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TV & Radio

Sep 12, 2012

The troller troll'd, or, disrupting the market for causing offence

The trolling debate is merely the mainstream media doing what it's always done: try to make money from enraging readers. But it's unlikely to work.

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Meleander: Sirrah, be wise, be wise
Trollio: Who I? I will be monstrous and wise.
(John Ford, The Lover’s Melancholy, 1628)

It was peak troll. Not just the troller troll’d, not just a through-the-looking-ass moment of meme eruption into the mainstream, but something else, one of those moments stolen from a Lynch film, when normal people act batshit crazy while keeping the straightest of faces.

First Ray Hadley, pro troll, whose entire existence is a profound act of trolling, a leering mockery of the comforting clichés we like to tell ourselves about thoughtfulness, intelligence and civilised interaction, complained of being targeted by Twitter trolls and called for government regulation.

Then Australia’s troll journal of record, The Daily Telegraph, home of Piers Akerman (‘nuff said) and Our Lady of the Gerbils Miranda Devine, launched a full-fledged war on trolls via a “Twitition” (yeah, I know) and, today, a front-page declaration of war.

Kim Williams’ brave defence of free speech and a self-regulated media in the face of government threats of regulation was, sadly, forgotten, including by the politicians who rushed to join. When you see a pathological self-promoter like Kevin Rudd running for the bandwagon, look out.

And sportsperson Robbie Farah secured a meeting with the Prime Minister — the Prime Minister! — after he was abused on Twitter (update: a meeting was reported, but see below). Presumably the PM will henceforth meet with everyone who’s suffered some butthurt online, especially those who’ve abused her online themselves. That was after Nicola Roxon declared she’d raise the issue with her state and territory counterparts, and Barry O’Farrell said he’d talk to his Police Commissioner about it.

Evidently none of these politicians have actual day jobs.

And, of course, supertrawler. Supertrawler. Say it over and over again! Peak troll.

OK, let’s be serious: this is the trolling-based business model of talkback radio and tabloid newspapers, one that well predates the internet but which is ever more important as the analog media era comes to an end. This is Australia’s least trusted media outlets working to enrage their readers and listeners (target demographic: western Sydney, not eastern suburbs thanks very much) and appeal to their values sufficiently that they’ll keep buying their mid-20th century product. It’s bad enough that female showbiz celebrities get attacked, but a male footy player, and a shockjock himself? Now that’s an outrage. That the Twitterati was in uproar in response is all to the better.

It may be profoundly hypocritical but come on, give the dying media a break.

The flaw though is that only 10% of Australians, at most recent count, are on Twitter and it’s likely to be lower in The Tele’s heartland and among Hadley’s audience. The only thing they’re doing in demanding the regulation of a competing media outlet is giving it free publicity to people who don’t currently use it and in fact may not even know what it is.

Indeed, with old white men and politicians in the media emphasising the transgressive, outlaw nature of Twitter, all they’re likely doing is increasing its appeal to younger people, who tend to prefer Facebook. Still, ’tis the way of the digital world, that analog dinosaurs, Trollosaurus Rex, in lashing out at their newer, quicker, better adapted digital rivals, only serve to accelerate their own demise.

As Stephen Conroy pointed out, there are anti-trolling laws in place now. Using a carriage service in a way “that reasonable persons would regard as being, in all the circumstances, menacing, harassing or offensive” is punishable with three years in prison under the Commonwealth Criminal Code. What’s offensive? Well matters to be taken into account include “the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults”, “the literary, artistic or educational merit (if any) of the material; the general character of the material (including whether it is of a medical, legal or scientific character.”

So, yes folks, you can be jailed in Australia merely for offending someone on social media, in a way that you can’t be if you offend them offline. Unless you pose as a doctor or scientist.

But in practice, only in-extremis cases have been prosecuted — stalkers and people sending torrents of abusive or threatening text messages. Two Queenslanders have been successfully prosecuted under the law for defacing Facebook tribute pages to murder victims. One of them was jailed, but that conviction included child exploitation material as well. As it stands, the “cause offence” law is an affront to free speech, but it’s not clear that, in implementation, it is the worst impediment to free speech in Australia.

It also enables the prosecution if necessary of a genuine and serious problem, cyber-bullying, with which trolling has been deliberately conflated by those trying to sell newspapers about it, when the two are fundamentally different.

The problem is applying the law against anonymous Australians or people overseas. To do that, you need to be able to compel Twitter to surrender account details. As Conroy correctly noted, Twitter resists even doing that in the US, let alone here. Twitter is hardly a paragon of net freedom, but unlike Google and Facebook it is less inclined to roll over and hand to powerful governments what they demand. Despite it being unlikely to be in its commercial interests, it is still appealing against Department of Justice subpoenas from December 2010 for the account details of Jacob Appelbaum, Rop Gonggrjp, and Brigitta Jonsdottir sought as part of the US investigation of WikiLeaks, although it has been forced to hand over the data; it is currently appealing against an order to comply with a subpoena for the data of an Occupy activist.

On that basis, an Australian attempt to force Twitter to hand over details of who offended a footballer is we-warn-the-Tsar stuff.

Or you can attempt to sue Twitter to release the data. That’s a risky strategy; the last high-profile person to try that was British footballer Ryan Giggs, in an effort to keep the superinjuncted news of his affair under wraps. Hopefully his very expensive lawyers apologised to him after the ensuing 50,000 mocking tweets about Imogen Thomas.

But that’s social media. You can regulate and litigate all you like, but it has a way of coming back to bite you. And the more you attack it, the more it responds. Just like the original media trolls, in the newspaper and radio industry. In the 20th century, only the likes of Ray Hadley and Paul Whittaker could troll us. Now we all can. Ah, the sweet, sweet air of democracy.

Update: Ten Network’s Canberra producer Stephen Spencer has tweeted that the PMO has advised that reports that it had arranged a meeting between the PM and Robbie Farah are incorrect. We’re checking with the PMO.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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