Outcry over posting of abusive remarks after suicide bid by a victim
By Jonathan Pearlman, The Straits Times, 16 Sep 2012
The Australian authorities have called for a crackdown on trolls - Internet users who post offensive comments on social media - after a television presenter who received abusive messages tried to kill herself.
Following a public outcry, the federal government urged Twitter to reveal the names of people who send "reprehensible" tweets, while New South Wales Police Minister Mike Gallacher said trolls should have their "keyboards replaced with handcuffs". An online poll by Fairfax Media found that 80 per cent of people supported banning trolls from social media sites.
The controversy began after a well-known television presenter and former model, Ms Charlotte Dawson, was hospitalised last month after Twitter users targeted her with messages, including calls for her to "please hang yourself promptly".
Ms Dawson was bombarded with messages after she named a person who had sent abusive messages to one of her followers. The person, an employee of Monash University, subsequently lost her job. The ensuing tweets to Ms Dawson included one with a picture of a mutilated child, and others that said "Do the world a favour and go hang yourself" and "I speak for everyone in the universe: Bitch, you need to kill yourself".
"It just triggered that feeling of helplessness when the trolls got to me," she told Channel Nine.
"If people are wanting you to kill yourself and you are somebody who has previously tried to end your life, it's very, very easy to feel like that's exactly what you want to do."
Following the incident, a Twitter spokesman, Ms Rachel Bremer, said the company did not monitor content for offensive material.
"Twitter provides a communication service that allows controversial posts even though some may disagree with the content," she said yesterday. "If there is something that you don't agree with or find insulting, it's best to block that user."
In a separate case, star rugby league player Robbie Farah called on Prime Minister Julia Gillard to take action against trolls after he received a "vile comment" about his late mother.
Mr Farah, the captain of Sydney's Wests Tigers club, missed a game after his mother died from pancreatic cancer in June. The local media refrained from reprinting the message, saying it was too offensive.
"I am pretty thick-skinned, but I feel a line has been crossed," Mr Farah said.
"It is going to get to a point one day where someone is really going to hurt himself over some comments that people make."
The New South Wales government called for a review of the country's telecommunications laws to close any "legal loopholes", though it has not flagged any specific changes.
"These clowns who hide behind their keyboards in their mothers' basements thinking that they can send offensive messages," said Mr Gallacher, "we've got to empower police with the ability to replace their keyboards with handcuffs."
A spokesman for federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said: "Twitter should reveal the identities of the anonymous trolls who are breaking the law by abusing others online and cooperate with any police investigation to help reveal who these trolls are."
However, legal experts said there were already tough laws in place for menacing and offensive communication. A Brisbane man, Bradley Paul Hampson, was sentenced to three years in jail last year for posting offensive messages and photographs on Facebook tribute pages for two murdered children.
Some commentators said the problem was whether the police and the authorities were able to enforce the law.
"Troll-hunting season has opened," said a Fairfax Media commentator, Mr John Birmingham. "Of course, to actually catch a few trolls and imprison them, resources would need to be applied, money spent, and staff hours committed."
Prosecutors in Britain have taken action against several Twitter users. Earlier this year, a 21-year-old university student was jailed for 56 days for posting racially offensive comments about Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed on the pitch during a game.
But some social media experts said victims often make the mistake of "feeding the trolls" by responding to offensive messages or retweeting them.
"You never give bullies oxygen and you never feed the trolls," said Ms Laurel Papworth, a social media consultant.
"By simply retweeting every negative tweet that comes along, you're training your community: To get Charlotte's attention, be mean to her."