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Twitter trolls, the law and respect

By Mal Fletcher - posted Thursday, 8 August 2013

Over the past week, news headlines have been dominated - and rightly so - by stories about women who've become the targets of personal threats on Twitter.

The most famous of the women concerned, historian Mary Beard, attracted online abuse after an appearance on BBC TV. Ms Beard received a bomb threat apparently because she lent her support for a boycott of Twitter, until it took adequate measures to stop bullying and harassment of women.

The head of Twitter in the UK, Tony Wang, says that these and other threats now under investigation by the Metropolitan Police were 'simply not acceptable'. He has pledged to do more to tackle abusive behaviour.


A number of recent studies have looked at the impact and possible causes of cyber-bullying, particularly where children are concerned. Whilst that represents a slightly different type of abuse, these reports are instructive when it comes to threats against women.

The reports have shown that a fundamental issue in cases of online bullying is an assumption of anonymity on behalf of those sending offensive messages.

Because many social networking sites allow people to operate under pseudonyms, users sometimes assume that there is no way of identifying the sender of a message.

Indeed we all face the danger of believing that because we use very personal devices like mobile phones to access the internet, it is automatically a secure environment.

In fact, it is still in many respects an unsafe environment; in part because of its user-friendliness. Its warm familiarity encourages us to hand over sensitive details about ourselves, often to complete strangers.

For some reason, many of us seem to think that writing something to a particular individual via a social media site is the same as whispering that information in person. Social media sites are public thoroughfares not private roads.


We also tend to forget that what goes digital usually stays digital. It is not as easy as most people think to totally delete digital records.

Echoes or traces always exist and these can usually be recovered with relatively sophisticated software. Police e-crime units rely on these programmes to recover incriminating evidence - not only from personal computers, but from the mainframes that drive internet services. Ultimately, internet anonymity is a complete fiction.

Another fiction is the idea that social media offer potential offenders a safety-in-numbers get-out-of-jail card. The law can be very dogged in the way it tracks down individuals within a seemingly nebulous crowd.

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Mal Fletcher's new book, FASCINATING TIMES: A Social Commentary, is now available on Amazon Kindle worldwide. For more information, including the movie-style trailer, radio interviews and Amazon links click here.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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