What can be done to stop internet trolls?

7 August, 2013

With recent headlines about feminist Caroline Criado-Perez being bombarded with violent and misogynistic tweets and 14-year old Hannah Smith who committed suicide after being taunted on social networking site Ask. fm, questions about being asked about what can be done to stop internet trolls?

Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites have rules for using their service which are signed up to by users as part of the account registration process. The sites also have processes in place to enable users to report abuse either via a report abuse button or an online form. However, even where abuse is reported, the ability of the social networking sites to put a stop such abuse is limited. Their key sanction is usually to suspend the user’s account but determined trolls can often run multiple accounts at one time or will open another fake account almost immediately after their access is suspended.

Twitter’s Abusive Behaviour Policy encourages users to share their views but discourages targeted abuse and harassment stating that “Twitter is a platform that provides a global communication service which encompasses a variety of users with different voices, ideas and perspectives. As a policy, we do not mediate content or intervene in disputes between users. However, targeted abuse or harassment may constitute a violation of the Twitter Rules”. The policy goes on to say that “Users are allowed to post content, including potentially inflammatory content, provided they do not violate the Twitter Terms of Service and Rules.”

The Twitter Rules expressly forbid certain posts stating:

  • “You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others” and
  • “You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.”

In certain circumstances, violent or threating tweets can also be brought to the attention of the police. However, there can be practical difficulties in finding trolls as they can often access social networks using a number of different fake accounts and public computers. Even when trolls can be identified, the police have limited powers to prosecute. The key offence which can be committed by trolls is under the Communications Act 2003:

  • Section 127(1)(a) of the Communications Act 2003 provides that a person is guilty of an offence if he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.
  • Section 127(3) of the Communications Act provides that a person guilty of an offence under section 127 is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both.

Keir Starmer QC the Director of Public Prosecutions recently published guidelines for prosecutors who are taking on cases involving communications sent via Twitter and other social networks. The guidelines provide that prosecutions should be sought where there is a credible threat of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or a breach of court orders, but provide that a high threshold must be applied whether deciding whether communications are grossly offensive.

The guidelines call for prosecutors to recognise the right to freedom of expression and provide that prosecution should only be brought when the communication is “more than offensive, shocking or disturbing, even if distasteful or painful to those subjected to it”.

In addition to the steps taken by the police and social networking sites to stop internet trolls, employers and schools could also help to limit trolling by making the use of school/work computers for offensive purposes a breach of the school/employment policies which could lead to suspension or sacking.  Education can also play a part and peer pressure from other social network users could help to reduce the prevalence of trolling. Unfortunately, without better mechanisms for identifying internet trolls and stricter sanctions for those who are caught, it seems likely that trolling is set to continue for the foreseeable future.