What is the problem?
Trolling- the targeting of social media users with defamatory and antagonistic messages – has grown alongside the popularity of social media platforms. It takes multiple forms: cyberbullying, cyberhate, cyberstalking, cyberharassment, revenge porn, sextortion, flaming and naming and shaming to name a few. Cyber-vigilantism is the related practice of punishing, sometimes by making visible, people who break norms or laws. In some contexts trolling and cyber-vigilantism are sponsored, with organized groups representing political agents (sometimes even national governments) who use aggressive and defamatory language (and misinformation??) to counter and harass those who criticize others viewpoints. Some trolls follow up their online abuse with offline aggression.
Key areas of discussion have included:
- How to develop and improve cross-border cooperation between LEAs in different jurisdictions and social media providers to ensure that the most serious kinds of trolling do not occur with de facto impunity?
- How to ensure that self-styled troll hunters and online community groups use counter-speech, peer pressure, naming and shaming and online investigation to counter trolling in ways that are both legal and ethically defensible?
- How social media and other online tools can be used by LEAs to provide innovative forums for victims of trolling to report their abusers to LEAs effectively and quickly bas well as to provide victims with guidance for how to protect themselves?
- How best to achieve greater legal clarity on the definition and scope of hate crimes, harassment and abuse online to empower victims and create clear channels for effective preventive measures or prosecution?
- How to achieve greater understanding of the link between online abuse and offline events so that public security authorities can better predict and plan responses to both?
The aim of this workshop was to bring together anti-trolling actors and stakeholders- from the tech industry, LEAs, NGOs and victim groups, and academia- to share knowledge of best practices, identify key opportunities and challenges and propose actions that could be taken to improve efforts to tackle trolling.
The first half of the day was devoted to presentations designed to provoke and stimulate thinking amongst the audience. the afternoon was spent discussing the challenges and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses of current anti-trolling approaches, and the different roles and responsibilities of stakeholders and actors, from parents and teachers to law enforcement and social media platforms.
For many delegates at the workshop this was the first time they have had the opportunity to explore this topic with stakeholders from other fields. The opportunity to actively engage with such a wide group and exchange experiences and ideas is very welcomed by all. Moving forwards it will be critical that such a forum is maintained and in particular that events such as this continue to enable face-to-face interactions which help embed new and growing networks to assist in dealing with these issues.
The workshop helped to illuminate the strengths, weaknesses, responsibility for and proper place of different kinds of anti-trolling interventions. Taking down offending material is not easy, but it often satisfies victims and it is certainly far easier than mounting an effective prosecution. As a result, much ant-trolling activity is currently disruptive, but anti-trolling laws (against hatespeech, harassment, threats etc) are often left unenforced. This is a challenge for deterrence and for efforts to reduce the amount of trolling online, when all it does is displace the trolls to other places and other victims.
Similarly, counter-speech may create solidarity amongst victims and other sympathetic groups against trolls, but such groups can themselves turn nasty, and often their attention is precisely what trolls aim to provoke. Fighting trolls with methods short of prosecution is difficult when trolls aim to provoke and routinely find ways of weaponising tools used against them, turning them back on those who aim to stop them.
Perhaps more than any of the other topics considered in this series of workshops, trolling is a phenomenon that reflects on society as a whole and which it is the responsibility of everyone to tackle. Law enforcement agencies play a crucial role in anti-trolling efforts, but only in a much broader web of collaborations (sometimes with unexpected and unusual partners such as campaign groups or porn sites) partnerships and proactive independent activities by a range of actors from parents to schools and employers to gaming companies.