What you say online can come back and get you. Most people who use social networks – particularly public-facing ones such asTwitter – have been victims of ‘trolling’ to some extent.
It can be as simple as a vaguely unpleasant message from someone you’ve never come across before – or a sustained campaign of hatred that might include death threats and attacks on your family.
The subject of trolling and online abuse must seem bizarre to those who don’t use social networks or the ‘interactive’ bits of the internet, but it’s a growing problem to those of us who do. And it’s not just users who face the problem. Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), is producing guidelines on how police and the CPS should deal with online abuse.
It must be so difficult to draw the lines required to be consistent and respond proportionately to things people say online.
Take the case of Tom Daley during the Olympics. After coming fourth in the synchronised diving, Daley received a tirade of abuse from a young man on Twitter. The young man in question said some horrible things, including suggesting that Daley had let down his recently deceased father. It was unpleasant to see, but was it worthy of a visit from the police? Probably not.
If we start arresting and trying to prosecute people for saying unpleasant things, the police and the CPS won’t have time to do anything else.
Abuse online can seem much worse than in ‘real life’. Seeing the words on screen, having them repeated and retweeted across the globe, seems to give them more meaning. Would that boy have been arrested for muttering the same words if he came across Tom Daley in the street? No. But having the keyboard to hide behind gives people the confidence they might not have to say these things out loud.
More recently, a 19-year-old man was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for making ‘grossly offensive’ remarks about April Jones on Facebook after the little girl disappeared in Wales. Certainly his behaviour is sick and disgusting. But if it is actually criminal (and I don’t think it should be), a lot of people making sick jokes in pubs and workplaces across the country should probably start worrying.