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WebWise news report - Tackling the trolls

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:56 UK time, Monday, 19 September 2011

In the second case of its kind, the courts have taken steps to punish an internet 'troll' for posting abusive online content.

The term 'troll' is widely used on the internet to describe someone who deliberately posts contentious and inflammatory remarks online in order to provoke others. These remarks can be on internet forums, chat rooms or in comment fields of blog articles. In this instance though, the term specifically applies to someone who posts upsetting and malicious messages on social media sites dedicated to the memory of recently deceased people.

Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks after posting offensive messages and videos aimed at the friends and families of young people who had died. Last year Colm Coss was also imprisoned for obscene posts on Facebook tribute sites. The sentences send out a strong message to trolls and show that when it comes to the internet and freedom of speech there are still lines that can't be crossed.

Sometimes trolling can be relatively harmless, often it is intended to ignite debate over contentious issues on newspaper comments sections or on message boards. Many trolls simply see themselves as playing devil's advocate, setting out to intentionally provoke posters either for fun, attention or simply to practise their own right to post.

Although there is legislation that tackles online crime, the onus is very much on websites to have effective measures in place to ensure offensive posts are deleted and repeat offenders warned and even removed from a community.

Just as I've maintained in previous WebWise blogs, one of the best ways of posting on the internet is not to write things you wouldn't ordinarily say in public. There are of course exceptions, like websites that offer confidential advice, but if what you're writing could be construed as bullying or libellous, it's best not to post it.

Here are some simple tips for dealing with internet trolls:

  • Be sure to differentiate between what is offensive and what you don't agree with. If you disagree with someone online, keep to topic and discuss the actual issue or walk away. Making things personal can put you on a slippery slope.
  • Read a message board's house rules – the BBC's are here – and don't be afraid to report a post using the appropriate channels if you think it breaks them.
  • Don't feed the trolls – if what's been written doesn't break the house rules (or the law), take a deep breath and ignore it. Remember that some people will never agree with you – and you're more likely to find these people on the internet.
  • Don't be afraid to contact the website or even the police if you feel posts or messages are becoming too personal or if you feel that you're being harassed.

Read the full piece, 'Attack of the trolls' on BBC News.

UK Safer Internet Centre also has lots of resources for people working with young people on staying safe online.

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