Are you prepared? Social media trolls are on the rise and you might be the next target, writes Isabel Putri.
Has your work told you exactly how to protect yourself?
Award-winning journalist and “Troll Hunting” author Ginger Gorman believes it’s unlikely that you have been fully armed and says this is a pressing matter of workplace safety.
“It’s basically the same as sending a worker onto a work site with no safety equipment, no training, and then they get their hand cut off,” she said.
Gorman is still dealing with the trauma of six years ago, when no one told her to ensure her tweets were not geo-located and she became the target of death threats from fascist trolls, able to pinpoint online the location of her home. She suddenly realised this in the middle of the night, in bed with her children asleep in the next room.
“I remember just thinking, ‘I just put my family’s lives in danger to do my job as a journalist,’” Gorman said.
Back then, when told to get on social media because it was now part of her job, she had been far from tech savvy – barely able to scroll on her laptop.
The resulting trauma has been ongoing, with Gorman saying she has had to pay for her own counselling – “thousands of dollars to sort myself out”.
Now she is in demand as an expert on online hate in Australia and around the world.
Gorman joined Women in Media WA (WIM WA) for its “Social Media: Bracing for the Backlash” event on May 15 at the State Library of WA, attended by 80 media professionals including journalists, public relations practitioners and students.
The focus was to examine the impact on the media of the hate generated by internet “trolls” – everyday people who spew hate behind anonymity.
Gorman – a WIM member – was joined by social media lecturer Dr Catherine Archer from Murdoch University, ABC Perth’s News Director Andrew O’Connor and 6PR Presenter Jane Marwick who moderated the discussion. All have extensive experience in dealing with online trolls.
Gorman told the crowd she had come up with the term “predator trolling” to explain the online behaviour that caused significant real-life harm to her and others.
“I am using that to denote a behaviour that’s serious and criminal. It leads to terrorism, murder and domestic violence,” she said.
A new term was needed, she said, because all too often the police and others had responded by simply advising to “stay offline”.
Gorman also urged members of the media to support and protect each other from trolls, rather than making negative comments about a colleague. The trolls could then interpret this as a sign that it is OK to target that person.
Her work that attracted the anger of the trolls was a “gentle” feature interview in 2010 for the ABC on a gay couple who said they had used child surrogacy in Russia to start a family. Much later, as she explains fully in her book extract, it was exposed she had unknowingly profiled two people who were eventually convicted for crimes that included conspiring to sexually exploit a child.
When the court case and a comment from a popular American conservative blogger pointed attention to her earlier interview, trolls deemed her partly responsible and she received cyber death threats to her family and had a personal family photograph published on a fascist website.
“After 18 months, I thought ‘Who are these guys?, I’m going to find them’,” Gorman said.
Then began the research that led to her book “Troll Hunting”, which included tracking down the trolls and interviewing them.
Rather than seeing herself as a victim, Gorman had found a way to understand the trolls’ behaviour towards her.
“I just went in asking the questions: Why do I feel like that? Why is this happening? What has happened to them in their lives that they would grow up hating women so much?,” she said.
“It was incredibly damaging [to me] personally, but I got answers I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.”
“[The trolls] love my book by the way, they’re really proud of it.”
Addressing the audience at the event, Dr Archer said while much effort had been put into protecting children online, adults too needed support.
“We were so focused on kids and teenagers and the harm of cyberbullying, that we forget that actually adults are getting cyber bullied too,” Dr Archer said.
O’Connor told the crowd that workplace social media policies had been built around protecting the organisation, not the employees.
“No thought was given to what might happen to those [journalists] using [social media] – no training was given – and what the consequences about using might be,” O’Connor said.
He also said much had changed in recent years in community attitudes towards the media.
“Before we were hunting the truth, now it feels like we are arguing it exists,” he said.
Attending the event as a guest, online liability expert Roger Blow from Cove Legal said the current law was still “playing catch up” in dealing with online risks and conduct.
“It’s also playing catch up in that employer-employee sense, because you are going to have increased level of depression, anxiety and all those mental health issues – way more than years ago,” he said.
Gorman closed the discussion by suggesting that a whole-community change would help deal with trolls – by listening to people we don’t agree with and being willing to disagree “in a pleasant way”.
For now, if you become the target of trolls;
“If you want to talk back, use corrective speech and get your community to help you,” Gorman said. “Like with bystanders to bullying – support each other.”
“My favourite one is ‘Do you need a hug?’”
O’Connor’s tip for dealing with trolls is to use humour – being “obsequiously polite.”
“Just keep doing it, and after two or three times they disappear,” he said.
Report by Isabel Putri, 3rd year Journalism and Public Relations student at Curtin University.
Pictures by Keane Bourke, Dockside Media
*Special thanks to the event caterers – the incredible Esther Foundation’s Catergirls – for the amazing grazing platters.