The internet and social media have greatly changed with the way we interact and communicate with others – including strangers.
This has great benefits, in terms of forging relationships with people you might not otherwise have met. But there are also downsides.
One of the chief dangers is what is known as trolling; When someone becomes abusive towards you.
‘It started on Twitter. It was someone I didn’t know, hiding behind an alter ego’
For writer Paul Burston, trolling went from concept to nightmare reality in a matter of days.
Paul is a well-known gay author and journalist in the UK. He also promotes a queer literary salon, Polari, and oversees the annual Polari prize for first-time writers.
‘It started on Twitter. It was someone I didn’t know, hiding behind an alter ego and various avatars. She’s a straight woman who took an interest in queer studies and thought this entitled her to use homophobic terms of abuse.
‘It started off quite low key – a few tweets calling me “gaylord” or “pansy” or saying “you’re so gay”, etc. It soon escalated into more aggressive, daily bombardments of things like “you’re the AIDS generation”.
‘I blocked her on Twitter but she would log out and see who I was communicating with, then tag them so their replies and her tweets appeared in my timeline.
‘At one point about 20 friends were asking what the hell was going on as she kept tagging them all. She also emailed me from various email accounts and posted messages on websites where I had articles published.
‘At her worst, she would tweet and email me dozens of times in a day, tagging and CC’ing lots of other people to ensure I saw what she’d written.
‘She then tried to submit a book she’d written for the Polari First Book Prize – purely to cause further aggravation, as her book wasn’t even eligible. Another of the judges asked for her real name and address – which she then sent.
‘The advice I’d been given was that naming the troll usually silenced them, so I named her in a blog. But this just made things worse. Things really escalated.
‘She booked tickets to my events and announced on Twitter that she was going to sort me out. I became concerned for my safety and had extra security at Polari at the Southbank.
‘I had no idea what she looked like or what she was capable of. For all I knew, she could have been sitting in the front row with a knife.
‘She wanted to cause as much disruption to my life as possible’
‘I know people say “don’t feed the trolls” but that’s far easier said than done. In my experience, most trolls aren’t very persistent. You block them and that’s it – you never hear from them again. But she was relentless.
‘As well as the endless tweets and emails to me, there were emails to my employers and phone calls to my prize sponsors, telling them to drop me. She wanted to cause as much disruption to my life as possible.
‘After eight months of this I was unable to sleep. I became quite ill and saw my doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants.
‘Eventually I reported her to the police and she was charged under the malicious communications act.
‘As far as I know, it was the first time in the UK that someone had been prosecuted for homophobic online abuse. Though there’s no specific charge for this, the police and prosecution emphasized the homophobic nature of the offence in court and the judge also referred to it in the sentencing.
‘She was given a suspended sentence and a restraining order. But the best part for me was seeing her in the flesh and seeing what a pathetic creature she is. And her photo appeared in Court News, so she no longer has the luxury of anonymity.’
‘Bullying, online or in person, can have a devastating impact’
Any of us with a social media profile – whether a public figure or not – can receive online abuse or bullying.
Last year, the UK-based NSPCC charity reported an 88% increase in children contacting Childline over a five-year period to report online bullying and trolling.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: ‘Online bullying is one of the biggest child-protection challenges of this generation.
‘Bullying, regardless of whether it occurs online or in person, can have a devastating impact on a young person, affect their self-worth, leave them feeling isolated and can be a trigger for depression.
‘In the worst-case scenarios, bullying has driven children and young people to self-harm and even suicide.’
In 2015, LGBT charity Stonewall found that 23% of LGBT pupils and 5% of LGBT adults had been the target of homophobic abuse online in the previous year.
Whatever age is happens, to become the victim or fixation of an online bully can be upsetting and traumatizing.
Below are actions to consider
Stay calm: Are they trolling you?
Don’t automatically assume someone is beginning an online campaign against you. Perhaps there has been a genuine misunderstanding in communication or you’ve caught someone on a bad day and they are taking their anger out on you.
That does not make it OK, but a polite attempt to clear up a potential misunderstanding can sometimes prevent an online exchange from escalating.
If it’s pretty clear someone wishes to try and hurt you with nasty messages, and ignores any respectful request to stop, then stop engaging with them. Do not reply to their messages, but keep copies of them so you can show someone should you need to do so.
If they are posting on messages on your social media, you can delete, but you may want to screenshot them and keep them in case you need to prove they were sent.
If you haven’t already, you can block someone from reading your social media postings, or block them contacting directly via text or social media. Check your privacy settings to ensure only the people you want to see your posts can see them.
You can report abusive postings to all social media platforms. If trolling includes threats of harm or violence, you can report them to the police.
In the UK, cyberbullying is not against the law, but harassment and threatening behavior is illegal.
Don’t share it
It may be tempting to take a screenshot of abuse and share it with your followers, but, as Paul’s account above demonstrates, it can make things worse and provoke a troll to go further.
Do confide to friends or, if you’re young, a trusted adult, about the abuse, and seek their advice on whether you need to contact the authorities.
Remember: No-one deserves online abuse, and you don’t have to put up with it. Thankfully, most trolls give up if they don’t get any response or are blocked.
• In the UK, Childline offers great advice on blocking content on specific social media sites.
• Galop can also offer advice for anyone receiving homophobic or transphobic abuse.
• The UK government launched a Stop Online Abuse website to offer support to those experiencing online abuse. Its advice may be helpful to anyone, wherever you live.
• You can also try some of these helplines for further support.