Treating The Trolls: Are There Other Ways To Address The Tide Of Online Abuse?

Why Jail Time Isn't The Way To 'Treat' A Troll... By A Troll

Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis

On the face of it, Issy Sorley is not your average troll. She didn't sit alone in her parents' basement, and she wasn't a social outcast. In fact, she led an active social life, with many friends and held a steady job.

In 2013 she was, in her own words "highly drunk" when she tweeted some of the foulest abuse to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who was being bombarded by legions of social media users with rape and death threats. Sorley, who appeared to show little remorse at the time and tweeted a picture of herself visiting Buckingham Palace on the day of her trial for sending obscene messages, was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison. She had told Criado-Perez to "f*** off and die you worthless piece of crap", "go kill yourself" and "rape is the last of your worries".

Just a handful of people have been prosecuted for trolling, and most of those have been linked to abuse of celebrities or public figures. Yet for trolling victims like Nicola Brookes, whose face has been photoshopped onto pornographic images and pictures of her home posted online by anonymous trolls, there is seemingly no redress in the law.

Isabella Sorley, 23, who was jailed for 12 weeks

"I have had to make my Twitter private in order for the police to investigate a Google blog against me where there are pictures of my home, photoshopped pictures of me," said Brookes, whose abuse began when she expressed support on Facebook for an X Factor contestant. "I now receive hate mail through the post. They call it crime prevention, to close my Twitter and Facebook.

"But where’s my free speech? These people can say what the hell they like to me, get to me whenever they like, I have a right to answer back how I see fit."

With politicians are unwilling or unable to tackle the extent of abuse that happens online with new legislation, or to give police more resources to use existing laws to pursue more of the most vicious online stalkers, some are beginning to suggest a new approach.

Dr Richard Graham, Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital, with a special interest in internet addictions, said he believes that a change in education and health responses to disturbing online behaviour could have a far greater effect than further criminalisation.

"The police really don't have the capacity to cope, because things move so fast and things scale so enormously, I think there has to be some alternative approach," he said. "Many people are thinking about this in the field, clarity is needed about what are the implications of laws that already exist, and what the thresholds are."

Sorley arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court in relation to tweets to campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez

Nottingham Trent University's Professor Mark Griffiths, who has examined addictive behaviours online, said he believes that custodial sentences are not effective and should only be used for the "most heinous crimes".

"A community sentence and help with problems that might be spurring on the behaviour would be far more successful, though that's not likely to appeal to your average Tory voter," he said.

"To tackle the problem, it's not about giving police more power, they just don't have the resources and their advice is to tell you to turn the computer off.

"It's about teaching digital citizenship in schools, and for those who are displaying disturbing behaviour, rehabilitation might be the better answer."

Sorley, who has since acknowledged a serious drink problem, was part of what led her to act so viciously online, said she never received any mental health help while she was in Holloway prison.

"I was referred to the mental health team by a officer, however once I saw her I was told there was nothing she could do as I was based in Newcastle not London," she told HuffPost UK. "The prison thought I had Asperger's. But again due to where I lived and what prison I was in no help of further investigation was done, I was told to seek [advice from] my doctor when I was released but I didn't."

Sorley said she had no self-motivation after her release to change her life. "Within a week I was charged with five assaults. This was alcohol-related.

"For those I was made subject to more community orders and curfews. I won't slate my probation officer, but I received little help. The curfew did stop me re-offending [for a time], however due to still having many issues with my mental health, which I tried to regulate through drink once the curfew was up, I reoffended and was sent back to prison.

"It was there that I finally got help with my drink problem."

Troll targets: Labour MP Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez, co-founder of the Women's Room

Sorley said that though she doesn't want to excuse her behaviour, she does feel "education is needed rather than punishment".

"There is still this void of a victim," she said. "Online perpetrators see it as a victimless crime, but this is not the case. Because you can't see someone there and can't engage their reaction, abuse is sent out without a thought. It's a like assaulting someone in a uniform. You feel like you've done nothing wrong.

"Instead of seeing the human being you see the computer screen. Education would bring awareness and hopefully help to bring down the amount of cyber abuse, not punishment. Punishment will work short term but will not work long term."

Much of what has angered many victims of trolling is the seeming inconstancy in the police and the media's approach, arrests of Twitter users for posting a picture of a burning poppy, but no recourse for trolling victims like Brookes who have been subject to threats of physical and sexual violence and harmful false rumours.

"The political reaction can then be reflexive and doesn't really allow for complexities to be digested. We have got to understand how language is used now. When young people talk about 'killing' online, what is the actual meaning of that?," Graham said.

With an online addiction like pornography, child abuse images or gambling, family members are far more likely to know what services they can access to get help for a loved one, Graham suggested. But if relatives have concerns about aggressive online behaviour of a loved one, who may not technically be breaking the law, there is little signposting for where they might go next.

With the Liberal Democrats announcing on Wednesday that they will work to end any prison sentence of less then a year, in favour of community sentences, Graham said he believes the time might be right for the law to start treating bad behaviour online as "an expression of difficulty at having a social life, which we all might have witnessed as adolescents.

"There is a chance that someone will get stuck in that cycle. And if you address it with a punitive response, it does not enable you to find ways forward, there's no behaviour change and communities, as with delinquency or vandalism, can pay a price."

"The police have their role, but criminalising people doesn't tend to modify a great deal. It is there for extreme cases but doesn't work actually for most of society's ills, including drug use."

Griffiths said that he believed there was a space for new, more compassionate legislation around abusive online behaviour. "I'd like to see more of a system like points on a driving licence, when you're caught speeding you have the option to go to driver training. We've all lost our tempers from time to time, and the internet makes it easier."

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