Don’t Feed the Trolls

Social media has taken over our lives, for better or worse. It’s where we go to see the news, share our meals, and express how we’re feeling about the latest sporting events. We send pictures, post reaction GIFs, and make sure that we are up to date with all of our friends. We create, collaborate, and communicate, at all times. We doze off to sleep on our Facebook feeds each night and wake up to greet Snapchat stories each morning. Social media has connected the world, but it has also introduced us to new means of harassment, permeating from message boards into homes, schools, and even the workplace.

When discussing trolling and cyberbullying, some argue that the primary differentiator is reaction.  Users troll to provoke reactions from others, and to make them the topic of conversation.  Trolling behavior is usually confined to inflammatory Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter commentary towards different fan-groups.  Most trolls do it sarcastically, and have no conviction in what they actually say. As noted in a Time Magazine cover story last year, “trolls don’t hate people as much as they love the game of hating people.”  The common solution is “Don’t Feed the Trolls” or, just ignore and block their posts because it doesn’t add to the conversation at hand.

Cyberbullying, on the other hand, can be characterized as a methodical attack on a small group or individual. Traditionally, cyberbullying involves a smaller audience, either via chat-rooms or directly through someone’s social media accounts. Typically, the instigator takes the situation seriously and has malicious intentions. “Social media is a great tool, but it can be used for good and it can be used for harm and destruction” Tyler Clementi’s mother’s words ring true, spoken years after her son was outed as homosexual on the internet and committed suicide in 2010. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam to spy on Clementi and used social media to invite peers to watch a sexual encounter. The case drew international attention to the bullying of LGBT teenagers. Another case drew international traction in 2012 after the suicide of 15-year old Amanda Todd. Before her death, Todd uploaded a video describing the cyber-bullying and blackmailing that she suffered, including the non consensual sharing of nude photos. The YouTube clip gained millions of views and sparked an inter-generational dialogue over the prevalence of social media in the daily lives of young people and how that power can be used to cause devastating outcomes.

Despite these headlines and massive advocacy efforts, courts have been relatively divided when ruling on such cases.  Elonis v. US (2015) further muddled the dialogue, with the Supreme Court ruling 8-1 that a Facebook post of threatening lyrics was not enough to prove intent to harm.

When does trolling cross the line into cyberbullying? Is hate-speech free speech? When does an online threat become admissible in court? No one can deny that we’ve come a long way from Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace which relies on the Golden Rule and asserts a world where “anyone, anywhere may express his or her opinion no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Despite the monumental changes and paradigm shifts in Internet culture over the last twenty years, there has yet to be a clear response in the courtrooms. We are at a crucial moment for the legal implications of cyberspeech. Major backlash during the most recent election cycle and subsequent circumstances has catapulted questions of the First Amendment back into the national dialogue. We lack clear case law up to this point, but courts will begin to set precedents for online interactions over the next few years and create the fine line that will separate trolling from cyberbullying.  Until then, the decision will continue to be left to the reader’s’ discretion, whether it be perpetrator, victim, lawyer, or judge.

*Disclaimer this is not legal advice but the experience of a non-attorney member of the Law Decoder community sharing a personal experience for entertainment purposes.