Ever heard of “trolling”? It’s a relatively new slang word taken from ‘Troll’, a generally unpleasant creature in Norse mythology, and refers to people who post malicious comments on the internet.
Trolls inhabit – if they can get away with it – the blogosphere, chatrooms, open forums, Facebook and Twitter.
When they break the law, they are liable to prosecution: for example, a man was recently jailed for 18 weeks posting odious comments on a Facebook tribute site following the suicide of a 15-year-old girl.
But not everyone who trolls breaks the law. Some remarks posted by online louts are simply nasty or vindictive.
A weekly newspaper recently allowed a string of erroneous comments to be posted on its website by mischievous readers. Their “victim” concluded that the remarks weren’t actionable, or if they were it wouldn’t be worthwhile trying to taking legal action against those responsible.
But the comments were both false and upsetting, and our friend wanted them removed.
However, the newspaper refused to delete them, insisting that its comments forum was a free and open space for its readers and that, if their comments were legally safe, they would stay.
The internet can be a murky place. Stephen Fry has likened it to a virtual city and that parts of it people will dislike. “But”, he argued, “you don’t pull down London because it’s got a red-light district.”
However, comedian and journalist Don Joly – aka “Troll Slayer” – delights in naming and shaming trolls, arguing that these online bullies deserve little better.
Such action shouldn’t be necessary. Trolls are generally answerable to nobody. They don’t have editorial training, they don’t have sub-editors to check their work and editors to sanction or veto it, they don’t employ lawyers to ensure what they write is legally sound, and they needn’t necessarily concern themselves with the consequences of what they post.
The same can’t be said for newspapers, however. While I’m all for freedom of speech, the press should accept the same editorial and moral responsibility for their online presence as they do for what appears in print.
Refusing to accept anonymous postings might be a good starting point.