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Petard. Check. Hoist?

Petard. Check. Hoist?

No doubt many people are shaking their heads after the revelation rugby league player and "online bullying crusader" Robbie Farah is guilty of the behaviour he's so outraged by, however, it shouldn't detract from the importance of the debate this episode has sparked ...

Farah, who reached out to Prime Minister Julia Gillard to toughen laws against online trolls after a Twitter user made a distasteful comment about his dead mother, apparently had another offering for the PM on September 28 last year.

He suggested he'd like to buy her "a noose" for her 50th birthday and has since apologised to the leader of our country for being a dickhead.

While some would say Farah has been revealed as a lumbering hypocrite, I'd suggest most of us are hypocrites, some of us just try harder not to be, while others are better at hiding it.

A few weeks back, many tweeters raised similar questions of double-standards about reality TV star Charlotte Dawson, when she too unfurled her crusader cape to track down an anonymous troll who'd exhorted Dawson to "go hang herself" (not with Farah's noose, however).

Tanya Heti, a Monash University staffer, was subsequently suspended from her job after Dawson identified her and contacted Heti's employer about the "offensive" tweet.

As outlined on the Reality Ravings TV blog late last month, Dawson is anything but a cleanskin when it comes to the rough and tumble of online banter, having once tweeted her desire to see fashion blogger Brian Boy killed (a record of which can also be located online using Topsy.)

The reason the entire mainstream media ignored the fact Dawson had cried foul over online malfeasance she herself was guilty of, was because she'd had been admitted to hospital after a ferocious and vile response to her cyber vigilantism from other Twitter users.

The thinking in the media, as explained to me by one national editor, as well as an ABC radio producer was that to do anything but cast Dawson as the victim might "push her over the edge".

This was an ironic sensitivity considering that, in the above mentioned Twitter exchange, Dawson describes fashion blogger Patty Huntington as "custard flinging batshit crazy" and a "breathless fashion crazy".

Dawson's mental "fragility" was also questioned after she took time out from her convalescence to do an interview about her Twitter travails with 60 Minutes.

Of course, Farah and, no doubt, Dawson, would say their hurtful - dare I suggest, bullying - remarks were made in jest; a sentiment I thoroughly agree with, as I'm sure would Tanya Heti.

If anything, the hypocrisy of both Farah and Dawson - that they can give it, but not take it - illustrates powerfully how decisions of what is tasteful and/or "funny" online can be misused. More so, how dangerous it is to ask politicians and police to adjudicate these issues on the fly.

Yes, authorities already do this in matters of racial and religious vilification but we, the public, by and large, have now been schooled that this stuff is off limits and has serious consequences.

As distasteful as is mocking someone's dead mother, it's still not illegal. Neither is it to (jokingly) suggest someone go hang themself, that someone (jokingly) kill a fashion blogger or (jokingly) offer to buy our Prime Minister a hangman's noose.

If it were illegal to say this stuff, surely Charlotte Dawson, Robbie Farah and Tanya Heti would have by now had their "keyboards replaced with handcuffs", as was boldly proposed Monday by the visionary NSW Police Minister Michael Gallacher.

Social media has got ahead of itself and you can be certain companies such as Facebook and Twitter are already working up business plans that will see them costing out armies of moderators to swoop down on trolls with the mighty ban hammer.

The upside to all of this celebrity self-righteousness is it has actually ushered in what could develop into a rational and informed discussion about online bullying and freedom of speech.

As I wrote on Tuesday, 100, even 50 years ago, denigrating someone's race, religion, sexual orientation and gender was fair game but, as a society, we've matured to a point where this sort of "bullying" is now out of bounds and in many cases criminal.

It's not a big leap to expect that very soon our laws will catch up with people who also make vile, anti-social comments online such as the ones directed at and, articulated by, Robbie Farah, Charlotte Dawson and Tanya Heti.

However, someone will first have to work out if they're joking.

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You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

68 comments so far

  • Hiding under the warm blanket of anonymity most of us have done or said things we wouldn't ordinarily do. I know when I first started reading this blog I let the frustrations of other areas in my life that I had limited control over spill over into the way I behaved online, causing me to say things I felt ashamed about and for which I later apologised .

    Perhaps in some ways engaging being online mirrors childhood. Kids can be cruel as they begin to discover their own voice and stumble through those early years of socialisation. Maturity brings balance to most and behaviour is modified. Being online anonymously requires learning new etiquette and social norms which are crude initially but soften over time?

    Commenter
    Smartmonkey
    Date and time
    September 12, 2012, 8:44PM
    • Agree. We all make mistakes.

      It is not "hypocritical" to do something and later decide one should not have done it and to apologise. It is a sign of maturity.

      Secondly, because something is not illegal (yet) does not make it moral.

      Thirdly, freedom of speech exists so we can have open social and political debates without fear of persecution not so we can abuse and harass people.

      Your rights only extend so far as they do not impose on the rights of others.

      Commenter
      Alice
      Location
      Frankfurt
      Date and time
      September 13, 2012, 9:49PM
  • Gday Sam,
    long time no post mate.
    Since I moved over here years ago, I don't get much time to , but I read your blogs weekly all the same generally.
    I think that Robbie Farrah should take a concrete pill personally.
    Rule No 1 on blogs/twitter/Facebook etc .DON'T FEED THE F*KN TROLLS !
    Really simple.
    Sure it is fine to do some swordplay, but losing your head /sleep over what they say just isn't worth it.
    RF posted s*t to JG , and calls kettle black.
    Total fail there.
    Anyway, hope all is well with your family mate.
    Love your work after all these years from Day 1.
    Still doing blogmeets?Where is MarcusBondi when you need a party starter LOL.

    Commenter
    D.E.X.
    Location
    ChristChurch
    Date and time
    September 12, 2012, 9:44PM
    • Erudite article, Sam, and I have nothing more to add.

      Except to remember the furore on this blog several years ago when you did that survey to find out what people wanted, and a large number of people added their own note that the insane and abusive comments by a number of people stopped them from joining in the discussion themselves. Subsequently moderation was started on the blog and some commenters were banned, with the result that although the number of comments went down the number of commenters went up, and I personally think the discussion has improved. Sometimes speech is more free when limits are placed on it.

      Of course, this is a single blog rather than an entire culture/country. If people frequented places that were populated by polite people the trolls would find they were only trolling other trolls, a vicious but potentially hilarious cycle.

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      September 13, 2012, 12:33AM
      • The difference between a blog post, and Twitter - is that the blog clearly defines the subject for discussion & twitter doesn't have that constraint.

        Commenter
        HighlyDubious
        Date and time
        September 13, 2012, 10:01AM
      • I don't think that makes too much difference - commenters on blogs are not well-known for staying on topic. The main difference is that these comments are moderated, those on Twitter aren't.

        You have to be following someone or search a hashtag on Twitter to see comments, right? Or can you post to other people's streams? I haven't used it in years.

        Commenter
        JEQP
        Date and time
        September 13, 2012, 3:43PM
      • I disagree - as I said moderation can take place easily on blog because the topic of discussion is defined...

        Moderating twitter is like trying to moderate a phone or email exchange.

        Commenter
        HighlyDubious
        Date and time
        September 13, 2012, 4:36PM
      • Oh, I see the confusion: I'm not suggesting that Twitter _should_ be moderated, I was pointing out that the elimination of the most egregious trolls from here was possible because Fairfax does moderate its comments - it always did, it's just that after the survey they tightened the moderation from simply deleting anything that was demonstrably illegal.

        Twitter can't do that. It's up to the users to ignore people they find obnoxious.

        Commenter
        JEQP
        Date and time
        September 14, 2012, 1:07PM
    • There is a fundamental difference between Farah, Dawson, etc, and the trolls they are speaking of, and that is that they have identified themselves and do not hide behind some fake online persona.

      I agree that government intervention of what we can and cannot say is a bad thing, but the "right" to say what you want is only valid for real people, not fake identities.

      If what you've got to say is worth saying, then have the guts to be yourself when you say it.

      Commenter
      jagwoodbridge
      Location
      New York
      Date and time
      September 13, 2012, 12:54AM
      • Sticks and stones...

        Doesn't matter what someone says. Even less if they're completely anonymous and have no power or influence over your life.

        If you're going to put yourself out there and beg for attention (which is what Dawson and Farah have done - they want people to follow them for the attention and the ability to raise their profile) then you have to accept that some people will say nasty things about you. If you're not smart enough and tough enough to let it roll off your back then don't get out there. No-one forces you to use Twitter or Facebook. There are plenty of jobs out there that don't rely on the celebrity machine.

        Commenter
        Bender
        Date and time
        September 13, 2012, 1:15PM

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