like domestic violence, affects both men and women.

But women and young girls are disproportionately affected by phenomena such as 'revenge porn' or 'doxing', where sensitive personal information - including sexual images and videos - are posted online with a view to harming, discrediting or humiliating them.

In America, 25 states have dedicated statutes to combat revenge porn, which is mostly but not exclusively posted by former intimate partners intent on destroying women's lives and reputations.

It's not just revenge porn that is much beloved of spurned lovers and mysogynistic hackers.

Women's personal details are posted online to escort sites without their knowledge or consent.

Some women's details are posted to violent porn sites with invitations for other men to rape them - home address provided, with men turning up at their doorsteps to do just that.

Women have had to leave their home or city. Many lose their jobs because personal details, lies or rumours have been spread about them.

Some women and young girls have taken their own lives.

Internet companies, which were slow to recognise and respond to online abuse, are now taking protective measures amid threats of the introduction of a federal law in America that would ban revenge porn.

Such a crime could have broader civil rights implications and could hit companies' bottom lines.

Google, for example, has de-listed revenge porn from its search results.

Facebook, Twitter and Reddit also recently banned non-consensual, pornographic images and videos.

Ireland prides itself as the de facto European HQ of many global tech giants, but most of our harassment laws and remedies - civil and criminal - pre-date the Internet and are failing victims.

Victims, who experience untold levels of brutalisation at the hands of their abusers, face a secondary form of brutalisation when they seek to have material taken down or seek protection.

In Ireland, where one in five women are victims of domestic violence, the law does not offer sufficient protection for those whose lives are being ruined by online forms of abuse.

This contrasts with our neighbours in Scotland, where a dedicated stalking law was introduced after one of the longest and worst cases there.

Due to the courage and tenacity of Ann Moulds, who was terrorised by a stalker for three years, Scotland has made stalking a dedicated and comprehensive offence.

The five-year-old law identifies 11 courses of conduct that constitute stalking, including publishing any statement about a victim, monitoring their use of the Internet, email or other electronic device, watching or spying on the victim, or any conduct that causes the victim to suffer fear or alarm.

It's time Ireland - which has reported one of the biggest increases in cyberbullying worldwide, jumping from 4pc in 2010 to 13pc last year - stepped up to the mark. Stalking is destroying lives, it's time to take down the trolls.

Anyone affected by domestic violence can call the Women's Aid National FreePhone

Helpline at 1800 341 900

Sunday Independent

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