Do we only care about trolling when celebrities are victims?

Simon Copland


It’s time to stop the trolls.

That’s what we’re being told by the Daily Telegraph who yesterday started the #stopthetrolls campaign. On the face of it, this idea has the potential to do a lot of good.

Trying to stop online abuse is a good thing (no judgements on the methods here). Yet, as the media focus on the trolling of some, why do we ignore or even accept the constant abuse and bullying of others that occurs every day?

The campaign is calling on Twitter to stop allowing people to troll online anonymously. It has come about after a number of high-profile trolling incidents over the past couple of weeks.

First, Charlotte Dawson was admitted to hospital after being attacked by Internet trolls. Following that, Tigers captain Robbie Farah spoke out after someone sent an abusive tweet to him after a game, resulting in calls from NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell to change federal legislation in this area and earning Farah a meeting with the Prime Minister.

It’s important to be clear here: bullying and emotional abuse is serious and we should do what we can to stop it, whether on or off line. Homophobic abuse is one of the leading causes in the high rates of depression and suicide in GLBTIQ people. Racial abuse creates similar problems in Australia’s Aboriginal community. Research shows that those who have suffered from bullying at school are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide.

Yet what’s interesting about our new focus on stopping the trolls, it how isolated it is. Whilst we are all up in arms and obsessing over Internet Trolls, what we’re not seeing are any sorts of similar campaigns to stop homophobia, or to stop racism, or to stamp out sexism.

We didn’t see the daily newspapers coming out with a #stophomophobia campaign after Jim Wallace’s comments last week, or a #stopracism campaign after the Aboriginal Memes outrage.

Robbie Farah

In fact, depending on the public profile and the public support for a person – trolling and abuse are often completely ignored or in some cases, just accepted as part of life.

For example, whilst Robbie Farah has been complaining about abuse he’s received, one thing he and the Daily Telegraph didn’t mention was the Tweet he sent last year (which he has now apologised for) saying that Prime Minister Julia Gillard should be given a noose for her birthday. Apparently stopping the trolls wasn’t that important when the abuse was directed at our PM.


After Andrew Bolt was convicted for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act recently, columnist Miranda Devine wrote a piece describing the ‘chilling effect’ that this could have on our democracy and right to free speech (noting of course that this ruling related to ‘offense’, the exact thing people are complaining about on Twitter).

So, what’s the difference between these cases and trolling? There are probably two answers.

The first is ideology. More than anything, it is probably political ideology that has meant that much of the mainstream media have ignored abuse thrown at an unpopular Prime Minister and other politicians like Bob Brown, whilst campaigning against the trolling of celebrities and sporting heroes.

Charlotte Dawson

The second, and probably more important answer: is power. The young queer people in rural Australia have nothing like the power to speak out against abuse or bullying that Charlotte Dawson has. The Aboriginal people who face racial abuse every day have nothing like the power that Andrew Bolt does through his newspaper columns.

A few select people have the power not only to speak out when they’re being bullied but then to also defend their right to free speech when the words come out of their mouths.

This is the reason why trolling is now taboo and something to be condemned – whilst homophobia, racism and sexism get ignored under the guises of ‘well it’s always been that way’.

The thing about Internet trolling is that it tends to affect those in power more than anyone else. It is a hazard of being important or popular. That doesn’t mean that these people deserve to be bullied or trolled – absolutely not – but it also doesn’t mean they deserve more protection than those than anybody else.

But because of their power, and their ability to speak out, that’s exactly what is happening. What this means is the protection of speech for some and not others, and the protection from bullying for some and not others.

If we want to be serious about bullying and abuse we need to take it seriously for everyone, not just those suffering from Internet trolling.

This article was originally published on Simon’s blog here and has been republished with full permission.

Simon Copland works and studies in science communication at ANU. He has strong interest in political movements, with a particular focus on the environment and queer movement. He is the political editor of ACT queer magazine FUSE. He is a member of the Greens and a US politics nerd. Follow him on Twitter here.
Do you think bullying on the internet is more or less serious than bullying in person? How can we stop bullying online?