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Friday, 16 September 2011

The trouble with trolling

It has been interesting to hear some of the comments made over the last couple of days in relation to the case of Sean Duffy. In case you missed it, Duffy from Reading, Berkshire, was jailed for 18 weeks for sending abusive messages on social networking sites. His victims were the bereaved relatives of people he didn't know and had no connection with, including the family of the Worcester teenager Natasha MacBryde, who killed herself after being bullied. He pleaded guilty to two counts of sending communications (via Facebook and YouTube) of an indecent or offensive nature.
Duffy appears to be a pathetic individual whose horrible and stupid actions have caused a great deal of grief. Some have suggested that the fact that he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome is a mitigating factor. This syndrome may well cause him to lack empathy, but there is, surely, quite a leap from merely ‘lacking empathy’ to posting the kind of vile messages he inflicted upon the grieving families.

We can argue about whether or not his condition may have been a mitigating factor, just as we can argue about whether or not a jail sentence was the appropriate punishment for his actions, but what is more concerning is the possible fall-out from this case. Almost all of the news reports have described it as a ‘trolling’ offence. Trolling, in internet slang, is the practice of posting inflammatory messages in an online community with the intent of provoking heated responses. Trolling is not big and it’s not clever, but it’s also not what Duffy was doing; his malicious actions deserve a far more pejorative label. The fact that he has been labelled as a ‘troll’ should worry us all.

If the notion that trolling can be criminalised is allowed to fester and grow, there will be grave implications for freedom of speech. Should we start to concede that trolling might be a criminal offence, we might as well declare open season for all of the single-issue zealots and grievance-monkeys who would jump at the opportunity to prosecute ‘trolls’ who expressed ‘unacceptable’ views on any number of topics – abortion, climate change, immigration, creationism, whatever.

The desire to close down debate is, in essence, a totalitarian impulse (both Stalin and Mao-Tse-tung criminalised and pathologised local dissent). If we open that door to the criminalisation of 'trolling', we face a bleak, Orwellian future.
It’s a fact of life that some people are morons and have stupid, hateful, ill-informed opinions. Internet traffic merely reflects that fact. That’s why the trolls should be left alone.

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