An 18-week sentence for Sean Duffy, a young man who posted astonishingly malevolent messages on a Facebook memorial page, one set up to mourn Natasha MacBryde, a teenager who had committed suicide, has been attacked by some people as too lenient. Another bereaved parent, who feels he may also be Duffy’s victim, thought 18 months would be more like it. Duffy, aged 25, was the second such offender to be prosecuted under the Malicious Communications Act; last year, Colm Cross was jailed for posting obscenities on Facebook tribute sites, including that of Jade Goody.
That Duffy suffers from Asperger’s, according to his defence lawyers, was not allowed to mitigate his serial targeting of bereaved families, a hobby which seems to have emerged in the trollosphere in response to MySpace and Facebook tribute pages to dead teenagers, producing not only deliberately offensive satire of the often banal contributions on such pages, but episodes of actual harassment. The parents of Mitchell Henderson, a teenager from Rochester, Minnesota, who shot himself in 2006, were subjected to a year and a half of nuisance calls as well as defacements of his MySpace memorial page.
Henderson’s father described this experience for the New York Times. “They’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?'”
Priding themselves at least as much on their expertise as on their cruelty, committed trolls seem no more likely to be deterred by Duffy’s sentence than they are by media condemnation quoting persecuted families, such as the parents of Madeleine McCann.
Would that not, for a sadist, be just the ticket? Moreover, in a riveting interview published in Index on Censorship, an anonymous troll, calling himself Paulie Socash, also connects this form of mischief with a high-minded commitment to free speech, along with an equally grand, obviously insurmountable distaste for phoney sentiment, sanctimony, idées reçues. “We despise the smugness and arrogance of the average internet user or entrepreneur,” he informed Whitney Phillips, “but most of us also realise the real irony that everything we do drops more pennies in the pockets of those who control the actual virtual spaces. Honestly, Mark Zuckerberg has made millions because of trolls.”
As for the focus on online memorials, Socash explains, trolls are ridiculing the focus on cute kids and offering, with their savagery, a troll-style rebuke to users who are “too ignorant” to keep strangers off their pages. Even if you wish it came from more sympathetic quarter, he surely has a point. Why would you not take care, on such a page, to confine condolences to people who were friends? Unless, as Facebook intends, such pages already look feeble, to many of its clients, if they do not reflect its debased, numerical view of friendship, featuring contributions from chance acquaintances, friends of friends, complete strangers who saw it in the news or noticed on a site such as the old mydeathspace.com (which used to direct interested trolls to memorial pages).
What exposes parents – and, more frighteningly, cyber-bullied children – to the attentions of a freak is surely not so much lack of geekish knowhow as participation in a culture that pretends an ever-growing crowd of names and data amounts to a set of human relationships. Either way, as Paulie Socash says, Facebook makes money out of it.
Some have compared Duffy’s crime to the defacement of a real memorial; actually, he was scribbling on the kind of edifice that is all too often, thanks to Facebook’s raison d’etre, inherently degraded. A contribution such as: “I didn’t know you but I have herd your story” now counts, for some reason, as worth having, along with the recommendation of a thumbs-up sign beneath the stranger’s condoling, confirming that X or Y “likes this”.
Mercifully, the number of memorial pages is small. Not to defend the unspeakable Duffy, but you could argue that his contributions to what Jaron Lanier has called, in his terrific You are Not a Gadget, “a culture of sadism online”, were no more offensive, in their way, than anonymous contributions that reach a much wider audience, from the “RIP Raoul Moat you legend” Facebook page through to the more fluent invective and character-assassination that is now standard on newspaper websites and other intelligent online places, even, incredibly, on Mumsnet. As Lanier says: “It would be nice to believe that there is only a minute troll population living among us.”
In practice, you find shameless homophobic abuse on the Daily Telegraph‘s website, lolz about dead public school boys from a professional writer on Twitter, jests from a US academic about a raped reporter, another distinguished scholar, Orlando Figes of the University of London, trying to destroy a rival historian on Amazon, and now Johann Hari, secretly prosecuting his curious personal vendettas on Wikipedia.
Anonymous malice is, you might think, most readily forgiven when it is most unforgivable: when the authors are educated, prepared to threaten libel actions and, even, already command prominent platforms for self-expression. Then again, as Lanier has argued, it is ready, online anonymity that tempts all these wrongdoers. From Duffy to Hari, websites just encourage them. The “troll-evoking design” he characterises as: “Effortless, consequence-free, transient anonymity in the service of a goal, such as promoting a point of view, that stands entirely apart from one’s identity or personality. Call it drive-by anonymity.”
Duffy’s 18 weeks for extreme drive-by nastiness is certainly harsh when compared with more privileged trolls, for whom re-education or a period of disgrace are considered ample. But it is in comparison with episodes of sustained bullying, of the living, that his punishment looks most disproportionate. That Natasha MacBryde’s suicide was preceded, according to evidence given at her inquest, by “teasing” from a clique at her private school, then, still in her lifetime, by anonymous abuse on the Formspring website, caused less consternation than the later, random tormenting of her parents, which the coroner called “vile and disgusting”.
A similarly restrained reaction, in comparison to the revelations of memorial trolling, greeted last week’s report from the EHRC, “Hidden in Plain Sight“, exposing a level of harassment, attacks and bullying of disabled people that is so commonplace, yet so rarely taken seriously, that many victims hardly bother to complain, staying housebound instead.
The lead inquirer, Mike Smith, who was himself harassed in the 90s, with “cripple” and swastikas painted on his front door, expressed amazement that this kind of barbarity is still widespread.
“It’s not just some extreme things happening to a handful of people; it’s an awful lot of unpleasant things happening to a great many people, almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands each year.”
If – and it is hard to reconcile with free speech – the random malice of a Duffy is better punished by imprisonment than, say, by merciless public exposure, it would indeed be a sick and weird society that put such prosecutions before action to deal with the tormenting of people who can’t simply log off.