Sisters in crime hosted a Law Week event in partnership with Victoria University last week on the subjects of Stalking, Trolling and Cyber-Bullying. The Age journalist Wendy Tuohy, interviewed authors Ginger Gorman (Troll Hunting: Inside the world of online hate and its fallout), Emma A Jane (Misogyny Online: A short (and brutish) history) and Rachel Cassidy (Stalked – The Human Target) about predator trolls who use technology to bully, troll or stalk their victims to the extreme.
The author talks were reminiscent of Eileen Ormsby, author of The Darkest Web: Drugs, Death and Destroyed Lives, whom I listened to at Adelaide Writers Week. Ormsby talked about how the internet (her focus was the dark web) has created a safe place for bad people to meet, talk and normalise one another’s antisocial behaviour.
The Law Week speakers described the perpetrators of predator trolling as primarily narcissistic, entitled, anglo, straight young men. They often work in well organised, structured syndicates and find someone to target who they see as the ‘other’. They search for a targets weakness and then threaten harm or incite them to hurt themselves. They then set out to demonise, dehumanise and harm by choosing some characteristic (religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) to focus their harassment on.
Gorman drew the analogy that cyberhate is the modern day version of workplace harassment and domestic violence. It was an interesting observation on the internet as a social device. As a communication tool the internet can amplify both the good and bad of what has historically only happened in the school yard or the workplace. However, unlike the schoolyard or workplace, there is little, if any attempt to moderate or prevent harmful behaviour online and without moderation or regulation the internet can become like the island in Lord of the Flies.
Ginger Gorman was not entirely without empathy for some of the men she met online, despite having been the victim of trolling herself. She spent some time exploring the common characteristics of those who become predator trolls and found quite a lot of unhappy upbringings in disfunctional families, where parenting was outsourced to the internet and children were left vulnerable to grooming by other angry disenfranchised people online. An experience that perpetuated hate. She also found many trolls to be educated intelligent, but hateful men (mostly), some of whom were married with children and you probably wouldn’t connect with this behaviour if you met them in passing in real life.
When disenfranchised individuals get together in unregulated forums that enable anonymity, bad behaviour can snowball and become amplified. It’s a sad reflection on what’s broken in society if support structures aren’t available for either the disenfranchised youth who are destined to become predator trolls given the right set of circumstances, or the victims they harass.
Gorman has been heavily criticised by some for giving attention to the people she met online, but having been a victim of trolling herself I suspect she did not undertake the exercise lightly. It’s a complex area that will not change without shining a light on it.
It will be interesting to see if cybercrime starts to creep into more crime fiction narratives in the coming years as there’s certainly plenty of content for it. The three authors at Law Week have produced non-fiction works that will prove to be excellent research material for fiction writers with an interest in this area, and present some fascinating insights and plenty of food for thought. The take away message for me was a comment by one of the speakers at the end…
“Take your radical empathy online.”