What was once a colloquial term referring to the practice of antagonising individuals in cyberspace,“trolling” has now crossed over into mainstream journalism as a result of the harassment of several high profile figures on social media.
Trolls act without boundaries and will attack anyone. But as a growing number of young women turn to social media as a platform to raise issues important to them, they are also becoming a target for gendered abuse.
In 2013, 2,000 incidents of Twitter trolling were reported to the Metropolitan Police, a increase of 3.1 per cent compared to the year before. Police are beginning to address cases of extreme trolling but with online anonymity and cloaked IP addresses, it is proving difficult to pursue.
Trolling ranges from mild acts of disruptive online behaviour to hate campaigns and obscene and threatening behaviour. When young women receive gendered abuse online, such as threats of rape and murder, the anonymity of the abuser is no longer a safety blanket and can actually be a factor in increasing the threat.
No one understands this better than 19-year-old artist Jamie Kapp who became the target of a hate campaign after her comic about white privilege went viral.
In January, Buzzfeed reported how Kapp was bullied off of Tumblr by trolls. After a brief hiatus, Kapp’s Tumblr page is now active. The hashtag #Notdead appears a couple times on her home page.
However Kapp’s story is not unique. Many young women are being chased off social media sites (sometimes only temporarily) by trolls.
“Don’t feed the Troll” has become a popular mantra, used to help combat anonymous social media harassment. This mantra relies on the assumption that all internet trolls are, in actuality, harmless cowards who once starved of any attention, will cease their abusive actions.
Social media platforms have put in place reporting and blocking tools to ‘aid’ in starving the trolls by muting their actions, or removing their profiles from the site in question. Instead, this only serves as a band aid to remedy a much larger problem , and is easily bypassed by persistent trolls.
Many social media platforms, such as Twitter, do not block IP addresses as they can be easily changed. Most internet users own more than one device which allows them to use social multiple media applications. Facebook will remove reported content that violates their terms and conditions and advises users to contact the police in extreme cases of online harassment.
While some young women may feel helpless and that their only options are to ignore, hide or absorb the abuse, some British politicians are exploring ways to combat the trolls. The justice secretary Chris Grayling has backed an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that will enable online trolls who use sexually abusive and threatening language to be imprisoned for up to two years. This amendment was tabled in Parliament in March.
So when the trolls are too loud and threatening to ignore, and the tools that social media platforms have in place to regulate the abuse fail, what should young women do? This question is still proving difficult to answer. All women are vulnerable to trolling, but things are slowly starting to improve.
The increasing number of high profile arrests, and the current focus on online harassment, means that abusive trolls no longer have the security blanket of anonymity to hide behind. Yet young women who are finding their identity and voices online are still finding themselves the target of vicious online hate campaigns with little support.
There is a light of change flickering in the distance, but much more needs to be done, starting in our schools, colleges and universities to equip rectify the problem.
Mesha McNeil is Digital Women UK’s youth coordinator.