My in­ter­net hate hell

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‘The de­gree of em­pa­thy that gets lost on­line is phe­nom­e­nal. There’s this ab­so­lute re­fusal of re­spon­si­bil­ity’

In gen­eral, most of us are lucky enough to go about our lives with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing abuse or bul­ly­ing. Bad man­ners and nas­ti­ness are, thank­fully, rare oc­cur­rences, and when they hap­pen, we are quite rightly shocked and up­set. How­ever, in the of­ten less po­lite and face­less wild west of the in­ter­net, in­sults, crit­i­cism and what can only be de­scribed as un­fath­omable bile is spread­ing at an alarm­ing rate.

Symp­to­matic, per­haps, of a dis­turb­ing new chap­ter of this vit­ri­olic bile was the re­cent ‘Slane Girl’ in­ci­dent, which saw vile pho­to­graphs posted on var­i­ous so­cial-net­work­ing web­sites, cat­a­logu­ing her in­volve­ment in a num­ber of pub­lic sex acts. Dis­gust­ing com­ments on her be­hav­iour fol­lowed, as well as en­thu­si­as­tic nam­ing and sham­ing of her on­line.

In­di­vid­u­als known as trolls, who in­ten­tion­ally log on to dis­sem­i­nate such ma­te­rial and even en­gage i n open, in­dis­crim­i­nate abuse for their own en­ter­tain­ment, are no longer the small mi­nor­ity we like to think, but are a bur­geon­ing mob who can tar­get any one of us at any time.

Their weapon of choice? The key­board. Their shield? Freedom of speech. Their tar­gets? The vul­ner­a­ble; not con­tent to sim­ply ridicule pub­lic fig­ures and celebri­ties, trolls have now moved to­wards eas­ier tar­gets. Chil­dren, sin­gles look­ing for love on­line, and even fam­i­lies who have been be­reaved in tragic cir­cum­stances, are all fair game, ap­par­ently.

Ac­cord­ing to clin­i­cal psy­chother­a­pist Joanna For­tune, the in­ter­net age is cre­at­ing an epi­demic loss of em­pa­thy in en­tire gen­er­a­tions. “The de­gree of em­pa­thy that gets lost on­line is phe­nom­e­nal,” she ex­plains. “It's this el­e­ment of, ‘I can say what I like to you and I don't have to see or feel your reaction. I can just log off and not think about it and if you then do some­thing, if you hurt your­self as a re­sult of my com­ment­ing on a photo of you, I feel that's OK, be­cause you put the photo up, it's your own fault.’ There's this ab­so­lute re­fusal of re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

In 2010, a study by the Univer­sity of Michi­gan mea­sured em­pa­thy lev­els in stu­dents over a 30-year pe­riod, com­par­ing their to those of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. It found that the big­gest drop in em­pa­thy lev­els came be­tween 2000 and 2010, which cor­re­lates di­rectly with the birth and rise of so­cial me­dia.

In Jan­uary, the fa­ther of 15-year- old Ciara Pugs­ley from Leitrim, who died by sui­cide last Septem­ber, fol­low­ing a flurry of abuse on the web­site, ad­dressed a cyber-bul­ly­ing con­fer­ence in Cork. In his speech, Mr Pugs­ley told the au­di­ence that, fol­low­ing Ciara's death, he had learned of nu­mer­ous trolls who were then urg­ing other teens to ‘do a Ciara’.

In Oc­to­ber 2012, just one month af­ter Ciara took her own life, 13-year-old Erin Gal­lagher, from Done­gal, also died by sui­cide. She, too, had been bul­lied on the site. So di­rect was the link be­tween Erin's death and her on­line abusers that, months later, her mother re­vealed that Erin had men­tioned in her sui­cide note.

The most re­cent­lated sui­cide was that of 14-year-old Bri­tish schoolgirl Han­nah Smith, who hanged her­self in her bed­room in Au­gust, af­ter months of be­ing tar­geted by trolls who ex­plic­itly en­cour­aged her to kill her­self.

On the night be­fore Han­nah Smith was buried, Scot­tish 17-year-old Daniel Perry jumped to his death from a bridge out­side

Ed­in­burgh, ap­par­ently as a re­sult of an in­ter­net black­mail cam­paign. Trolls had threat­ened to make pub­lic his pri­vate Skype video chats with a fe­male friend, while on the site, other peo­ple were en­cour­ag­ing him to kill him­self.

To older gen­er­a­tions, the so­lu­tion to abuse on­line seems sim­ple; if you're get­ting bul­lied on a web­site, surely the an­swer is to stop us­ing it, right?

But, for younger gen­er­a­tions, so­cial me­dia is not just a tool of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but a vir­tual so­cial scene, where friend­ships are made, played out and, in some cir­cum­stances, ir­re­vo­ca­bly bro­ken.

“The aver­age age that a child gets their first smart­phone now is seven and a half years,” ex­plains psy­chother­a­pist Joanna For­tune. “I mean, that's just ridicu­lous, but this isn't about be­ing prud­ish and say­ing, ‘Oh well, th­ese chil­dren shouldn't have that.'

“What we're look­ing at here is mo­bile ac­cess to the in­ter­net be­ing per­va­sive for young peo­ple,” Joanna con­tin­ues. “It is every­where. The in­ter­net never sleeps and what I would worry about is that alien­at­ing, yet ad­dic­tive as­pect of 24/7 con­nec­tiv­ity in young peo­ple. As a teenager it's a re­ally fine line; you haven't re­ally dif­fer­en­ti­ated yet what's real and what's not, so you get sucked into this vir­tual world and it makes it very hard to then feel con­nected to any­one or any­thing.”

The con­se­quences of hav­ing such a pre­dom­i­nantly on­line ex­is­tence, Joanna be­lieves, are of­ten over­whelm­ing.

“Young peo­ple tend not to weigh up the pros and cons,” she ex­plains. “They can't be­cause, to get a bit sci­en­tific, the part of the brain that weighs up con­se­quences and mea­sures right and wrong, al­low­ing us to make good de­ci­sions, isn't fully de­vel­oped un­til we're in our 20s.

“How­ever, the piece of the brain that has de­vel­oped ver y well i n our young ado­les­cence is that im­pulse-seek­ing de­sire drive. So that's why teenagers and chil­dren tend to be more im­pul­sive in gen­eral. It tends to be a case of act first and then, in ret­ro­spect, ask, ‘Was that a good idea?’

“So, if you put that in the con­text of the in­ter­net, where you take a photo or do some­thing and it goes on­line and then af­ter­wards you think, ‘Oh gosh, well maybe that wasn't a very good idea!' Your his­tory is archived by com­mer­cial com­pa­nies, on servers that th­ese com­mer­cial com­pa­nies own, and that is very se­ri­ous. It means young peo­ple, es­pe­cially, are easy tar­gets.”

One per­son who knows all about the per­ils of on­line trolling is Bri­tish fem­i­nist and cam­paigner Caro­line Cri­ado-Perez.

Caro­line was re­cently sub­jected to tor­rents of abuse, in­clud­ing rape and deaths threats on a va­ri­ety of so­cial-me­dia sites, fol­low­ing what one would ex­pect to be a rel­a­tively inof­fen­sive cam­paign to per­suade the Bank of Eng­land to put Jane Austen on their new bank note.

“The day the an­nounce­ment was made that they weren't go­ing to have an all-male line-up [on the cur­rency] and they were go­ing to im­ple­ment this re­view of the se­lec­tion pro­ce­dure, I just had a stream of re­ally pos­i­tive mes­sages com­ing in to my Twit­ter ac­count,” Caro­line ex­plains, weeks later, still no­tice­ably shaken by the or­deal.

“It wasn't un­til the next day that I got the first rape threat,” she says. “Then it be­came com­pletely re­lent­less and just com­pletely over­whelm­ing. There was that sense of mob men­tal­ity, which is very easy for peo­ple to get swept up in, and peo­ple were join­ing in, prob­a­bly from var­i­ous parts of the world. I sup­pose the game el­e­ment or crowd el­e­ment prob­a­bly never re­ally went away, but there was some­thing very dis­tinc­tive about it. By the Fri­day of it, and over the week­end, it felt al­most like a frenzy.”

“T his Perez one just needs a good smash­ing up the arse and she'll be fine,” wrote one of her more mild abusers.

The bile Caro­line re­ceived, which in­cluded vivid de­scrip­tions of sex­ual vi­o­lence and mur­der threats, con­tin­ued 24/7, reach­ing a fever pitch with the pub­li­ca­tion of what some posters be­lieved to be Caro­line's home ad­dress. “It was in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult,” Caro­line tells me. “It has re­ally done me no favours as far as my men­tal health goes. You know, the threats were so re­lent­less, so graphic, spe­cific and so vi­o­lent and so full of hate, that I was sit­ting in my stu­dio flat on my bed watch­ing all of th­ese hor­rific threats of vi­o­lent sex­ual na­ture come in and, well, I just started crying.

“It was just un­bear­able and com­pletely un­ex­pected. I knew this type of stuff had hap­pened to women, and there have been var­i­ous high-pro­file women who have spo­ken out about it, but it's just very dif­fer­ent when it's be­ing di­rected straight at you and you're won­der­ing if this is ever go­ing to end.”

Rena Maycock, founder of I ntro Match­mak­ing Agency, favours the old-fash­ioned, face-to-face method of dat­ing, but she is not en­tirely against on­line dat­ing web­sites.

What she does not like about them, how­ever, is their scope for abuse on a va­ri­ety

of lev­els. From the ‘cat­fish' phe­nom­e­non, where on­line daters can build en­tirely fake pro­files and en­gage in bo­gus vir­tual re­la­tion­ships with gen­uine, hope­ful sin­gles, to fully fledged trolls who prey on prospec­tive daters and hit them where it hurts.

“On­line dat­ing is so anony­mous and there are very few checks, so you can be who­ever you want to be on­line and that can be a pos­i­tive thing for peo­ple who are very shy, but it can also be a neg­a­tive thing and a real breed­ing ground for peo­ple who are ex­tremely nasty,” she says. “I've heard about it from so many of my clients.

“Last week, one girl I had in told me she had tried a sub­scriber web­site and the rea­son she gave up was be­cause she was re­ceiv­ing an in­or­di­nate amount of abuse,” Rena adds.

“This girl had one guy who ac­tu­ally emailed her with re­ally ag­gres­sive emails say­ing, ‘Well, of course you're on a dat­ing web­site, who'd have you? You're wrecked!' and all sorts of foul lan­guage. The things he said to her were un­be­liev­able and they had never even met. They had never com­mu­ni­cated and she was re­ceiv­ing dog's abuse. It wasn't just that guy ei­ther, she'd had the same ex­pe­ri­ence a cou­ple of times. I've heard it from a lot of peo­ple; it's be­com­ing quite a nasty trend.”

For Ir­ish Model Tiffany Stan­ley, 24, Twit­ter trolls have be­come some­thing of an un­for­tu­nate oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard.

“When my cal­en­dar came out in Jan­uary, two girls were tak­ing swipes at me on­line,” she ex­plains.

“I had no­ticed them do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar a cou­ple of months ear­lier and de­cided to ig­nore it, but then it hap­pened again, and that's when I de­cided to re­act with a kind of smart, funny comment and it kicked off then.

“One of the girls then took an old photo of me off the in­ter­net, that was taken from a re­ally bad an­gle, where I look kind of chunky and tweeted it call­ing me ‘Por­ridge Stan­ley’,” says Tiffany.

“It was ob­vi­ously a dig at my weight and then they seemed to get quite a few of their friends on re-tweet­ing this pic­ture and then it all just re­ally took off.” The or­deal took its toll on Tiffany. “I got re­ally pan­icked about the whole thing,” she says. “It was just re­ally hor­ri­ble. Like, to poke fun at some­one's weight and go to the bother of find­ing the most hor­ri­ble photo you could find and then tweet­ing it and call­ing some­one names, I mean that's just not cool.

“It re­ally af­fected me, I suf­fer from anx­i­ety any­way and just the bitch­ing and the ex­treme na­ture of it all on Twit­ter was so in­tense. I had peo­ple call­ing me a fat slag, it was absolutely hor­ri­ble.”

This was not the first time Tiffany had found her­self on the re­ceiv­ing end of a bar­rage of neg­a­tive on­line com­ments, but it was the first time it had be­come so over­whelm­ing that she con­sid­ered leav­ing Twit­ter. “I thought of quit­ting af­ter that,” she ex­plains. “It re­ally up­set me, I didn't sleep, be­cause I didn't know whether or not it was go­ing to con­tinue, or if they were go­ing to get more of their friends slat­ing me and call­ing me names. I was just wait­ing for it to die out ba­si­cally. I was go­ing to quit, but then

I thought I bet­ter not in case it keeps go­ing and I need to keep an eye on it. I prob­a­bly would be bet­ter off if I quit ev­ery­thing, to be hon­est, but I didn't want them to win ei­ther.

“It started on Twit­ter, then it pro­gressed to Face­book, then it also pro­gressed to In­sta­gram, where it was as if they got a num­ber of friends to go on In­sta­gram and comment on my pho­tos and leave neg­a­tive com­ments. So I couldn't es­cape it. I re­ally think peo­ple should be more care­ful with other peo­ple's feel­ings.

“The tragedies that have hap­pened be­cause of on­line bul­ly­ing were just so un­nec­es­sary and so wrong,” Tiffany says. “You might think that a bitchy comment on Twit­ter is not go­ing to be a big deal, but you don't un­der­stand what that per­son on the other side might be go­ing through.

“The prob­lem with the in­ter­net nowa­days is you're open­ing your­self up to all sorts. I had an email from a guy one time and he said, ‘I'm in your house, you skinny bitch!’ and I was at home on my own at the time.”

Tiffany adds: “I have lost count of the amount of creepy and weird stuff that comes into my in­box be­cause, to be hon­est, I don't have the time to read all of it.”

Ray Se­nior, the founder and mod­er­a­tor of the Ir­ish web­site Show­, has wit­nessed more than his fair share of on­line abuse and anony­mous trolling.

“Com­men­ta­tors on Show­ over the past decade could be bro­ken down into three main cat­e­gories; one, gen­uine fans; two, trolls, and, three, shills,” he ex­plains.

“At the be­gin­ning we mainly had real peo­ple mak­ing real com­ments and ob­ser­va­tions on fash­ion and lo­cal celebrity re­la­tion­ships, but as the site's pop­u­lar­ity grew it was pretty ob­vi­ous that some of the celebs we were do­ing sto­ries on were in fact post­ing overly pos­i­tive com­ments about them­selves us­ing nu­mer­ous aliases.

“We track the IP ad­dresses of com­men­ta­tors, thus we can see the same per­son com­ing back over and over again. In gen­eral terms, this type of com­men­ta­tor is called a shill. And there have been a few sur­pris­ing shills who have ap­proached me in night­clubs over the years ad­mit­ting to this shame­ful be­hav­iour, all the way from A- to Z-lis­ters.

“Even Sa­muel L Jack­son re­cently ad­mit­ted in an in­ter view to go­ing on­line and de­fend­ing him­self against trolls, so it goes all the way to the top. Once it be­came ob­vi­ous that var­i­ous well-known mod­els were big­ging them­selves up on Show­, other ea­gle-eyed com­men­ta­tors could see a di­rect line of con­tact and the temp­ta­tion was too much. We could see trolls com­ing back time af­ter time and spew­ing out bile and abuse, di­rected mainly at a few of our favourite pho­to­call queens,” Ray adds.

‘You open your­self up to all sorts on the in­ter­net. I had an email from a guy and he said, “I’m in your house, you skinny bitch”’

“Need­less to say, what started out as fun, ended up with tears and I would spend my days delet­ing and cen­sor­ing com­ments and ban­ning the IP ad­dresses of troll ex­trem­ists.”

Soon, Ray was forced to mod­er­ate each comment, so strong was the del­uge of abuse. “Gossip is great fun,” he says, “but when you see that it's ac­tu­ally re­ally hurt­ing some­one, then it's gone too far. I al­ways say this is just show­biz, no one needs to die.

“More gen­er­ally, with on­line now you see what started out as com­men­ta­tors hav­ing a go at celebri­ties on­line has fast evolved into a global tirade of abuse tar­geted at any in­di­vid­ual should they be caught out on so­cial me­dia,” Ray con­cludes, “and it's quite ev­i­dent that some in­di­vid­u­als that find them­selves in such sit­u­a­tions can't cope.”

The so­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Joanna For­tune, lies in ad­dress­ing the anonymity of on­line in­ter­ac­tions and polic­ing the con­tent.

“We have to take a look at get­ting rid of the anonymity,” she says. “We have to take a stand as a so­ci­ety. Fine, go on­line and say what you have to say, but at least own it. If you re­ally be­lieve and feel this way, then have the courage to say, ‘This is who I am and this is what I'm say­ing.'

“The anonymity is just breed­ing this cow­ardice, it’s breed­ing this abil­ity to go about your daily life and then sit at home with this al­ter-ego, which psy­cho­log­i­cally is not very good for peo­ple.

“So I can be a very good cit­i­zen and a loving fa­ther or mother or sib­ling, in my day-to-day life, but I can be­come this en­tirely other per­son when I'm on­line and that's not good, that's al­low­ing me to split off parts of my­self and it's not good for the per­son at the re­ceiv­ing end ei­ther.”

‘It re­ally up­set me, I didn’t sleep. I didn’t know if was go­ing to con­tinue . . . I couldn’t es­cape it.’ — Ir­ish Model Tiffany Stan­ley

Paris Jack­son, daugh­ter of Michael Jack­son, is thought to have been driven to a sui­cide at­tempt by in­ter­net abuse. Ciara Pugs­ley, above right, died by sui­cide and other teens were urged by trolls to ‘do a Ciara’

Ciara Pugs­ley, 15, who took her own life af­ter be­ing bul­lied on­line

‘The key­board is the weapon of choice of the troll.’ Pic­ture posed by model

‘Even Sa­muel L Jack­son ad­mit­ted re­cently go­ing on­line to de­fend him­self against in­ter­net trolls’

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