Richard Bacon: My battle with the trolls

Richard Bacon

There are growing demands for action over internet "trolling". Here BBC presenter Richard Bacon reveals what it's like to deal with a torrent of personal abuse.

You are reading an article online, casting your eye over an essay about a presenter's experiences with internet trolls. It's a fairly straightforward essay. But as you may have noticed, in the cyber world, you don't have to work too hard for things to get a little bit more unpleasant.

I would like you to take part in an experiment. Go to any news website that allows readers to post their own thoughts. Choose the most innocuous celebrity story you can find, and read people's comments beneath.

On the day I wrote this, I nipped onto one such website. The first showbiz story I came across was headlined "Sophie, Countess of Wessex, dishes up a feather hat for a day out with the Queen". The two had been photographed attending a celebratory event at Westminster Abbey. Must be quite hard to get angry about a little piece like that, right?

Wrong.

The Countess of Wessex leaves after the Commonwealth Day Observance service at Westminster Abbey The feather hat in question

Third reader comment I came across: "Just get rid of this disgusting family now." Another poster reviewed the Queen's outfit from that same photo: "She looks like an evil pink gremlin." And there were masses of negative comments about Kate Middleton - who wasn't even there.

There is something about the alchemy of a keyboard and a public platform that taps into a side of human nature that you rarely, if ever, encounter in real-life conversation.

I don't know the people who made these comments, but I suspect that if any had been at Westminster Abbey that day and Sophie Wessex had wandered over to shake hands, the chit-chat would not have been about her "disgusting" family. I'll go so far as to hazard a guess that it would have been something to the effect of "nice hat, ma'am".

But this sort of negativity, while curious, is entry-level stuff. I've spent three months immersed in the world of cyberbullying and internet "trolling". Recently there has been a massive explosion of it.

Broadcaster Richard Bacon and psychologist Dr Emma Short discuss the typical profile of a cyber-troll

Partly, my journey was personal. Two years ago I came across a charming website which went by the name of "Richard Bacon is a [expletive]".

It's run by this fella who hates me and hates my show on BBC Radio 5 live. Now, there's nothing wrong with that. It's an opinion. As a broadcaster, it's part of the game.

But apart from a running commentary on what he disliked about each day's programme, he would fantasise about my death, daydream about me dying in a plane crash and express his hope that my body would be mangled in a car wreck.

He also took to Twitter under a similarly abusive name.

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The Anti-Social Network will be broadcast on Monday 19 March at 21:00 GMT on BBC Three.

As the months wore on, he became utterly obsessed. He started posting links full of abuse to my wife, mother and work colleagues. My newborn son even garnered a few mentions.

But this was simply my introduction to the cowardly new world of anonymous internet abuse.

As I delved deeper, it turned out that the level of vitriol I was receiving was mild by comparison with what hundreds, probably thousands, of people around the UK are subjected to daily. Hourly.

Imagine you're the parent of a child who has died in tragic circumstances and you're reading a tribute site dedicated to their memory. Underneath the comments from friends and acquaintances, you stumble upon graphic, violent and sexual abuse from people writing under pretend names. People who their deceased child never even knew.

What is trolling?

Trolling is a phenomenon that has swept across websites in recent years. Online forums, Facebook pages and newspaper comment forms are bombarded with insults, provocations or threats. Supporters argue it's about humour, mischief and freedom of speech. But for many the ferocity and personal nature of the abuse verges on hate speech.

Reading about these awful stories - and actual abuse - was the moment I began seriously wondering what kind of people would do this, and why. I also wanted to know where the law and the big social networking companies stood when it came to the issue of mocking dead children.

This, I think, is a really important question. Where does freedom of expression cross over into harassment? And what can you do about it?

I've met victims, psychologists, police, devastated families and ultimately come face-to-face with two people who I believe are internet trolls. I also discover that about 50% of victims of anonymous internet abuse know - or knew - their tormentors.

The law

  • The Communications Act 2003 governs the internet, email, mobile phone calls and text messaging
  • Under section 127 of the act it is an offence to send messages that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character"
  • The offence occurs whether those targeted actually receive the message or not

It's even more complex and darker than I ever imagined. Getting straightforward answers to simple questions from internet trolls is all but impossible.

And I started to ponder an even bigger question, one that ties together the violent abuse I look at in this programme and the unnatural level of strident opinions you see posted on almost every internet forum.

Does the net exaggerate our views, or are these views that people really hold? Either way, perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the idea that they are a tiny but vocal minority.

Or maybe this is what we are really like. Perhaps our day-to-day social interactions are the artifice, and these forums expose a dreadful truth about human nature. Could it be that deep, deep down, we just aren't very nice?

Here is a selection of your comments.

As a counsellor I have seen far too many instances of people being bullied or abused by people who find it funny to sit in front of a keyboard and dish out unwarranted comments towards people they don't even know. The damage it does can be horrendous and it's a sad reflection on society that since the onset of social networking sites, these problems have become worse.

John, Dudley UK

I think you need to differentiate between "trolling" and people utilising anonymity to show their hate, "trolling" is generally seen as light-hearted fun to show people up or take the mick; what you're describing is a different thing altogether and giving an inaccurate representation of a subculture that I must say I'm not part of, but have merely seen occurring.

Joe Coyle, Douglas, IOM

I have a little personal experience dealing with trolling. When I was at school, a member of our class made an e-mail address and e-mailed everyone, spreading comments and insults that were sexist, racist and derogatory about religion and the people in my class. The 'troll' claimed to be me, and as a result I got attacked and beaten up for it.

David, Birmingham

Trolling is not new!!! In the late 90's I used to visit a site where you could create your own Avi's and walk around and chat to people. To start with it was brilliant fun and then the mood started to change as characters started to appear who would abuse and threaten other users then vanish again. The language being used and the personal threats were terrible. Sadly wherever you go virtual or reality there will always be people who feel spoiling things for others is fun. There used to be parts of the country where you would never go because this kind of abuse and violance would happen in the pubs, clubs and streets, now the these creatures of found the internet so can attack everything they will never have.

Philip, Newark England

I have received abuse on the PS3 messaging from playing Call of Duty, you can block these message senders, but i'm sure that younger people (i'm 40) receive threats and don't know how how to handle them (the age limit on the game is 15, but I know that a lot of young kids play the game...) That is also a direct message sent to someone's personal life, not just posting on a website...

Tony, Brighton

Interesting story, but having been a net user since the late 80s I would suggest that the trolling phenomenon is nothing new, all news groups and BBS' had them. I suggest as well that Mr Bacon is wrong in his assumption that it is having a keyboard etc etc that causes this - the small number of personal and sometimes very abusive comment makers is a tiny percentage of the net population and are likely to spout their opinions just as freely in pubs and clubs etc, Web2.0 applications like twitter and facebook have simply brought them to prominence. Whilst it is upsetting to be a target for trolls, they are like any other playground bully - ignore them and they should hopefully go away. The vast majority of netizens are law abiding sensible people, they don not need their freedoms taken away because of a minority of bullies. Take care and Do Not Feed The Trolls.

Pugly, Nottingham

Back in the first year of World of Warcrafts life I became a fairly well known figure on the server I played on. I had never been anyone popular at school and I quite enjoyed the experience at first. It quickly turned sour and I ended up having to cut ties and play elsewhere to avoid the scarily consistent bullies. The level of juvenile cruelty and bullying seem to be all too common in it and similar other games. I think without directly bearing witness to an emotional response it's easy to disconnect yourself from what you are doing to someone else.

Jack, Sussex

Rule of thumb? Ignore them, once they start getting under your skin and you start posting or commenting back, it gives them an even bigger buzz. Stop posting, having the last word is pointless as no one will remember in a day or two...

Sres, Chorley

I've spent a lot of time on internet forums. For over 10 years I've been part of some sort of online community. Whilst I agree that these people who take things too far exist, I feel people need to be aware that there are areas you can go to to find people with common interests. I fully believe that if it were not for the internet I wouldn't be in the 3 year strong relationship I'm in at the moment. People need to be educated on how to deal with these attention seekers (because that is all they are), the phrase "don't feed the troll" is there for a reason. I'm willing to bet most of them are deeply lonely and unfulfilled so keep that in mind when you come across one. If you're the target for a troll, you're probably doing ok for yourself, are most likely a decent human being and most importantly should know better than to take the opinions of others to heart. The only opinions you should listen to are those of the people you love and trust. For children it's different, but they shouldn't be unsupervised anyway. All in all a degree of restraint is advised.

Dawn, Glasgow

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