It’s time we made ‘trolling’ socially unacceptable

Internet abuse is rife.

Internet abuse is rife.

I suspect like me, many people love and loathe the internet in equal measure.

Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but I would suggest that if you went to school in the days before the worldwide web then you realise that a) books (real ones, with paper) are good and b) there really is more to life than having a mobile phone surgically attached to your hand.

Don’t get me wrong: The internet has its uses. It’s a wonderful tool for learning (so long as you’re savvy enough to wade through the dross for reliable sources). It’s also great for shopping.

But, of course, the best thing about the web is that it brings people together. It instantly connects us with friends and loved ones around the country and all over the world.

For example, yours truly can chat online, face-to-face with my gamer friends in the States or via social media with my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

I’ll be sitting at work here in Hanley early in the morning and suddenly a message will pop up on Facebook from a little town called Feilding in the Manawatu region of the North Island where Steve is just about to hit the hay. This will never cease to amaze me. Bear in mind I’m still in awe of touch-screen technology.

But for all the advantages of the internet, there are many down-sides – not least the way in which it, and social media in particular, perpetuate bullying and abuse.

I was heartened to hear this week that people who abuse their victims on social media face prosecution for the first time in a shake-up of domestic violence rules.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders announced that criminal prosecutors have been given new guidance to modernise the way they investigate abuse.

She said some teenagers may not consider themselves victims if they are being targeted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as opposed to being physically abused.

This new guidance means online abuse will now be taken into account in domestic violence cases.

The problem is that these kinds of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been numerous documented cases of teenagers committing suicide after being bullied online; Of celebrities and high-profile individuals being stalked or harassed; Of organisations being unfairly targeted by individuals with an axe to grind.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? This technological marvel which is seen as a vital lifeline in countries where people live in fear of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword.

Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and create a platform to spout their (very often not so nice) views about other people.

Anyone with a social media account will see this abuse daily. Anyone who logs on to forums – such as the hugely popular football club fan sites – is exposed to it. Anyone who reads The Sentinel online and looks at some of the comments posted beneath stories will know what I’m talking about.

Many of the worst offenders hide behind pseudonyms and often have several of them. They like having the last word – believing this means they have somehow made their point or won the argument.

Ironically, I suspect very few of the abusers – because that’s what they are – would have the courage to say such things to the faces of their victims. Otherwise presumably they wouldn’t hide their identities.

The internet tends to embolden morons and give such people an over-inflated sense of their own importance.

I thought I had left the playground bullies behind when I finished school 26 years ago but it seems many of them have re-emerged via keyboards.

Forgive me if I sound like a representative of the Thought Police but it is hugely worrying to me that this sort of abuse is commonplace.

There’s a world of difference in my mind to free speech enabling robust, healthy debate and the insidious persecution of individuals because someone has an axe to grind with them or just because they can.

To my mind, swearing at someone on the internet or calling them ‘scum’ or a ‘liar’ or worse should be as socially-unacceptable as drink-driving.

I’ve blocked about 80 people from my Twitter feed in the last five years – the vast majority of whom claimed to be Port Vale supporters. Most of them began abusing me when the club’s chairman fell out with The Sentinel last November (ignoring the fact that this newspaper and yours truly did a bit to help the Vale in recent years).

Such abuse is water off a duck’s back to me these days but not everyone can shrug it off. We should remember that sticks and stones may break bones but words can also hurt people.

Sure, you can ‘block’ someone from your Twitter account or ‘unfriend’ them on Facebook. You can avoid forums or report abuse. But why should you have to?

Internet forums and social media are the verbal equivalent of the Wild West.

Given that children now have access to tablets and mobile telephones from a very early age, I think it’s vital that parents and teachers advise them how to behave online.

It’s one thing to install restrictions on devices to block certain websites or to protect your child from predators through education, but I think it is equally important to equip youngsters to deal with online abuse which can’t be filtered out – and to ensure they don’t actually dish it out themselves.

My view is: If you can’t say something politely then don’t say anything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Advertisements

Once you create a social media account, you’re on your own…

I can fully understand Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s rationale behind issuing its members with a social media rulebook to help them mind their Ps and Qs.

The powers-that-be want to ensure that the authority’s good name isn’t besmirched by some clever dick with a lap top.

The only mystery is why it took the council’s internet police so long to issue a rule book.

Any politician (or journalist, for that matter) brave enough to use social media learns pretty sharpish that it’s a double-edged sword.

Twitter, Facebook and the like can be wonderful tools for promoting whatever you want to promote.

Of course, the problem arises when not everyone likes your agenda.

You see, we’re not all Stephen Fry. There’s a good reason why a national treasure like the man who gave us Blackadder’s Melchett, among other unforgettable characters, has the best part of five million followers on Twitter.

A comedy genius, Fry oozes wit and wisdom in equal measure and the 147 character limit for Tweets seems perfect for him.

That’s why I don’t mind occasionally reading about the minutiae of his life or his streams of consciousness – especially as, like me, he’s a cricket-lover.

Unfortunately, most mortals simply aren’t as engaging and, crucially, cannot draw upon the huge reservoir of goodwill and respect that Stephen Fry enjoys.

This is why many people get sucked into unseemly and unedifying slanging matches which everyone (well, anyone who follows them or is their ‘friend’) can see.

An ill-advised post, written in the heat of the moment, can have catastrophic consequences for a person’s life, career or popularity.

It may take less then a minute to vent your spleen on such very public forums but, once you have, there’s a chance the world and his dog will have seen your missive and drawn instant conclusions about your worth as a human being.

If the pen is mightier than the sword then I would suggest the keyboard is infinitely more powerful than both.

The harsh reality is that some people simply shouldn’t be allowed access to a toaster – let alone the internet.

These are the kind of people who could start an argument in an empty room.

They are simply not good with, well… words – their common sense deficiency and GCSE grade G in English regularly exposed in the cold expanse of cyberspace.

Worse still are those who actually revel in being provocative and argumentative or making every other word an expletive – believing themselves to be somehow edgy and cool.

These keyboard warriors are legends in their own computer rooms and are to be avoided, blocked and ostracised because, as I’ve learned from bitter experience, there’s simply no point debating with an idiot.

Which brings me neatly on to the use of social media by politicians.

I should say first that I’m all for anything which helps MPs and councillors better engage with an electorate which is, generally speaking, apathetic about politics – particularly at a local level.

Social media gives councillors a measure of freedom and a voice beyond the confines of the council chamber or their own party.

While I understand the local authority’s desire to police the use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter by councillors, I think some of the advice reads rather like excerpts from a rule book for stating the bleedin’ obvious.

The city council’s words of wisdom include: “Treat others with respect; avoid personal attacks and disrespectful, rude or offensive comments; do not publish anything that might be considered sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or anti-faith.”

To me, the very fact that PR officers feel the need to remind elected members to be respectful to other people seems absurd.

Other guidance such as telling councillors to avoid discussing ‘controversial topics’ such as politics or religion is patently nonsense.

After all, what’s the point of members having a social media profile if they’re banned from talking about politics?

Ultimately, the internet is a vast, ever-changing and unpredictable environment into which politicians – and everyone else for that matter – venture at their own risk.

Irrespective of what advice is issued, once someone creates an account they’re on their own.

At some point someone viewing their profile will undoubtedly take exception to something they’ve written.

When this happens, as it inevitably will, the trick is not to be intimidated or cowed and to remember that, whoever you are arguing with, is not a Bond villain.

More likely, it’s a bloke sitting in his box room, wearing slippers and supping a mug of Ovaltine as he sets the world to rights.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel