On Tuesday night, the BBC broadcast two programmes about online bullying, one of them specifically dedicated to the phenomenon of “RIP trolling”, meaning the phenomenon of mindless idiots posting insulting messages, videos and doctored images on Facebook memorials to deceased people. The first was on Inside Out London and was entirely dedicated to that phenomenon, while Panorama explored other types of online bullying, including a campaign of harassment against a young girl who (it seems, egged on by her father. who was later charged with child abuse) posted provocative videos on YouTube and elsewhere, leading to her ending up in a psychiatric unit (although they did not mention this, or the charges against her father), but came back to the “RIP trolling” issue which they claimed was perhaps the worst kind of trolling. They played police footage of an interview with one such individual, and confronted another that they had managed to identify as he caught a bus.
Today, the Daily Mail reported an incident where a 13-year-old girl was raped in an alleyway by a 15-year-old known to be a sexual predator, and this led to a hate campaign being mounted online against the girl and her family whose house was pelted with eggs and stones (the Daily Telegraph also reported it, and included a statement from Facebook). The attacker’s friends put up a Facebook page to proclaim the rapist’s innocence, which seems to have been used to co-ordinate the abuse against the family, but some of it came from the victim’s former friends who called her, among other things, a “lying little skank that is gunna get what is coming to her”. The attacker was on bail at the time for a sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl, for which he was subsequently convicted.
Trolling means posting a message in an online forum simply to get a reaction. A troll can be a kind of sophisticated hoax, but the distinction between that and flame-baiting (meaning posting to deliberately start a fight) got lost some time since the mid-1990s when the term was used on the old Usenet discussion forums. The term often means malevolent posters on forums dedicated to serious topics, such as someone who posts in a forum about suicide to actually encourage someone to do the deed. Not all online bullying is trolling, however, and there are groups online whose purpose is simply to upset people in the most vicious way possible. There is also a culture of misogyny in which disagreement of a man’s opinion or an expression of a controversial opinion by a woman, or even an underage girl, can result in repeated open or veiled threats of rape, or highly sexualised insults, which has sometimes led to women shutting down their blogs as they were unable to tolerate the abuse (more here: , , , and  from this past week). And the media persistently underestimate the malevolence of the group that calls itself Anonymous, which makes shows of its concern for liberty by picketing the Scientologists and cracking Syrian government websites. In fact, their main purpose is to cause distress and inconvenience in pursuit of “lulz”, a corruption of “lols” (laughs, as in laugh out loud), and they are not above harassing women and threatening them with rape, as this account in Bitch magazine from 2008 demonstrates.
As long as they are not threatening to rape the female relatives (OK, they don’t actually have to be female) of the person in the memorial, the mindless idiots who post insulting messages on such pages are not doing anything like as much damage as those who harass and bully and threaten currently living people, none of whom has been prosecuted in the UK to my knowledge, and investigating and prosecuting these inadequates for hurting the feelings of competent adults is, I would argue, a waste of money. To dedicate nearly half of approximately 40 minutes of documentary time on these men (and it does always seem to be men) reflects the failure of the journalists to bother investigating the matter of online harassment very thoroughly. If such things were said to a relative’s face, unless it was by a gang who repeatedly approached the relative as they went shopping, for example, it would not result in any action, and a child complaining of such behaviour in the playground would be told “just ignore them”. It seems as if the Panorama team said to themselves, “oh, these people are insulting the dead online! How terrible! What a great story!” and did not bother to dig beneath the surface — which, of course, their 30-minute documentary-lite format almost never does.
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- Review: ITV’s “Don’t Hate Us”
- Carole Malone: a new low in victim-blaming