Trolling in the era of ‘freedom of speech’
From hateful tweets to posting death threats, proposed laws in Victoria to curb online trolling could be a step in the right direction
In early September, the leader of Victoria’s Reason Party Fiona Patten announced a new piece of legislation designed to enhance the Australian state’s anti-vilification laws.
Specifically, this legislation aims to curb sexist, homophobic and ableist trolling that attacks people with disabilities.
But change takes time, and this proposed legislation will be no exception.
Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, has said that any amendments to the anti-vilification laws will need to wait until the outcome of the Religious Freedom Bill, currently before Federal Parliament, saying “we want to see how that [bill] unfolds, because it might cut across some of the work we’re looking to do”.
Ms Patten’s proposed legislation has put ‘trolling’ back on the public agenda.
But what is ‘trolling’ exactly? And does attempting to wipe out trolling mean silencing someone’s freedom of speech – a lynchpin of democracy?
Let’s start with the first question.
Trolling refers to the act of posting content online with the aim of generating a heightened, and generally adverse, emotional response from someone.
The term was first coined in the 1980s and gained traction in the past decade.
But not all ‘trolling’ is necessarily harmful. One lighter example is ‘rickrolling’, where the unsuspecting internet user clicks on a link and is transported to the videos of 1980s songster Rick Astley.
The best-known and most dangerous form of ‘trolling’ is what Australian journalist Ginger Gorman calls “predator trolling”.
This can range from posting hateful tweets to direct messaging death threats.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of marginalised groups are frequently the subjects of predatory trolling. In her book Troll Hunting, Ms Gorman describes the misogynist abuse that female journalists like herself have received from online pundits.
Then there’s the abuse meted out to the likes of Afghan-born Australian lawyer Mariam Veiszadeh and Sudanese-Australian media commentator Yasmin Abdell-Magied. As well as being outspoken and high-profile women (enough of a crime according to keyboard bigots) both Ms Veiszadeh and Ms Abdell-Magied are also Muslim.
In short, predator trolling is about much more than strong words or minor upsets.
As Ms Gorman points out “predator trolls are wrecking lives and can cause people to harm themselves and lose their jobs … The harms are both physical and psychological”.
The psychological impact of trolling can include depression and anxiety.
In 2014, Australian television host Charlotte Dawson committed suicide after a long period of trolling. An individual’s decision to take their own life cannot be attributed to a single factor, but the online abuse that Dawson faced probably didn’t help her condition.
The harms caused by trolling and other forms of cyber abuse are not just felt by targets of the hateful messages.
My colleague Dr Jennifer Beckett, a lecturer in media communications, has written about the psychological risks facing online moderators. As Dr. Beckett puts it, moderators “have to read all the comments – even the ones no-one else sees because they’re so bad you’ve removed them”.
And violence wrought by trolls doesn’t always stay online.
Accused gunman Brenton Tarrant posted online hateful and trolling material, including a manifesto, before allegedly killing 50 worshippers in a Christchurch mosque in March 2019.
So, it would seem that Ms Patten’s proposed legislation offers a sensible and much-needed response to the scourge of online hostility.
But what about the trolls’ freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech has been regarded as a crucial and defining feature of a liberal democracy. Journalist Crispin Hull sums up this sentiment when he writes that “we have to protect freedom of the speech we disagree with, even if it is distasteful or wrong-headed”.
Mr Hull’s op ed in The Canberra Times earlier this year concerns the controversy surrounding Israel Folau who was sacked by Rugby Australia in May 2019 after a long-running series of social media missives in which he criticised homosexuals.
These included an Instagram message that read (in part): “Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolators … HELL AWAITS YOU. REPENT!”.
Mr Folau argues he has been punished for exhorting conservative Christian views, although these views are not held unanimously by Christians.
And some commentators have suggested that the Religious Discrimination Bill currently before Parliament is designed to prevent outcomes such as Folau’s termination of employment.
Does Israel Folau deserve freedom of speech?
As far as I’m aware, Mr Folau’s speech has not been shut down, Instagram has never removed the offending post or Mr Folau’s account and he has been invited to present in public forums.
But, importantly, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.
Whether Israel Folau deserved to lose his job could be debated. But what is not debatable is that these posts contribute to a hostile online environment for LGBTQI people, just as trolls create a hostile online and sometimes offline environment for their victims.
This is an environment where objects of derision are afraid to speak out online, or to have any online presence.
After all, who would risk maintaining their Twitter profile or Facebook page, or even checking their emails, when they know they’ll be subjected to insults, threats of violence and worse?
Who’s being censored now? Whose freedom of speech is being prioritised?
Nobody should be punished for expressing faith-based views. Equally, nobody should be subject to discrimination and hostility when surfing the net.
The anti-trolling legislation proposed by Fiona Patten could well be a step in the right direction for everyone.