As a man who posted “vile and disgusting” messages on social networking sites memorialising dead teenagers is jailed, Channel 4 News asks two experts what motivates “trolls”.
Reading Magistrates’ Court heard that Sean Duffy, 25, had posted abusive messages – an activity known as “trolling” – on websites dedicated to four recently deceased teenagers, including that of 15-year-old Natasha McBryde, who committed suicide in February by throwing herself under a train after being bullied at school and online.
Duffy, from Reading, was jailed for 18 weeks and banned from using social networking sites for five years for the offences, including calling Natasha MacBryde “a slut” on the memorial website set up by her brother.
Under the username “Tasha the Tank Engine”, he also posted a video on YouTube depicting the children’s character Thomas the Tank Engine with Ms MacBryde’s face superimposed.
Duffy, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, also posted offensive messages on the websites of 14-year-old Lauren Drew, who was found dead after suffering a suspected epileptic fit, car crash victim Hayley Bates, 16, and Jordan Cooper, 14, who was stabbed to death in Northumberland.
After the hearing, Natasha’s parents said it appeared that a “combination of circumstances came together” in her mind to “create an intolerable situation for her, when she was already dealing with the normal difficulties of teenage life”.
Prosecutor Nina Maisuria welcomed the sentence and said that the victims’ families could now “move on.”
She said: “On 11 July 2011, Sean Duffy, from Grovelands Road, Reading, pleaded guilty to two charges of sending a communication/article of an indecent or offensive nature. He asked for another offence of a similar nature, in Staffordshire, to be taken into consideration.
“Today, 13 September 2011, the defendant returned to Reading Magistrates’ Court where two further offences, committed in Gloucestershire, were taken into consideration. He was subsequently sentenced for all five offences.
“Mr Duffy, who is 25 and suffers from Aspergers Syndrome, admitted carrying out these despicable acts, which caused great upset and anguish to the grieving families and friends of the four young deceased people; Natasha McBryde, Hayley Bates, Jordan Cooper and Lauren Drew.
“He has been sentenced for his crimes and I hope that those most affected by his actions can now move forward with their lives.”
Dr Emma Short, a psychologist from the University of Bedfordshire and the co-director of the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research, told Channel 4 News that the so-called trolling community are like those people who desecrate graves in the real world.
“In many ways, (trolling) is not a new phenomenon…there is a community which refers to itself as the trolling community and its like antisocial behaviour, just in an online environment, so the point is to cause upset and outrage a bit like grave desecration,” she said.
Dr Short said that “trolls” often defend their activities by arguing they are exercising free speech.
“There’s a big debate at the moment about the internet being the last place for full freedom of expression,” Dr Short said.
“And there is a real difficulty in balancing protection against harm, versus this freedom of expression, and some trollers will tell you that’s what they’re batting for.”
She added that another key motivation of trollers to incite upset by posting vitriolic messages is a general belief that they will not get caught.
“We do know online inhibitions are reduced (because) there is a perceived lack of detection and a lack of punishment,” she said.
“In any environment where you think you’re not seen and if you think you wont be punished, people behave in a more disinhibited way.”
Toby Treacher, the founder of Digital Parents, agreed that the presumption of anonymity remained a major driving force behind trolling, and indeed in a range of internet activities.
He suggested that the exposure and sentencing of Duffy could deter trolling in future.
“There is an increasing tendency for these anonymous people to post into these tribute pages created after somebody dies to be targeted in this way.
“(But) it clearly in this case has led to something which is particularly hateful and it proves that anonymity isn’t something that you can actually guarantee online,” he said.