Trolling in Social Media

The term “trolling” in online interactions means sending highly offensive or threatening messages to disrupt normal communication and cause emotional distress and sufferings. Problems occur when messages trolls send are sufficiently realistic for a recipient to have a reason to believe that the sender intends to act on his threats and inflict serious damage to the recipient. Apparently, since law enforcement agencies should deal with threats that cause harm to psychological health of recipients, they should be authorized to prosecute trolls whose threats cause in victims a genuine stress, fear, anxiety, or other health problems. However, taking action against trolls can potentially violate a fundamental principle of free speech. Therefore, the issue of balancing the need for protection of victims of trolling and maintaining social and legal online environment that does not infringe on free speech is subject to debate and controversy. Nevertheless, although free speech principle is to be respected and protected as a fundamental pillar of a democratic society, trolling should be punished decisively as an act that abuses free speech principle, threatens health and wellbeing of others, and violates public order in the online sphere.

Real life examples demonstrate that trolls abuse freedom of speech by insulting their victims and intentionally causing harm to their psychological wellbeing. For example, Greenhouse describes the story of Anita Sarkeesian, a young media critic who initiated an online fundraising effort to fund a project aimed to address the issue of objectification of females in gaming culture. The author explains that in response to her project, Sarkeesian was harassed online hundreds of times. Trolls sent her messages trying to intimidate or shame her. She received numerous threats promising to kill, beat, or rape her and post the video of rape online. As Greenhouse writes, examples of Sarkeesian and others who suffered from threatening trolling demonstrate that Twitter is very slow and reluctant to respond even to reports of extremely malicious trolling. In many instances, the company does not respond to reports about trolling at all. Finally, when Twitter did respond, the company admitted its inability to monitor, check, and block trolling accounts due to the sheer number of posts that can be considered insulting or threatening (Greenhouse). Therefore, it is obvious that while trolls use social media to spread highly disturbing and threatening messages to their victims, Twitter is reluctant and unable to protect its users from verbal abuse and harassment. Hence, law enforcement agencies should be given the authority to intervene and stop trolls who abuse freedom of speech and intentionally harm others.

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There is also an opinion that since freedom of speech does not mean freedom to abuse, trolls should be held responsible for the harm they inflict upon their victims. Jackson argues that freedom of speech empowers many users of social media to make comments they would never say out loud in public. In his opinion, online interactions should be held up to the standards of verbal communication and ban abusive, threatening, obscene, or homophobic comments (Jackson). Hence, the author justifies measures that protect innocent victims and send a clear signal to trolls. Although Jackson is also concerned with the issue of unnecessary censorship, he claims that trolls were allowed to get away for too long and should be forced to take responsibility for harm they inflict. Therefore, Greenhouse and Jackson agree that more robust measures should be taken to protect victims of trolling and hold trolls responsible for harming others.

However, there are concerns that harsher measures against trolls who send threatening, verbally abusive, and sexually offensive messages can be applied to people who use social networks to voice their thoughts strongly. In other words, overly zealous prosecution of potential trolls “could threaten the free speech of people who are simply vigorously expressing their opinions”. Therefore, taking the fight against trolls too far poses a danger of sentencing to prison persons who had no intentions to cause harm by their comments. Graham explains that the majority of seemingly malicious online comments pose no real threat of harassment or harm. Thus, freedom of speech is in conflict with protecting the safety of Internet users.

The problem of trolling could have been dealt with more decisively as a question of criminality. However, Slater argues that the issue of trolling is a free-speech issue. In the author’s opinion, “The crackdown on trolls represents a trend towards censorship that is unhinged, unpredictable and subject to the whims of public figures who are unable to maintain the distinction between actions and words”. Therefore, Graham and Slater are in agreement on two issues. First, they believe that combating trolling is associated with crossing the line of criminality and stepping into the domain of human rights. Second, both authors agree that serious measures against trolls will trigger numerous and widespread violations of freedom of speech.

As the analysis of reviewed sources demonstrates, their authors have divergent opinions on the topic of forcing trolls to take greater responsibility for their actions. While Greenhouse and Jackson believe that making online space safer and protecting safety of social media users should be a priority, Graham and Slater are more concerned with preserving freedom of speech. Although each side presents valid arguments to support their positions, I believe that there are several reasons why safety and wellbeing of Internet users should be given priority. First, as online communication gains more importance in personal and professional lives, it is critical to establish and enforce responsibility for online crimes, including trolling, to make online space safe. Second, online safety is nearly as important as physical safety. Hence, it should be guarded vigilantly by law enforcement agencies. Third, every good idea can be misinterpreted to the point when it becomes absurd. Likewise, unrestricted freedom of speech should not be allowed to the point where some abuse this freedom and use it to harm others. Therefore, in my opinion, safety of citizens should be given priority and come first when it comes in conflict with freedom of speech.

The issue of online safety vs. freedom of speech is likely to remain debatable since a divergence of opinions and value systems lead to different perceptions of priorities associated with Internet safety and personal freedoms. Differences in interpretations of online comments may lead to subjective judgments and instances when it may seem that freedom of speech is being limited. However, personal safety and psychological wellbeing should remain a priority in safety vs. freedom of speech debate since limiting freedoms when they are used as an excuse to harm others is reasonable and justified.