No need for legislation to curb harassment from social media trolls

IT is galling of the Government to blame social media for suicides while simultaneously raiding tens of millions of euro from suicide prevention services in order to shore up the budget of the Department of Health.

The tragic death of junior minister Shane McEntee is the latest in a string of high-profile suicides that have been linked to abusive messages on social media websites by government TDs.

However, their concern would be a lot more credible if it hadn’t been revealed that, as of the start of December, just 17 out of an additional 414 mental health staff, who were supposed to be hired in 2012, had been recruited. Instead of adequately funding local mental health services, it is much easier to demonise social media and create a convenient new bogeyman to blame for the suicide epidemic that has long ravaged the country.

Consequently, the committee on transport and communications has announced a knee-jerk review to determine if regulation or legislation is required when it’s obvious that neither is necessary.

We already have legislation that can be used to prosecute cyberbulling, the Non Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. Section 10 of that act states that any person who, “without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, by any means including by use of the telephone, harasses another by persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her, shall be guilty” of the offence of harassment. Barrister Fergal Crehan, in a recent blog post, noted that the section was last year successfully applied to a case in which the harassment was conducted entirely via email and featured no physical violence.

So, the means of the communication, really, is immaterial. All that is important is that a defendant “acts intentionally or recklessly [and] seriously interferes with the [victim’s] peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm”.

Patently, there is absolutely no reason why threatening messages sent via social networking sites could not also be prosecuted using the same section.

The notion that social media users are somehow exempt from defamation laws is also completely unfounded and, like newspapers, users are legally responsible for the content they publish, even if it’s only 140 characters long. There are some who argue that much of the abuse that is meted out by internet trolls is done via anonymous accounts and, therefore, banning them would provide some kind of panacea for online abuse. However, this ignores the fact that it is still possible to identify the creators of anonymous accounts as former FF TD Chris Andrews, who was infamously unmasked as the creator of a sock-puppet Twitter account that criticised his erstwhile party colleagues, recently learned to his cost.

Oftentimes, the nature of the messages themselves, and the peculiar information they contain, will hint at the identity of the author, meaning that an account is only nominally anonymous. If all else fails, applications can also be made to the courts for internet service providers (ISPs) to reveal their customers’ identity.

Even if these measures did not exist, there is no credible way to enforce a ban of anonymous accounts on international websites that are usually hosted in other countries. There is really no law that could be introduced to force Twitter or Facebook to ensure that all of their users are publicly identifiable or to certify, once that’s done, that everybody is really who they say they are.

It’s simply unworkable and any attempt to enforce such a law would invariably lead to popular sites being censored or blocked, as is the case in China, whose track record on freedom of speech issues is one the government should be in no rush to ape.

Anonymous social media accounts are getting pretty bad press at the moment, but they’re not all run by knuckle-dragging ne’er-do-wells. A prime example of the good that can be wrought by anonymous accounts is the influential economic blog, Nama Wine Lake, which is deliberately authored anonymously “to allow postings which are untainted by any established interest in Irish banking, property or government administration”.

The website has broken a number of significant business stories and, via its focus on the unwieldy and secretive megalith that is Nama, is providing an important public service. Elsewhere, anonymous accounts allow for people like public servants, whose jobs could otherwise be in jeopardy, to blow the whistle on unsafe, or unsatisfactory, work practices without fear of retaliation from their employer.

More generally, they allow for people with an insight into an area to speak freely and frankly about their experiences, be they professional or personal, without a fear of their comments later coming back to haunt them.

That is not to suggest that anonymity is guaranteed because it isn’t and is forfeit when criminal activity is engaged in.

While most social media users are perfectly polite, a small cohort of offensive boneheads, who resort to personal attacks because they’re incapable of conducing a coherent debate, will always persist.

Instead of engaging with these dimwits, the best way to deal with them is to ignore them or, alternatively, use the block function that exists on most websites, which alerts moderators to abuse and debars users from sending their goading messages.

EQUALLY, legitimate criticism should not automatically be labelled trolling and just because politicians sometimes feel under attack from social media users it doesn’t necessarily mean the comments are abusive. Rather, it simply means their policies are unpopular.

Perhaps these myriad issues would be better understood if the quality of public discourse about social media in this country, which seems to be dominated by middle-aged people who don’t use the medium and have no comprehension of its functionality, wasn’t so abysmally bad.

It is depressingly commonplace to listen to sneering discussions, on national broadcasters, in which each and every panellist trumpets their own ignorance of social media yet feels no compunction about loudly pontificating at length about its many alleged evils. In Ireland outmoded consensus still seems to be that social media is a communication tool that is solely used by narcissistic windbags with nothing of value to say.

Instead of traducing social media as a stupid fad full of nasty or banal inanities, and embarking on a cack-handed and pointless attempt to regulate it out of existence, the onus should be on parents and schools to educate children about its safe use and on users to have a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to abusive messages.

Regrettably, there will always be unpleasant people in the world, who enjoy spewing hurtful invective, but when their online behaviour crosses a line into harassment or defamation then they can be held criminally, or civilly, liable — and the State doesn’t need to waste time conjuring up new laws to do so.

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