Waging war on sporting trolls

“Shame Ruby Walsh did not break both legs.”

That was one of the more printable outbursts in an undistinguished few days for the Twitter fraternity.

The online trolls circled Ruby after his broken leg at Punchestown on Saturday, some of them still fuming over his contributions to Ireland’s Greatest Sporting Moment on RTÉ 2 last week, when he suggested the nomination of World Cup ’94 was a celebration of mediocrity. While others nursed gripes over horses he had ridden and beaten dockets.

More sinister than that unpleasantness was the baiting of Cyrus Christie following the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark, involving one attack that the FAI have reportedly referred to the gardaí.

Amid a barrage of invective that reduced Christie to tears, according to teammate James McClean, the full-back was invited by one troll to “go play for Jamaica”, introducing a racial element to the abuse.

Last night Christie addressed the issue. “I am extremely proud to represent my country the Republic of Ireland and I give everything I can each time I put on the green shirt. I genuinely believe our fans are some of the best in the world,” he said.

“However there have been a number of racist comments which have been brought to my attention during the World Cup qualifying campaign over the last couple of months and most recently last week. These comments are not representative of our fans or our sport. We were all deeply upset to not reach the World Cup finals and are hurting just as much as everyone else. It is deeply saddening that racism is still part of the game we all enjoy and love. I strongly believe we need to stand up against these individuals who do not belong in football or in any sport.”

If we are only beginning to wage war on trolls, Britain has spent longer in the trenches. Last year, ex-footballer Stan Collymore secured a restraining order against a Twitter user who sent him hundreds of abusive tweets. In February, a troll who sent antisemitic messages to a Labour MP and other victims was jailed for two years and three months.

Figures from two years ago reported an average of five convictions every day under Britain’s Malicious Communications Act, which makes it an offence to send electronic communication with intent to cause distress or anxiety.

But are trolls being prosecuted here? According to Eoin O’Dell, Associate Professor of Law at Dublin University, it’s improbable an attack such as the one on Christie would result in a prosecution.

“The two main things the gardaí would look at, the two main pieces of legislation that might be at issue regarding the tweet about Cyrus Christie; one is the offence of harassment,” Mr O’Dell said.

“The classic troll is someone who tweets at, or about, someone regularly — orchestrates a campaign. That is easily harassment. There is a crime that requires repeated acts that amount to harassment. But a single tweet doesn’t amount to harassment.

“The second thing it might be is incitement to hatred. But there must be some incitement. Simply tweeting abuse, vulgar or racist as it might be, doesn’t necessarily reach the level of incitement.

“For example, there was a woman from Nigeria finding it difficult to get a buggy on a bus. The bus driver spewed a tirade of racist rubbish and the whole bus turned on the bus driver.

“And an attempt to prosecute the bus driver for incitement to hatred failed because he claimed he didn’t incite anyone to hate the women; in fact he invited everyone to turn on him.

“So there has to be some incitement and this tweet is unlikely to amount to harassment or incitement.”

Essentially, the laws that govern inciting hatred online are no different to those policing abuse on the street. Unless, perhaps, your foul contributions go viral. “If you say something that only one person hears, it’s not going to have much impact. If you tweet something and it goes viral, it could cross the line.”

Currently, the line is pretty blurred.

“Racism in sport is a big issue that we are beginning to deal with,” Mr O’Dell adds. “At the moment, online, the biggest reaction has been against misogyny.A lot of female politicians have reported trolling to the gardaí.

“There’s beginning to be pushback.

“We’re beginning to become more aware of when the line is crossed and the law is beginning to catch up.

“The Law Reform Commission has begun to look at the issue of harmful communications. And has made recommendations around it.

“It says that sometimes the communication itself is harmful. And therefore there should be some legal protection against it. The Department of Justice is studying that.”

The Digital Rights Ireland lobby group urges caution regarding some of the changes in the law mooted, including proposals to extend the scope of the Post Office Amendment Act 1951 — which prohibits offensive, nuisance and obscene phone calls — to the internet.

“It would make everything on the internet, including the entire output of RTÉ, subject to an offensiveness test,” reads one of its submissions on cyber-crime.

Sporting discussion, it’s increasingly clear, would often fail that test.


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