Taken from the Catholic Universe – 11 August 2013
The subject of internet trolls is once again back in the news, following the vile and horrific abuse including threats of sexual violence, received by Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist campaigner who successfully lobbied the Bank of England for the re-inclusion of a female figure on the back of a banknote. Any high profile female MPs or journalists who supported Ms Criado-Perez or her campaign, such as the MP Stella Creasy or the historian Mary Beard, also found themselves at the receiving end of seemingly sexually motivated threats of violence and death.
In other, related news, Melissa Porter, a BBC TV presenter told of how internet trolls had maliciously misinterpreted a perfectly innocent advertisement she had appeared in with her son, leading to a social services investigation which could potentially have seen him removed from her care. She was wholly exonerated, what the social workers were unable to tell her was that they were almost certain that this was a vexatious report, but needed to check out given the gravity of the allegations.
The most tragic case was that of 14 year-old schoolgirl Hannah Smith who was found having hanged herself, by her 16 year-old sister, after months of taunts and abuse on the popular website ask.fm. There are now calls for the website to be shut down, Hannah’s death being the latest in a string of teenage suicides linked to online bullying from this source.
As a parent, these tragedies increase my desire never to let my children anywhere near social media until they are well over the age of 18 and have the emotional maturity to deal with online interaction. While perhaps the abuse that I have received in my capacity as a Catholic blogger and tweeter, hasn’t quite reached the stage of alleged bomb threats, I have encountered more than my fair share and even at my ripe old age, I still have difficulty coping with it and summoning up the correct response, so I cannot begin to imagine what this would be like for a vulnerable teen.
When pregnant with my third daughter, a particularly vicious pro-choice advocate expressed a wish that I might be struck down by God and hopefully at the hands of an abortionist with rusty scissors and in my fourth pregnancy, I was subject to a violent sexual threat at the hands of a gay ‘marriage’ campaigner, who justified his call for me to hunted down and sexually violated, on the grounds that it was clearly a ‘joke’. In addition, another woman claimed that I secretly wished my unborn baby to die in order that I might profit from the attention and gleefully told shocked onlookers that I ought to stop snivelling. Backed up by a motley group of pro-choice activists and gay rights sympathisers, along with some disaffected members of the faith, they proceeded to make my online life a total misery with a very nasty personalised and directed campaign, in which every single element of my life including my appearance, my children, my husband and my mental health was publicly derided and mocked.
I dealt with it no better than the average teenager, tearfully imploring the attackers to stop, appealing to their better nature and hoping that whatever their grievances, could they not see that I was pregnant and vulnerable. Our daughter was delivered early at a significantly lower birthweight than the others, due to pre-eclampsia, the stress of online abuse thought to be a contributory factor.
The extremely painful lesson I learnt was the old adage – do not feed the trolls, which is so much easier said than done and feels counter-intuitive. The other option was of course, to ditch social media, which can prove to be something of a time-sink, it certainly wasn’t proving a constructive or pleasant experience at times, but given my online activity tends to predominantly promote Catholicism and the pro-life cause, I was reluctant to let myself be silenced by the bullies.
Being the target of a prolonged campaign of cyber-bullying (which continues to this day) has given me a certain insight into the potentially destructive nature of the internet which also has tremendous capacity for good. Perhaps this is why it has its darker side – evil wants to distort and destroy all that is beautiful and true. We can see what a potent tool the internet can be in the cause of the New Evangelisation, it cannot be a surprise that human sin has the potential to undo the good work that can be done.
Social media makes ‘stalkers’ and ‘obsessives’ of us all, if we are not careful. Whereas in real life we know that people may be talking about us and remain blissfully ignorant of that fact, social media enables us to check up on what others may be saying. It takes an enormous amount of self-restraint not to look, when one knows one is being referred to and even more not to hit back. It is dreadful to see lies, abuse and calumny writ large against you, your heart starts beating faster, you can feel your blood pumping, your stomach feels as though you have been punched as the nausea and bile rises into your throat.
But to fight back, or even acknowledge the bullies, gives them a power that they do not deserve and validates their behaviour. Ultimately one has to accept that one is totally powerless, we have not yet got a grip on the internet, the police are often not inclined to help unless one is a high-profile celebrity victim and the bullies have developed very crafty mechanisms of hiding IP addresses and couching various threats in such a way that they skirt the line but don’t cross it.
We can fight for a politer more civilised discourse, we can encourage platforms like Twitter to clamp down on abuse and take swifter action against miscreants, but we have to accept that it is unlikely that we will be able to rid the internet of abusers. It is not the platforms that are to blame, but the users themselves. We are all still getting used to the internet and thus codes of conduct and practice are still in their infancy but the best way of targeting abusers is to deny them of their power and platform.
The internet is an additional weapon in our enemies’ armory with which they can use to attack us. We cannot control the behaviour of others, but we all have the power to control our reactions. This is where true liberation from all calumny lies, whether it be online or in real-life. An invocatory psalm or two also helps. But better law enforcement in cases of serious and prolonged online harassment would certainly not go amiss either. And never forget Matthew 5: 11-16.
* Since the article was published, additional information has come to light about the case of Hannah Smith.