Johnstone’s View - Government can deal with trolls

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Social media has become a prominent, and for many, an invaluable way of staying in touch with friends and family, keeping abreast of news and current affairs, as well as allowing people, often people who have never actually met, to debate with each other on any topic that can be thought of.

From this perspective it has had a hugely positive impact, especially where friends or family may have emigrated or might live in remote, rural areas. But there is also a dark and deeply worrying side to social media that has gained an increased prominence over recent years; I am, of course, referring to what has become known as the ‘Cyber Troll’ or simply ‘trolling.’

Internet trolling in its mildest form can be little more than an individual deliberately posting views that are designed to be provocative, usually for the amusement of the individual posting it. At its worst, however, it can consist of sustained bullying and harassment, often targeting vulnerable or grieving people causing the victims untold distress, sometimes leading to tragedy.

Many might associate trolling with high profile cases often involving celebrities, but the truth is that this happening on our own doorstep in the North-east too, with even the most cursory search revealing publicised cases in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen.

This is something that I have been concerned about for some time, and early last year I led a debate in the Scottish Parliament which highlighted cyberbullying and trolling.

At Westminster, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has announced proposals that could see those who post sickening abuse jailed for up to two years in prison.

I have no doubt that jail terms of this length will, quite rightly, be reserved only for the very worst offenders, but this is a step in the right direction, and if it deters people from indulging in this appalling behaviour, then it will potentially spare many victims from the fear and distress that trolling brings with it.

It is worth pointing out, however, that the measures outlined by Chris Grayling will not be implemented here in Scotland. There is legislation here that could be applicable, depending on the nature of the communications. Three spring to mind, although others could be applicable; these include the Communications Act 2003, The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 and the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. There will no doubt be some who will see this as somehow an infringement of their freedom of speech but, in reality, I am of the view that the right to freedom of speech brings with it the responsibility to use it appropriately, and not to target innocent and potentially vulnerable people with the kind of vile, hate-filled messages and abuse that we too often see reported in the media. Freedom of speech is also no defence where threats of violence, including sexual violence are used, and in my view, to suggest otherwise is utterly absurd.

Statistics issued by the Metropolitan Police last year show that around 2000 crimes related to online abuse are being reported in London alone each year, with the number of incidents relating to online harassment and bulling increasing by just over three percent on the previous year. In English and Welsh courts in 2012, more than 1700 cases involving abusive messages sent online or via text reached courts, showing a ten percent increase on the year before.

It seems clear that trolling is not a passing phenomenon. It is not a fad that those who indulge in it will tire of anytime soon, and given the distress it can cause, it needs to be addressed.

If someone were to approach an individual in the street and threaten extreme violence on them and their family, it would be taken extremely seriously. Simply because threats of this nature have a buffer of being sent via social media or text should not necessarily mean that the case should treated more lightly, especially where the victim may, as I have stated earlier, already be a vulnerable person.

Trolls can go to great lengths to hide their identity, cowering behind the supposed shield of anonymity that they think the internet provides, but they can be found, and they can be brought to book for their activities. It seems to me that it is becoming increasingly important that they are.

The Scottish Government can play a leading role in this, examining how legislation can be tightened up to cover trolling and engaging with social media site owners to see what more can be done to stop trolls. A comprehensive strategy s to address this issue, and provides help and advice to victims would be a significant and welcome step in the right direction.