Deconstructing cyber bullying

While trolling has existed since the inception of online communities its impact has increased manifold over the years

Online trolling is a major challenge for social media platforms open to a large number of users who might not even know one another but are still visible to one another in those spaces. The term online trolling has been derived from the word ‘troll’, which was originally used to describe a mythical ugly and scary creature.

In cyberspace, trolling is said to be an act of an “intentionally disruptive person on the internet”. It is also defined as “creating discord on the internet by upsetting people through inflammatory posts or off-topic messages in an online community”. Generally, trolling is used to create uproar or trigger a campaign against a person or a group or an organisation by diverting the attention of other online users. Many a time, the point raised in trolling is not fact-based but put in a way that people believe it to be true.

While trolling may be fun for trolls, it can have serious physical and psychological consequences for its victims. In many documented cases the victims have suffered from depression, loss of self-esteem and sleep disruption due to baseless propaganda and resulting public backlash. Unable to fight back against smear campaigns, many such victims decide to go into isolation and delete their accounts. In a polarised society like ours, public opinion formed by trolls can charge crowds in a way that can even become life-threatening for some.

While it is safe to say that trolling has existed since the inception of online communities, its impact has increased manifold over the years with the advent of Facebook and Twitter. Trolling is not only an issue in countries like Pakistan where spaces for dissent have shrunk over time, it is also an issue in the developed world.

A study of 1,125 adults conducted by YouGov, revealed that 28 percent of Americans admitted to malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know. “Twenty three percent admit to having maliciously argued over an opinion with a stranger, while 23 percent have maliciously argued over facts and 12 percent admit to making deliberately controversial statements,” the study’s findings claim.

In Pakistan, keyboard warriors are vehemently disrupting communications in online spaces, creating noise and giving new direction to an ongoing debate. Here women have been a prime victim of trolling, especially those engaged in activism.

A Democratic Commission for Human Development (DCHD) report says every second woman rights activist in Pakistan faces serious threats online. The report says common forms of risks faced by women online include trolling and harassment using fake accounts, misuse and stealing of private information, trolling and spamming. About 85 percent of the women surveyed under the study said that abuse was mostly hurled by seemingly fake accounts.

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Shahid Hassan, a deputy director at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) tells The News on Sunday that earlier Facebook was the most used platform for trolling. Back then, he claims it was easy because mobile phone SIMs were not connected to Facebook accounts. With the passage of time and the introduction of smart phones, checks and balances were put in place. Now, a mobile phone (through the SIM card) gets connected to the platform and accounts can be traced back to individuals.

Hassan says the use of mainstream media to create awareness among masses about penalties, arrests and punishments, for the crime had proved very effective. He rejects common perception that women or girls are the most frequent victims of online trolling. Many digital rights and cyber security related organisations agree that females involved in stalking are found to be more aggressive both against their own gender and the opposite, he claims.

He says he had been trolled by a group of girls while serving as head of the Cyber Crime Wing. [They were traced, arrested and punished.]

Hassan suggests that the best way to counter stalking and online trolling is to set up functional cybercrime cells at provincial level, adding that the federal department alone cannot handle the large number of complaints due to limited resources.

According to Yasser Latif Hamdani, a lawyer, social media has proven a double-edged sword. Hamdani believes that while on one hand it has brought more voices, some even critical of religious extremism, to the fore, on the other, it has made it easier to accuse someone of blasphemy or for propagating trends and fake news that can lead to dangerous outcomes.

The Pew Research Centre has discovered that 92 percent of internet users agree that the online environment allows people to be more critical of one another, compared with their offline experiences.

The question of anonymity is one of the biggest debates surrounding trolls according to the centre‘s research. Are trolls so outspoken because they remain anonymous? Do they have the right to remain so? These are some of the questions that have been raised at several platforms. Is it important to end internet anonymity or at least ensure that every online persona is linked back to a real person? These are some of the major concerns relating to online spaces.

An Islamabad-based lawyer with expertise in communication laws says that trolls are not specifically covered under any law in Pakistan. He says Section 25 of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) talks about spamming and declares it illegal but does not address trolling. “In principle, any expression must not be controlled through a law. There should be a voluntary code of conduct (self regulation) to deal with such issues. Platforms (like Twitter or Facebook) should have their own rules, and anyone being subjected to an activity against those rules should be able to report these.”

He says declaring someone a troll is also tricky, and believes that this may lead to misuse of laws. If an activity relates to hate speech or defamation on social media platforms, he says, these can be tried under existing laws.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

Deconstructing cyber bullying