We can't really go on like this. The alarming evolution of 'trolling' from pestering people online to the loss of life, has been eye-watering in its speed. The last week has seen a situation develop whereby a family whose daughter is missing, was assaulted by a wave of the most unpleasant and cruel comments over social media. A television station then seemingly managed to trace and confront the sender of some of the messages, who then died - probably by her own hand. Exactly how much more awful does this have to become before we address the problem? Because that seems awful enough to me.
Self-evidently, social media is here for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is only likely to expand and append itself to almost all our communications. Therefore, sooner or later, we're going to have to drain the pond and rescue an enjoyable and useful tool from those who would use it for sadistic purposes.
"This activity must brought to an end if we are to continue to reap the benefits of online communications."
As I've written, I'm not much of a Facebook fellow, but I do find Twitter an enormously entertaining distraction. Perhaps I'm lucky, because I have never attracted the attention of a 'troll'. Sure, there has been the odd occasion (three, I think) when some mouth-breather has popped into my timeline to say something predictably and pathetically stupid; and I have wished them a heartfelt farewell as I blocked them. But I don't really think of that as trolling. I have never had my life threatened, nor that of my family; neither have I experienced a mass of users ganging together to pursue and abuse me. However, this has undoubtedly happened to individuals much less capable of defending themselves and far more vulnerable. It's this activity that must brought to an end if we are to continue to reap the benefits of online communications.
The obvious way to ensure one is never affected by this pernicious form of bullying, is to opt out of social media altogether. If you're not on the grid, no-one will get to you. And I've actually heard this suggested as a solution. Of course, that would be manifestly unfair. Asking people not to use technology because it is riddled with the unhinged and undesirable, is akin to proposing decent people have their phones disconnected lest they receive nuisance calls.
To my mind, there are two obvious courses of action. Firstly, the operators of social platforms (particularly Twitter and Facebook) must now face up to their responsibilities. Time and again we hear of people, who have been victimised by 'trolls', complaining that their reports to the networks have been ignored or explained away. This simply isn't good enough. These services make their money from their users - without them, they have no business model. It is more than reasonable to demand they take adequate steps to protect their participants - and that starts with robust action whenever misuse is reported. Who knows, they could even make it a selling point.
My second proposal is slightly more contentious. We should eliminate anonymity on social sites. I see no good reason why anyone should be entitled to say anything they want, to a willing or unwilling audience, without putting their name to their opinions and views. Their identity need not appear in public, but it should be known - and verifiable - by the outlet on which they appear. This is standard practice on the letters page of newspapers, so a digital setting shouldn't be any different. One cannot set-up an anonymous account with PayPal, because there is money involved. I would argue that the peace of mind and wellbeing of decent people is actually more important than money, so the same protection should be in place.
'Trolls' are almost certainly a mixture of the vicious, the lonely, the inadequate and the unwell. For each to have a traceable identity would be highly advisable, for both responsible users and for the 'trolls' themselves.
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant