06/08/2013 11:10 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 06:12 BST

Troll Over - Four Ways to Stop Online Abuse


With the tragic death of cyberbullying victim Hannah Smith, bomb threats to public figures, and sexist abuse online, how can we put an end to online abuse?

In an effort to begin to understand the extent of the issue, I conducted a social abuse survey this week on my Facebook page.

The full results can be seen on the survey infograph. The results were striking - more than one in four of us have been abused, threatened or bullied online in the last year.

One of the most promising statistics from the survey was that 77% would be willing to take non-violent action to help stop abuse on social media. So here's my take on four ways we can all stop online abuse.

Be real

This is not an invasion of trolls. These are not supernatural beings from Norse mythology sent to make our online experience a misery. They are, on the most part, men who deliberately target people, often with violent language, in order to upset them. Part of the psychology of a so-called 'troll' is the feeling of being protected by a screen, distance from their victim, anonymity. Using dehumanising language like 'troll' only serves to further distance the abuser from the very real harm they are causing.

Let's call them what they are - abusers.

Twitter UK boss Tony Wang said that abuse was "not acceptable in the real world" and "not acceptable on Twitter". He completely misses the point. Online abuse has real life consequences, as the parents of Hannah Smith and others are acutely aware. Social media is the real world - online and offline abuse are different sides of the same Bitcoin.

Be compassionate

This is not a game. Real feelings, real emotions, real lives are at stake.

Maya Angelou said "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Abuse, at home, at work, or on the street, is often not so much about what actually happens, but how it makes people feel. Make no mistake - online abuse hurts. I was once violently threatened online after appearing on national radio, and it was deeply upsetting.

If someone you know has been affected (that's two thirds of you, by the way, according to the survey), try to make time and space for them to share their feelings - and consider how you would feel in their shoes. How can we show more compassion online?

Be creative

If we're not leaving it up to government or institutions alone to sort this out, we need to be creative.

#Twittersilence, introduced by Caitlin Moran, is an interesting form of nonviolent protest (though I think #silenttweetment would have been better!), but I worry that calling on people to boycott such an integral part of their daily lives is wishful thinking at best.

Here's a different idea altogether. Let's agree upon a hashtag that people can use in their tweet or Facebook post, if they feel their security (emotional or personal) being abused or threatened. For example #tweetmekindly or #STOPabuse.

The rest of us, let's call us #InsecurityGuards, monitor this hashtag on our Tweetdecks or other social media tools. When we see this hashtag being used, the online community stand up for the abused person, showering them with support and positivity, speaking out against abuse in all its forms. But we don't attack the hater - that would defeat the object. As Gandhi said 'Hate the sin, love the sinner'. Let's use our love - and our sheer numbers - to beat bullying.

Be credible

The survey on my Facebook page provides a tiny snapshot - qualitative and quantitative research in this area is urgently needed. In lieu of a Gallup Poll on the extent of online abuse (which would be a good thing, by the way), we are best placed to crowdsource research - using social media itself.

There are some talented coders and programmers out there who could use all kind of clever algorithms and keywords to aggregate and visualise abuse, bullying and online threats. Any volunteers?

We could also tweet accounts specifically designed to research and monitor abuse online, to hold up a mirror to misogyny in society. The twitter stream of @everydaysexism provides a jaw-dropping and important picture of how ubiquitous sexism is today. In the survey on my Facebook page, 84% said they had seen or experienced sexist language on social media in the last year.

Online abuse is a complex issue with no easy answer, but we can all take steps to rid the world of trolls. First, stop using the word, and get real. Be compassionate, caring, and kind towards each other. Let's all live by the The Golden Rule of Twitter - tweet others as you would like to be tweeted yourself. And we can all use the gift of social media to tackle abuse without the heavy hand of censorship or paying for our safety with our civil liberties. How about a hashtag and a community of Insecurity Guards? And last but not least, we need to all contribute to proper research into the extent of this issue, before any more lives are lost.