According to Urban Dictionary, trolling is "the art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly p***ing people off, usually via the internet", and not the act of harassing three goats looking for lunch as I previously thought it was. Trolling recently got a lot of media coverage after a 21 year-old Swansea University student, Liam Stacey, was jailed for 56 days for tweeting various racist and offensive comments following the footballer Fabrice Muamba's cardiac arrest.
Stacey called a number of Twitter users "w*gs", "n***** c***s" and made various other crude utterances before taking to the site 15 minutes later and telling everyone that his account had been hacked, an excuse so crap that Stacey deserved his two month jail term just for that.
However we sadly live in a country where the excuse that your Twitter/Facebook/MySpace account has been hacked following a stupid post is not presently a criminal offence and so the judge in the case cleverly jailed Stacey for inciting racial hatred instead. Following this there was criticism as to whether he should've been jailed at all, whether the sentence was excessive and which laws Stacey actually broke. The fact of the matter is that we live in an internet age but the laws of the land haven't kept up with the times, so what should be done to those who troll the net?
After reading a number of op-eds and forum posts on this subject it seems like a majority of people believe that Stacey is entitled to freedom of speech and even the Council for Europe's commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, publicly stated that he didn't think Stacey should've been jailed. But the fact of the matter is that in this country freedom of speech is limited, and this is a fantastic thing.
If Stacey had taken a megaphone to his local town centre and shouted out the comments he tweeted to those passing by he would have been prosecuted. Or if he made equally vile remarks about gays or Jews or gay Jews then he would've also been prosecuted. So why exactly is it different making remarks in public and making them on Twitter, a site with 140 million+ users?
Everyone's favourite radical hate preacher, Abu Hamza, was jailed in 2006 on 11 charges, including three to do with stirring racial hatred and a further charge of possessing recordings relating to stirring up racial hatred. It'd be nigh on impossible finding op-ed's or forum posts saying Abu Hamza has a right to free speech, so if the state can keep him schtum why can't we do the same for Stacey or other similarly loathsome trolls?
It's time for me to let you in on a little secret, several months ago following some incredibly inane and long-forgotten actions committed by Jack Tweed, Jade Goody's widower, I tweeted a link to the story and commented how I thought he should get a proper job. Despite not including his username in the tweet (and thus ensuring it didn't show up in his mentions) Jack still managed to see my post and replied several minutes later with some pretty crap quip.
Following similar incidents with Emeli Sandé and the girl-group StooShe (although in these cases the tweets were actually quite nice, but again I didn't use their usernames) I stopped using names altogether and instead switched to cryptic clues. Incidentally if @rickygervais ever searches for "Bloated Egotistical Has-Been" then he'll quickly find out that I think his new Channel 4 series is somehow even more excruciating than The Invention of Lying.
Now whereas I don't even feel comfortable tweeting positive things to the nice girl with the quiff who sings Heaven some tweeters are not nearly as considerate and lovely as me and many go out of their way to deliberately post endless deriding and sometimes downright callous tweets at various celebrities. And whereas there are those such as Piers Morgan who positively revel in the hate people tweet him, most of those in the public eye don't. I have one friend who was in the 10th series of Big Brother and was in the house for two days and even she still gets tweeted various unimaginative crap, so just imagine what rubbish A-listers must get tweeted and messaged.
Whilst some will say that these people choose to put themselves in the public eye and choose to join Twitter and Facebook, why should featuring on a Jay-Z B-side or being an actor on Waterloo Road or starring in the latest Iceland advert mean you become a magnet for hate? And whereas I'm sure that sitting on a beach in Barbados sipping champers with Sinitta probably makes it easier for Simon Cowell to digest the news that @xxchantelleguccixx thinks he's a w*****, money or fame are no justification for posting hate.
Although it's ridiculous to even suggest prosecuting every Tom, Dick and Harry who posts obnoxious comments online we do need to take a more serious attitude towards trolling. Earlier this month a model who appeared on the German version of Come Dine With Me killed herself after anonymous people on the internet wrote that she was an attention-seeker and made various personal comments. Similarly a quick Google search reveals scores of people, especially vulnerable children, who have committed suicide after reading comments sent to them on the internet by bullies. It's time for our lawmakers need to wake up and smell the coffee so we can quickly put a stop to tragedies like this.
Follow Junaid Alvi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thisisjunaid