Identity anonymity – perilous or unhazardous?

Following the recent vicious and vile personal attacks on TV personality Charlotte Dawson, which landed her in hospital, there have been widespread calls for social media outlets, as well as the government, to implement measures to out the so-called ‘trolls’ who anonymously attack, torment and taunt not only celebrities, but everyday people, online. Dawson was hospitalised after a lengthy attack from trolls following her decision to name and shame the troll who told her to “hang herself”.

Since the incident, Dawson has been harshly criticised for “feeding the trolls” by re-tweeting abusive and demonising posts to her hundreds of thousands of followers. Dawson bravely spoke out about her online hell and, subsequently, her brush with suicide in an emotional interview that aired on 60 minutes. You can watch the full story here.

Channel Ten’s newest talkback show Can of Worms addressed the issue of exposing the identities of trolls with guests Mia Freedman, Adam Richard and Kris Smith. Take a look at the short clip below:

Just this week, top surfer Laura Enever and TV personality Nathan Jolliffe joined the long-winded list of Australian celebs, sporting stars and personalities alike who have fallen victim to cyber hate campaigns being fronted by anonymous trolls. Take Rugby League star Robbie Farrah, for example. Or perhaps Delta Goodrem. The list goes on. Farah has called on the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Prime Minister Julia Gillard to change laws so that Twitter can be forced to reveal the identity of people deemed to have sent offensive material. But this is attracting mixed opinions.

PhD student and journalism lecturer Julie Posetti, who is currently writing a thesis on the use of Twitter, told the ABC that unmasking Twitter trolls will have only “dangerous ramifications” for free speech. Social media anonymity has proved invaluable in some cases, says Posetti, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt last year is a clear example of that. When it comes to unmasking the identities of social media bullies, she insists:

“I think that’s going too far and it has a significant risk for freedom of expression. Words can have an impact and hate speech is real, but I certainly think that when you’re jailing teenagers for things they say on Twitter, it’s time [to reflect].”

Ed West, a journalist and social commentator from The Telegraph U.K., says a person of public interest, such as a politician, who complains about nasty messages is like a boxer complaining about getting punched. However, “freedom of speech has never meant the freedom to make death threats,” he says.

International pop star Pink also joined the debate, telling a U.S. morning talk show, “…people that wouldn’t have the balls to say anything in person but they get a keyboard under their fingers and, well, there’s that saying ‘Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority’. There are so many haters in the world, so many miserable people.”

In the last week, Twitter announced it is in the process of stamping out online abuse, as the Australian Federal Government calls on the website to establish an Australian outpost. Although Twitter have updated their abuse policy to include “Technical abuse and user abuse is not tolerated on, and will result in permanent suspension”, the question must be asked. Is this enough? Will every single troll or cyber bully be caught in the act? It is clear more needs to be done.

Here’s a few tips from the Sydney Morning Herald to protect yourself against online bullies. The key point: “Don’t retort – report.”

“Take a screen grab of the offending message with the user’s name and Twitter handle and save it as evidence.”

“Report the user to the social media outlet or forum moderator. In extreme cases you can also make a complaint to the police.”

“Don’t engage with the troll, just block them. Ignoring them is their worst nightmare.”

So, what do you think? I’m interested to know – is identity anonymity perilous or unhazardous? Do you believe social media trolls should be named and shamed? Or will this ultimately hinder the concept of freedom of speech?


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