The Differences Between Trolling, Free Speech And Abuse

One thing that’s come out of all the recent media coverage of Twitter abuse and ask.fm is that a lot of people lack understanding about what ‘trolling’ actually is.

Trolling is posting remarks designed to annoy other users, rather than a conflation of the three things in my title. A bit like a Manchester United supporter going onto Liverpool’s web forum and saying that Suarez is a talentless waste of space. Or someone going onto a BMW forum and saying all BMW drivers don’t use their indicators. Irritating? Yes. Provocative? Yes. Abusive? No.

Expressing an opposing opinion to someone else is not trolling. I was once called a troll for disagreeing with an example of online misogyny, for instance. I have also seen forum users descend en masse to another forum and post a load of things to irritate that forum’s users. That’s trolling (and a headache for the admins when they have to deal with the fall-out).

Being abusive towards another online user is not trolling. Hate speech and direct threats, such as those received by Caroline Criado-Perez, Grace Dent, Helen Lewis, Mary Beard and other women writers is abuse and there are real-life laws which mean the people making those threats can be arrested and charged with a crime. A man has also been arrested for using Twitter as a platform for hate speech against Muslims.

Free speech is the thing that a lot of people fall back on to try and justify being abusive online. I wrote about Old Holborn and free speech previously. You have every right to be as stupid and offensive as you like. Obviously, have a thick skin and expect people to call you on it, but ultimately you can say whatever you like as long as it isn’t direct threats, hate speech or abuse. People say stupid and offensive things on the internet all the time and you can’t just call the police because you think User X is a knuckle-dragging tosser who said that all Liverpool fans have mashed potato for brains. Free speech means people are at liberty to express opinions which you personally may find abhorrent but it’s not illegal.

Like a lot of things in life, this is all fairly nuanced. It’s not always easy to define stuff said online without the buffer of human interaction, as Paul Chambers found out when he joke-tweeted about blowing up an airport. Likewise, when you’ve been on the receiving end of a campaign of threats of violence to your person, you might be less than amused by someone saying your views are idiotic. But they have the right to say it, even if they are idiots themselves.

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