Trolling used to have a clear definition. In the OED, it still does, and we’re not talking about the leisure pursuits of cave-dwelling giants or the domestic dawdling of misshapen dwarfs. To ‘troll‘ is to “Make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.” ‘Trolling’ ranges from antagonistic goading to language which is crude and degrading; from gratuitous sarcastic barbs to threats of rape or violence.
Few will dispute the need to clamp down on those sad, cowardly and probably lonely oddballs who, seemingly incapable of reasoned discussion or rational argument, log on to Twitter or Facebook or other social media purposely to poison the discourse and pollute the Blogosphere with their fruitless online venom, the sole objective of which is to cause hurt and distress. And, certainly, a Twitter threat of (say) rape or other physical harm against a person, their family or property, is rightly and justifiably an offence which carries a custodial sentence – currently a maximum of six months.
In an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill currently making its passage through Parliament, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is proposing to quadruple this to two years. “This is a law to combat cruelty and marks our determination to take a stand against a baying cyber-mob,” he said. “We must send out a clear message – if you troll you risk being behind bars for two years.”
The thing is..
Some people are of the view that a ‘troll’ is someone who ‘vigorously’ disagrees with their proposition. It has nothing to do with threats of violence or degrading and insulting language: ‘trolling’ is the ‘harassment’ caused to an individual by a blog post refuting a theological view and multiple tweets sent out to advertise the article. One such person who takes this view is the Rt Rev’d Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, who says he has “a long standing interest in new and social Media and their impact on the rest of life”.
When his chaplain, the Rev’d Rosie Harper, made an appeal at the House of Lords in favour of assisted dying (and stated that those who opposed were “neither moral nor Christian”), it wasn’t unreasonable for this to be challenged robustly – more so since her expressed view is in direct contradiction to the official position of the Church of England. And this reasoned response was tweeted out six or seven times, as bloggers with thousands of followers are wont to do, for effective marketing (it is, realistically, the optimum way of ensuring that a post reaches followers’ with staggered coffee-breaks and news-feeds across multiple timezones). There were no threats of violence; indeed, nothing ad hominem at all: the concern was with her warped theological view of suffering, and her (rather astonishing) assertion contra the clear teaching of the Church, that peers who opposed Lord Falconer’s Bill were somehow immoral or un-Christian.
In response, Rosie Harper tweeted that she found these tweets “most unpleasant”. The Bishop of Buckingham rushed to her defence, and hurled allegations of trolling; and not merely trolling, but “outrageous trolling”.
This is how the law relating to malicious communication is developing. The desire to punish the real offenders will be used to censor robust opinion. The law to deal with online aggression will be applied to inhibit if not silence vigorous debate on contentious socio-political issues in order to distinguish between that which is ‘nice’ and that which is ‘nasty’. It will infringe freedom of speech and freedom of expression (and, ultimately, freedom of religion). The Bishop of Buckingham is of the view that marketing a post six or seven times constitutes stalking or harassment, which is an offence. The danger (indeed, likelihood) is that the police will listen to him (he is a bishop, after all), and he will tell them about his distressed and tearful chaplain who was subject to a barrage of critical tweets which she thought deeply unpleasant and hurtful. And the police will zealously pursue the alleged offender, whether or not a crime has been committed (as we have seen in their frequent misapplication of their powers under the Public Order Act to prosecute people for causing harassment, alarm or distress). And so the vigorous expression of a reasoned (not to say orthodox) theological opinion becomes indecent or grossly offensive, and its propagation via Twitter becomes verbal abuse, harassment or an expression of ‘hate’.
Might false allegations of trolling cause such professional harm or personal distress as to constitute trolling?