Caught in a nasty web: The growing problem of online abuse

The explosion in digital media has led to a growing problem of online abuse, which is frequently targeted at women, often with serious and damaging consequences.

Caught in a nasty web: The growing problem of online abuse

WHEN journalist and mother-of-three Barbara Scully wrote a deeply personal piece about the emigration of her eldest daughter, the last thing she expected was a slew of online abuse.

In the piece, she mentioned that she had only accepted that her beloved daughter was really emigrating when the 20-something, who had worked since leaving school and had bought the car herself, sold her adored Peugeot Convertible. This was sufficient for the ‘trolls’ — the term used to describe people who post inflammatory messages online to provoke a reaction.

“I got tons of abuse,” recalls the Dublin-based writer, primarily, she believes, because mention of the car in the article she wrote “was so middle-class that it got people, mainly men, very angry”.

Shortly after the article was published in 2011, negative remarks started appearing on a social media site.

“It was very personal and so full of hatred,” Scully recalls.

“I never had any problem with someone disagreeing with something I said, but this was a personal attack and it was horrendous.

“It stunned me that there was so much of it, tons of it. It was the hatred, the really deep vitriolic hatred that was awful.

“It was a real lesson in how nasty people feel they can be. They commented on where I live, and there was a concerted effort to find out who I was and to comment on it. It was very unnecessary.”

Many high-profile people have social media accounts — it’s a way for them to connect with their followers and to control their media image. However, it’s also a way for trolls to post deeply abusive and often disgusting messages.

Jimmy Kimmel’s hugely popular YouTube channel gives A-listers like Cate Blanchett (below right), Jennifer Garner, John Goodman, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon the chance not just to read aloud the mean-minded and often vicious tweets they receive, but to hit back, too.

Troll messages can be personally devastating — British Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington, one of Britain’s most successful athletes and a double Olympic gold-medal winner, recently revealed that Twitter trolls repeatedly accused her of letting her country down after she won bronze in 2010.

Singer Adele (below top) was targeted by trolls who posted horrible messages about her new-born baby boy within minutes of the release of news about his birth, while Becky Gibson, girlfriend of Aston Villa goalkeeper Shay Given was subjected to a barrage abuse from a Twitter troll after she started dating the footballer.

Some might argue that this kind of nastiness is something celebrities should expect to endure – they are putting themselves out there after all. But surely that’s a cop-out — trolling is abuse and it should be treated as such.

There is no doubt that singer Gary Barlow suffered online abuse when he was cruelly taunted by online trolls following the death of his baby daughter.

In an attempt to clamp down on the phenomenon, Twitter has introduced a report button, and there are moves in this country to introduce new regulations to make online harassment illegal.

Earlier this summer an internet troll in Britain was jailed for six weeks for posting vile messages about murdered teacher Ann Maguire — who died after being stabbed by a student, while British Culture secretary Maria Miller has warned that trolls can expect to be arrested if they threaten or abuse people on social media sites.

However, as far as many victims are concerned, the social media of today is still a ‘Wild West’ for those who want to get really nasty online.

“Some people feel this area is completely unpoliced, and that they can do anything — they can hide behind a made-up name,” says Fiona Neary, director of the Rape Crisis Network.

“I think that the new technologies are being used abusively against women — especially women who are more public.”

Certainly, the vitriol is not solely directed at internationally-renowned performers or A-list celebrities.

During her campaign in the recent European elections, Galway-based Senator Lorraine Higgins attracted an avalanche of vicious abuse.

“Trolls called me filthy names,” she recalls, adding that “demeaning remarks with sexual connotations” were made about her 69-year-old mother.

The abuse, which carried on for several weeks, intensified in the run-up to the elections and eventually involved death threats, which she reported to the gardai.

There is a growing belief that this kind of abuse can be gender-orientated, focusing on women’s appearance, and targeting them simply because they’ve become visible.

Newly elected Labour Councillor for Tallaght South, Martina Genockey was taken aback by the sexist abuse she received when she ran in the recent local elections. After setting up a run-of-the-mill Facebook page to keep locals up to date with Labour’s campaign in the area, Genockey quickly became a target for vitriolic abuse and derogatory personal comments online.

“It was about calling me a traitor and a liar for no apparent reason,” she says, adding that a picture of her election poster was posted along with negative comments on her appearance.

“You had people coming on the page calling me a liar and making derogatory comments about my appearance, everything to do with me — who I am, where I live, my characteristics etcetera.”

Yet, as she points out: “I hadn’t done anything, apart from run for the Labour party in the area, and become visible.”

There is a sexist side to such abuse, she says. “It is misogynistic, it’s not about being a person or a politician — it’s about using my appearance to attack me as if that had some sort of legitimacy.

“Someone who would make comments like that to me would be a sexist person and, as such, see women as vulnerable and an easier target. “Even though I’m well able to stand up for myself, I feel that these people thought they could bully and attack me and harass me to such an extent that I would pull out of the campaign.”

And no, she says, it wouldn’t put her off running again.

The gardai advise reporting serious incidents. “Illegal issues could include someone making inappropriate sexual suggestions, racist remarks, persistent bullying or harassment that can be seriously damaging to the victim’s well-being,” state Garda guidelines on online harassment.

Adds a garda spokesman: “We encourage anyone who feels that there are inappropriate comments or otherwise posted on the internet/ social media websites, to report the matter to An Garda Síochána and to the website operator and or mobile phone companies.

“The service provides an anonymous facility for the public to report suspected illegal content encountered on the internet, in a secure and confidential way.”

If the content is deemed to be inappropriate, say gardaí, it will be fully investigated to determine if any offence has been disclosed.

Online abuse and harassment is now set to become an offence under laws on bullying and harassment — and victims of online abuse will be able to use examples of harassment on the internet, such as Facebook posts, as evidence in court under recommendations by the Internet Content Advisory Group.

Online harassment and abuse may have serious psychological and emotional consequences for some people, says psychologist Patricia Murray.

“Everyone has feelings of insecurity, and when we are insulted by people, it is much worse if a lot of people know about it.”

If a stranger comes up to you on the street and insults you, she explains, it’s easier to cope with because nobody else heard it and you can process it in private.

“But because trolling is in the public domain and on the internet, it’s far more damaging because you know everyone can read it - and you don’t know who has read it, so everyone that you meet may have read it.”

Paranoia is one possible outcome of this sort of stress, she believes.

“People who have experieenced trolling may become frightened and paranoid – because they feel everyone is laughing at them.

“Everyone is a possible threat or possibly laughing at them because everyone may possibly have read the abuse.”

Another problem is that the victim is put in a position of no control even if the troll is made to take down the post – the post may have been forwarded to others.

“It’s about a loss of control, the feeling that everyone knows, there is no comeback, and you have to try to ignore it. Your power as a human being has been taken away from you.”

This is potentially very damaging, particularly for younger people.

“They are very affected by their peer group, their status and what other people think of them.”

This sort of harassment could discourage somebody from putting themselves forward for anything that involves a heightened profile or a physical presence on the internet.

“Trolls aim to stir up a thread of nastiness, and then they like to stand back and watch it,” she says.

For somebody who’s feeling vulnerable and low on resilience, the abuse could lead to a breakdown, she warns.

“This is very threatening stuff,” observes Fiona Neary of the Rape Crisis Network, who says trolling is often about “the intimidation and harassment of women”.

“Socially, up to recently, women have been defined by how they look and it’s only recently that that men are getting that scrutiny.”

Historically, women have been judged by how they look. But online messaging has got to a point where it’s normal to be negative about women’s appearance, says Neary.

The advice from the gardaí is that while you shouldn’t reply to abusive online messages, you should keep them, as they could be useful for a subsequent garda investigation. You can also block the sender — or report the problem.

Most websites and mobile phone operators offer ways for users to report things such as pornography, bullying content or other offensive material.

According to “Serious incidents that could be illegal should be reported to the gardaí.”

XPOSE presenter Glenda Gilson who has a well-publicised friendship with One Direction star Niall Horan, is pragmatic about the online abuse she gets – often from girls who have a crush on the singer.

“I’ve dealt with stuff on Twitter, it’s open to the whole world. You get some bad stuff but you can’t expect it to be good all the time. You have to take the hit sometimes and you’ll get people who can be horrible and who hide behind the computer.”

However, mostly, she says, any grief she gets tends to be related to her friendship with Niall Horan.

“Any time I ever put anything up with myself and Niall I get abuse,” she says.

When she carries out a check on the troll, it often turns out to be some 11 or 12 year-old-girl who’s infatuated with Horan and strongly objects to Gilson’s presence in a picture of him.

“They’d use foul language or tell you that you’re ugly. I think, they think he’s the love of their lives and what am I doing with him?

“They’re kids and I understand that – it’s funny but sometimes you’d read [the messages] and go ‘whoa!’

“Then you find out that it’s a little young one and she looks so innocent, you can even see from the picture how small she is.

“The internet can be a scary place and these social networks can be tough. It’s a place where young girls and boys shouldn’t be, and I think parents should be aware of what is going on, because people can get at them (their children).”

More in this section

img MPU


Join our host Irish Examiner Life/Style Editor, Esther McCarthy with guests Caroline Casey, Emer O'Neill, Edel Coffey and Dr. Tara Shine as we make a call to action for accelerating women's equality.

ieFood pic
ieFood Logo

In the Kitchen with

 Video Series

Join Colm O'Gorman in his kitchen as he makes flatbreads in minutes and crispy air fryer chicken. Explore why he thinks chilli is the spice of life, and find out why his 50-year-old food mixer is his most important piece of kitchen equipment.

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up