En-lightened ... Robbie Farah.

Enlightened ... Robbie Farah. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

If the teenage thug who was the protagonist of the controversial 1971 film A Clockwork Orange operated in today's world, he would probably have an alter ego as an internet ''troll''.

In the film, gang leader Alex masks his identity beneath outlandish make-up and a pseudo-uniform so he and his mates can more readily inflict random acts of violence for pleasure.

Many of today's internet thugs seem to derive the same perverse enjoyment from ''flaming'' their online targets - the virtual equivalent of assaulting strangers with baseball bats.

Defending an earlier tweet ... Robbie Farah.

Defending an earlier tweet ... Robbie Farah.

''Trolling is extremely fun,'' explained one, identified to the Herald only as Apples212.

''I've been trolling my whole life, ever since I can remember. It's extremely relaxing, as all you really have to do is put the 'bait' out there, sit back and wait for someone to bite. I do it because it's fun, and sometimes it's necessary.

''Trolling always makes me feel calm and relaxed, it is one of the best feelings I've ever done [sic].''

Charlotte Dawson.

Charlotte Dawson.

The use of the word ''troll'' for those stirring up trouble in cyberspace goes back nearly 20 years, and was originally derived from the fishing term for trailing bait from a line.

In recent weeks it has been all over the mainstream media, courtesy of much-publicised Twitter attacks on the minor celebrity Charlotte Dawson, and the rugby league footballer and Wests Tigers captain, Robbie Farah.

The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, rushed to Farah's defence, The Daily Telegraph in Sydney sallied forth with a front-page declaration of war against trolls, and the federal Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, and the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, declared a temporary cessation of hostilities with News Limited, the Telegraph's parent company, to congratulate the paper on its ''worthwhile initiative''.

Roxon promised to consult with state colleagues to see ''what other action, if any, can be taken to improve the law in this area''.

But lawyers, social media experts, ethicists and even the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, agree that trying to formulate, and then apply, new black-and-white law in this area is almost certainly doomed to fail.

''If you regulate for specific technologies, different ones will proliferate and your technologically specific policy or legislation will be useless,'' says associate professor David Rolph, a media law specialist at the University of Sydney.

Rolph and others point out that laws against racial vilification, defamation, harassment or menacing behaviour already exist and could be invoked by those willing to take civil action or press for prosecution. But in practice those laws are not well suited to social media and their application in cyberspace has been little-tested in the courts.

One recent exception is a case in Victoria earlier this year, where Michael Trkulja successfully sued Yahoo!7 for defamation and won himself nearly $250,000, after arguing that the search engine was linking his name unfairly with the Melbourne underworld.

In this country Twitter is the tool of the chattering classes - fewer than 150,000 Australians are thought to be active users. As a text-based medium, it holds greater appeal for older users compared with image-friendly Facebook with its greater youth orientation.

Part of Twitter's raw appeal is its relatively untamed, direct and spontaneous nature, says the Sydney University expert in digital cultures, Dr Chris Chesher. ''Where there is freedom, there is risk.''

On the positive side, he argues, ''if there are 1000 readers of a message, there are 1000 potential regulators of that message. Technical standards have to be supplemented with cultural standards and I don't think those can be imposed. Internet culture has had a long history of being its own best regulator.''

The head of the St James Ethics Centre, Simon Longstaff, agrees that trying to draw up specific laws to target internet trolls is probably unworkable and could come at too high a price to free speech.

But he says providers of platforms such as Twitter should be more responsive to complaints.

''I do think that the people who create the platform, when they do it as a private sector endeavour to secure profit, have an obligation to look at how its being used and … make sure they are not becoming complicit in misuse of the thing they have created,'' he says.

''I don't think that if you are Twitter you can simply wash your hands.''

Twitter has drawn particular criticism from politicians because, unlike Google and Facebook, it does not have a physical presence in Australia, and because it creates no obstacles to anonymity. It's also perceived as more reluctant to respond to complaints, with a cultural bias towards not interrupting the free flow of Twitter ''conversations''.

While Twitter provides tools to help customers block their online harassers (see box), it is easy for persistent trollers intent on making someone's life a misery to set up new accounts and keep the online assault going.

Conroy this week went on Ray Hadley's radio show on 2GB to rail against Twitter for failing to act as a ''good corporate citizen'' and accusing it of treating the laws of sovereign nations with ''contempt''.

But one seasoned industry insider saw those comments as an acknowledgement that the government has little but moral suasion to bring to bear.

''I think Conroy is saying the providers have to step up because he knows the government can't regulate,'' the source said.

''These big American platforms are very reluctant to work with individual [foreign] jurisdictions for obvious reasons, and then you have the clash of cultures between the free internet people on the one hand, and on the other, people like Conroy saying, 'look, you are working in a country with certain cultural norms'.

''No one in the world has got on top of this. There is no magic answer out there for how you manage in the new media space.''

Richard Bean, the deputy chairman of ACMA, admits the authority has ''few formal powers in relation to the online world'' and those that exist relate primarily to illegal content, such as images of child abuse.

But he, too, says more formal powers are ''not necessarily the answer''.

''Where we would like to place the emphasis is on citizens arming themselves.''

What the authority can provide, he says, is ''advice and educational resources which are powerful and useful in this area … We would look to be given the responsibilities and funding necessary to be the source of advice and information that people seek in trying to work out how to live their lives online.''

Bean is also concerned that Twitter doesn't have a presence in Australia and that it's ''relatively difficult to speak to someone at Twitter to ask them for help''.

A Twitter spokeswoman, Rachel Bremer, tells the Herald from London the company has no staff in Australia because ''we are actually still a pretty small company [about 1000 employees worldwide] … still in the early days of expanding internationally''. The lack of an office here didn't mean that ''the market isn't important''.

The Melbourne philosopher and author Damon Young has felt the heat of trolling assaults and says sometimes the only defence is withdrawal.

''Technology gives them the means to back-slap each other, these little hives of buzzing trolls supporting each other's delusions about who the enemy is,'' he says. ''But you can't outlaw malice.

''All the internet is going to do is amplify what's already there in human nature, the envy and the malice but also the generosity and the pity and the sweetness that people have.

''For everyone who's been trolled there are hundreds supporting them, who have their back.''

Online activism helps the lilliputians teeming in cyberspace to keep governments and corporations in check. It helped power the ''occupy'' movement and the now-tarnished Arab spring. It helps to connect like-minded interest groups, sustains arguments, debates and campaigns and lets people share stuff they find just plain weird or interesting.

But lurking on the sidelines will always be those looking to throw a match into this combustible mix. Or, as draxor-666 puts it gleefully, ''some people just wanna see the world burn''.

 

Protect yourself against trolls 

  • Despite some people's fondness for replying to trolls or retweeting their messages, experts agree the best primary defence is to ignore them. Giving trolls  attention only gives them more power. 
  • The trolls' power can be further diminished by blocking them - if they come back with a new name, which they often do, block them again. 
  • On all social networks, including Twitter, there is a way to report the abuse, which is what users should do next. There are pages on social networks where abuse can be reported, but if abuse continues users should contact the police, says the Australian Communications and Media Authority. 
  • Throughout this process, victims should talk to family and friends about the abuse. The ACMA recommends visiting the Cybersmart Online Helpline, or calling the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. Or contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.
  • If friends are being trolled online, help protect them by telling them to ignore, block and report the trolls. 
  • Get off social media. If things get really bad, you can always get out by closing down your account. Both Facebook and Twitter allow you to temporarily deactivate your account.
  • If you  wish to stay online, heighten your privacy settings. On Facebook, and even on Twitter, you can make your accounts private so that only your friends can follow and contact you. This can be altered under your account settings, under privacy.

For more information:
dbcde.gov.au/easyguide
cybersmart.gov.au/
google.com.au/goodtoknow