Houses of Parliament Debate: “Does the Punishment of Trolls Infringe on an Individual’s Freedom of Speech?”

Yesterday, I took part in a ministerial debate hosted by Steve Rotheram MP at the Houses of Parliament. (I specialise in linguistic aggression, deception, and manipulation, particularly online, and look at behaviours such as flaming, trolling, cyberbullying, and online grooming, hence my inclusion.)

The roundtable, entitled, “Does the Punishment of Trolls Infringe on an Individual’s Freedom of Speech?” was prompted by the Director of Public Prosecution’s guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. The discussion aimed to establish what can be done to better police, prevent, and punish trolling, and the panel of contributors included individuals such as Dr Thom Brookes (Reader in Law, Durham), Chief Constable Andy Trotter, Members of Parliament Nadine Dorries and Stella Creasey, and representatives from the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office.

Representing the victims of online abuse, Nadine Dorries and Stella Creasey gave examples of the types of trolling that they had experienced, and their struggle to have these cases dealt with by the police. In turn, Chief Constable Trotter explained from the perspective of the police the scale of resources required to investigate and prosecute every case of trolling. I also explained the difficulties involved in establishing the identity of trolls, the ways in which trolls can operate individually or as organised groups, and how content that trolls produce is unlike face-to-face abuse, since it can be broadcast to an enormous audience very quickly, and proliferated across the internet such that it is almost impossible to eradicate. The panel further debated whether the term “trolling” itself was useful given its ill-defined nature, and whether current legislation, and the DPP’s interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communication sent via social media were suited to dealing with trolling. Whilst the panel did not always agree on the best answer to several of the points raised, one generally agreed upon point was that reactive responses to trolling, such as prosecution, were inadequate, and should be supported by proactive methods such as school-level education and early intervention.

The DPP’s final guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media have been published today and can be found here.