Rise of the trolls

Reblogged from ESRC’s Society Now, Autumn 2013, Issue 17, page 25.

In recent years, online cyberbullying, trolling, and inciting people to commit suicide has increased. In 2013 there was a wave of reports of online rape, murder, and bomb threats, with child-suicides linked to cyberbullying and online extortion. Whilst it is desperately sad that it took even one case for this issue to finally reach general awareness, at last the question is being asked: how can we make the internet safer? There is no single answer to such a complex problem, but many smaller improvements can, collectively, advance online safety.

Education is vital, both for potential targets and those responsible for protection. At present, the charity Childnet does outstanding work, teaching school-children to be safe and kind online. Online safety has also been introduced across the 2014 National Curriculum. For best effect, however, these lessons need to be appropriately supported, sufficiently detailed, and adopted across all schools.

The assistance that Childnet offers teachers could be underpinned with compulsory online safety training in all PGCEs, since too many teachers currently don’t feel confident when it comes to advising pupils on safe social network practices. Meanwhile, parents would benefit from training in spotting the signs of cyberbullying, keeping their children safe online, and learning about the many organisations that offer help and advice. These include BeatBullying, Childline, Get Safe Online, the Internet Watch Foundation, the Safer Internet Centre, the NHS, and the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (CEOP).

Whilst these organisations do invaluable work, they cannot be a standalone solution. Sites themselves need to offer the tools and support to keep us safe. Whilst most social networks require registrants to enter into agreements forbidding abusive behaviour, beyond that, sites differ widely in the availability, sophistication, and transparency of their safety features. Some even appear to stonewall those trying to tackle online abuse.

Where cases become too serious for a user or site to deal with, we would naturally turn to the police. However, whilst the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) does tackle cybercrime, its focus tends to divide between child sexual exploitation and online fraud. SOCA and the Police Central e-Crime Unit are forming a new National Cybercrime Unit, but it remains unclear whether online abuse will form part of this organisation’s remit. In short, it can be difficult to get appropriately trained police to seriously investigate online abuse.

Many of the Acts that cover abuse were created before the advent of major social networks, and so are imperfectly equipped to deal with the new behaviours that these sites have created. It is therefore worth considering whether these Acts need updating, or whether we actually need a new Online Communications Act that specifically covers the increasing range of abusive behaviours on the internet.

Finally, across the European Union, the Safer Internet Programme is promoting self-regulation, and already, several high-profile corporations have signed up to a set of Safer Social Networking Principles. This is a great start, but these principles are purely voluntary, and whilst it would be inappropriate to enforce such principles across all EU-based social networks, we need to ask whether businesses profiting from online social networks should have similar duties of care towards their site users as businesses selling goods and services in the real world.

The full potential of the internet is yet to be realised. It can enhance our lives immeasurably through entertainment and education, but for some, the internet will primarily present itself as a means to achieve cruel, selfish, and even criminal ends. If we are to fully enjoy the benefits, we must work towards comprehensively improving online safety, and the handful of ideas above merely begin to scratch the surface of the ways in which we can achieve this.