Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Internet trolls are as vile as the fairytale versions

Frances Burscough

Until very recently, the definition of a ‘troll’ was a type of comical bogeyman from Norse mythology.

According to both ancient legend and traditional fairystories, your typical Scandinavian troll lived under “a rickety-rackety bridge”, had a peculiar penchant for dining on billy goats and would announce his presence by singing “I'm a troll, foldy-roll” (whatever that means) although this was usually unnecessary because trolls smelt so bad they could be detected from many miles away.

So, basically, an all-round unpleasant creature — anti-social in the extreme, grotesque, smelly, hairy and vicious.

The modern-day version, the so-called ‘internet troll’ is far more unpleasant.

If you're not an internet user or particularly computer-literate, allow me to explain what this is. An internet troll is someone who posts inflammatory, insulting or downright malicious messages in an online community, such as a discussion forum, website or chat room, with the primary intent of provoking other users and causing maximum offence.

There have been a number of high-profile instances in the news where such bullying has been reported to the authorities and arrests have even been made as a result. The most recent case was earlier this week when an English teenager was served a formal harrassment warning by police after he posted offensive comments on Twitter about the Olympic diver Tom Daley.

In fact, the instances of reported abuse have become so common and frequent that police forces are now complaining that investigating troll activity is taking up too much of their time. Apparently there were 14,000 incidents reported last year and this is increasing every month as more and more high profile cases reach the news.

Having been on the recieving end of internet trolls myself on a few occasions, I personally am glad to see that this is finally being taken seriously.

As a freelance columnist and feature writer, my articles appear online almost every week, usually on newspaper websites as part of their Opinion content. Readers are actively encouraged to make comments and to express their own views on the subjects raised and this can make for very interesting, entertaining and lively debates which often last for days and attract people from all walks of life and from as far away as Australia and the USA.

Of course, this freedom of debate doesn't always work in a columnist's favour. Along with those who agree emphatically, sympathise with and relate to your views, there are as many who disagree, call into question and nit-pick with a fine-toothed comb.

I've been called all sorts of things over the years. Readers have described my writing as “dirge” (I'm not exactly sure what that means but I'm guessing it's not a compliment) “drivel” and “sanctimonious rubbish”.

I've had to read silly, petty insults about my appearance (in online head-shots), I've had my private life discussed and ridiculed by complete strangers, my skills and calibre as a parent criticised and even my very soul called into question by Christians who claim I'm on my way to Hell.

Of course it's unpleasant to read and it can be very hurtful, especially if I've been writing about something very personal, as I often do in my diary-type columns. But like all people who express an opinion, the only way to grow and learn is to have your reasons challenged, even if it is sometimes a painful process.

But occasionally there are some comments that slip through the net which are beyond reason and simply malicious. One such case happened this week. If you remember, in last week's Straight Talk column, I wrote a piece about the Seventies disco band Chic ahead of their Belfast gig this week. As a lifelong fan I wrote how delighted I was to hear this and then spent the remainder of the article recalling my own memories of the band from those exciting early days of disco when I was a teenager.

It was all very harmless, happy, positive stuff aimed to provoke similar memories in readers who grew up in the same era. However, within minutes of it being published online, an internet troll had posted a tirade of abuse. I was accused of accepting bribes by the promoters to advertise the gig, of actually knowing nothing about the band and of making up a far-fetched story from thin air in order to get a handful of VIP tickets for me and all my friends.

Fortunately, our Belfast Telegraph website is as quick and on-the-ball as the trolls who attempt to sabotage it. Within seconds of this offensive and malicious diatribe appearing, it had vanished once again, never to return.

I'm just glad that this sad minority of people who spend their time trying to ruin reputations and spread hatred are finally getting their comeuppance.

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