My internet hate hell
‘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 Ask.fm, 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 Ask.fm site. So direct was the link between Erin's death and her online abusers that, months later, her mother revealed that Erin had mentioned Ask.fm in her suicide note.
The most recent Ask.fm-related 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 Ask.fm 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 ShowBiz.ie, has witnessed more than his fair share of online abuse and anonymous trolling.
“Commentators on ShowBiz.ie 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 ShowBiz.ie, 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.”
‘The keyboard is the weapon of choice of the troll.’ Picture posed by model
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
‘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
‘Even Samuel L Jackson admitted recently going online to defend himself against internet trolls’