Beware of the Trolls

The media has recently highlighted the case of Caroline Criado-Perez - a feminist campaigner and journalist who, after successfully campaigning for a woman's face to appear on bank notes, was subjected to a torrent of abusive posts on 'Twitter', including threats of rape, from male internet 'trolls'.

But what is 'trolling'? Who are the trolls and why do they behave in such a way online? How can they be stopped; indeed can they be stopped?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a ‘troll’ as someone who “...submits a deliberately provocative posting to an online message board (or some form of social media) with the aim of inciting an angry response.” It is regarded as a type of cyber bullying and can take a number of forms:

• As a consequence of her bank notes campaign and her well known feminist stance, Ms. Criado-Perez was targeted with no less than 50 extremely abusive tweets an hour allegedly by a group of men who co-ordinate attacks on women.

• In 2010 a man posted a “menacing” message on Twitter threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire.

• In 2011, a 25 year old unemployed man, posted offensive videos and messages onto Facebook tribute pages mocking the deaths of teenagers.

• In 2012, Nicola Brookes received “vicious and depraved” comments on Facebook after she posted her support for a former ‘X Factor’ contestant who left the show the previous year. The anonymous trolls went so far as to create a fake Facebook profile in Miss. Brookes’ name, using her picture, on which they posted explicit comments and other offensive content.

Admittedly, these examples are extreme cases, however, trolling can be seen everyday on any social platform. Browse the responses to any Facebook or Twitter posting by the BBC, Guardian or any other news organisation and it is highly likely that you will come across a Troll’s comments, characterised by their intentionally extreme and contentious point of view and frequently containing foul and vile language with the sole aim of annoying other contributors or better still provoking them to react by making a responding comment.

So, trolling is a broad term that encompasses everything from a mischievous provocation to threats of violence or rape, but what drives someone to become a troll?

Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University stated to the BBC that “...online, people feel anonymous and disinhibited. They lower their emotional guard and in the heat of the moment either troll reactively or proactively.” He also added that trolls are usually young adult males who either seek amusement from boredom or revenge.

However, a quick browse of any football, music or other fan site will uncover people of all ages and gender subjecting others to the most venomous and vicious attacks. Comedian Dom Joly was the victim of a devious troll with nine different online identities - she was a 14-year old girl.

It would therefore appear to be the pretense of anonymity, that the Internet apparently provides, which is key reason why people, who normally conduct themselves pleasantly and responsibly in the real world, feel that they can participate in offensive behaviour in the virtual world.

If recent reports in the media are to believed, ‘trolling’ is a phenomenon that is on the increase and there are growing calls for something for it to be stopped, but can this be done and if so how?

In response to the virulent abuse that Caroline Criado-Perez received, a petition was set up that received tens of thousands of signatures, including the names of prominent politicians and celebrities, to urge ‘Twitter’ to take “a zero tolerance policy” and include an option button that could be used to report unacceptable abusive behaviour on its platform.

But should the policing of online discussions and debates be left to the social media platforms themselves? Is there a requirement for increased monitoring and prosecution by the police and the courts or could this be seen as an infringement of free-speech?

So far, two men have been arrested in the case of Ms.Criado-Perez with the possibility of more. Sean Duffy and Colm Coss who both posted the offensive messages on tribute pages of people who had died, were both convicted and imprisoned in UK as was Paul Chambers, who ‘threatened’ to blow up Robin Hood Airport (the latter case was subsequently quashed on appeal at the High Court).

As recent as June 2013, however, Kier Starmer QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, in an effort to “strike the right balance between freedom of expression and a need to uphold the law”, published guidelines for prosecutors who are taking on cases involving ‘grossly offensive communication’. Under these new guidelines prosecutions involving the posting of an offensive message could be considered unnecessary if the perpetrator “has expressed genuine remorse” or has “taken swift and effective action” to “remove the communication in question or otherwise block access to it”.

Trolling is unpleasant, deeply offensive and upsetting. In one foolish moment it can devastate the lives of both the victim and, if prosecution ensues, the abuser. Yet, due to its perceived anonymity, young people can look upon trolling as having ‘a bit of a laugh’ at someone else’s expense, a way to get back at someone or to exert power over someone in order to garner popularity within a gang. As teachers we are in a perfect position to educate students and we should be willing to demonstrate that cyber-bullying behaviour such as trolling is unacceptable and can result in serious consequences that can have a lasting impact on the peoples lives.

Here is a suggested classroom activity on trolling:

Lesson Outcome: To be aware and understand the online phenomenon of trolling - what it is, why people do it and the potential consequences of the activity.

The Scenario: Jane and Samantha are in a coffee shop. Samantha is talking sympathetically to Jane who has just told her that her dog died that morning. As the two women talk, a man rudely interrupts them and says:

“I hate dogs and their owners, I’m really glad that yours has died that means that there is one less scrawny mutt walking the streets. And I bet you cried when it died didn’t you? You’re pathetic, it’s just a dog! I wish all dogs and their stupid owners would just go and die, you make me sick!” (you should adjust the language used here to suit your pupils)

Activity: Ask students, if they think that what the man said was acceptable? What reaction do they think it had on Jane and Samantha?".

If the man had posted such comments on Facebook or Twitter he would be ‘trolling’ and he would be regarded as a ‘troll’

Students can now investigate in small groups what the terms ‘trolling’ and ‘troll’ mean. Why do people engage in ‘trolling’? Do they think it’s wrong or is it just having ‘a laugh’? Are there different types of ‘trolling’ and ‘trolls’ Is it illegal or just upsetting? What consequences can it have?

Come together as a class and use what has been researched to discuss ‘trolling’ and ‘trolls’.

Further information

Below are some useful articles that teachers may wish to use to create lesson or assembly plans focusing on trolling:

Wired - online aggression - An interesting piece focusing on the anonymity and disinhibition phenomenon that appears to contribute to people’s ability to become involved in trolling.

The Telegraph - A Daily Telegraph article on the novel approach that classicist Prof. Mary Beard took when she was abused by a troll.

The Guardian - A Guardian article on the different types of trolls, from the unsophisticated ‘abuse-hurlers’ to the more insidious and frightening examples.

Written by Steve Gresty on August 01, 2013 13:24

E-safety education and the role of the parent

In the last few weeks we have had news about internet filtering to block adult content, celebrities falling victim to ‘sexting’ and yet more stories about students and teachers suffering from cyber bullying via social media platforms. Add to that the plethora of new sites appearing that encourage participation from young people, and you can begin to see the enormity of the e-safety risks children face.

As teachers, there is a responsibility to safeguard pupils inside and outside the classroom which can be achieved with lessons and assemblies on e-safety, as well as enabling students to help the school develop and deliver the e-safety policy. But should it stop there?

The Guardian recently reported that research by Plymouth University showed that while parents appear to be confident about how safe their children are online, they are avoiding the difficult conversations about ‘sexting’, cyber bullying and so on. "There is a disconnect between how safe parents think they can keep their children online and their actual ability to do that," claimed Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility at Plymouth University.

It’s easy to understand why parents may find this a difficult topic, not least because of the new language and internet slang which has developed with the increase in online participation. But there is also the issue of privacy – in research carried out by mobileinsurance.co.uk, 60 % of parents of children as young a 6 do not check mobile phone use for fear of invading their privacy. It goes without saying that parents need to help in the campaign to make sure children are safe in any environment and that includes online. First, however, it seems that we may need to educate them too.

If you would like to share your thoughts or tips on involving parents in e-safety education, please use the comments section below. Alternatively visit the E-safety Support Parents Pack for more information.

Written by Safeguarding Essentials on July 30, 2013 09:53

Is censorship of adult content the best way to educate children?

With the news this week that the Government is to impose ‘family-friendly’ restrictions on internet services, there are many welcoming the change. Any measures that can be implemented to help protect our children can only be a good thing.

But is, ‘family-friendly’ filtering there to stop the potentially corrupt and dangerous or is it there to stop the innocent? Children will be prevented from accessing adult content while the adults will have the ability to turn the filter off and view anything from the good to the bad and the frankly disturbing.

If we are worried that viewing adult material at a young age will have detrimental affects on today’s youth, do we take the option of tackling the situation head on or is a prohibitive approach the better option? Do we help them to learn what is right and what is wrong (as we would with many other topics such as healthy eating, social awareness and so on) or do we hide things away? Is filtering a sensible approach or is it just avoiding the issue and hoping we don't need to confront it.

I’m sure many of us were told as children that we were not allowed to do something and, of course, we did it anyway. Curiosity has a lot to answer for, so perhaps we should to let them explore, knowing what they might find and being prepared to discuss it. However, you wouldn’t let a child play with matches, we know that is dangerous… the debate is endless.

There are a good many pros and cons to the filtering solution, but as long as safeguarding is at the root of the decision rather than censorship, then there has to be some merits. However we mustn’t become complacent. This is not the only risk on the internet – so we can’t assume that our children will be safe once the legislation is in place.

If you have reactions to this topic or related ideas, share them in the comments section below.

Written by Safeguarding Essentials on July 25, 2013 10:06


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