Nutjob City Limits

There has been much in the news in recent months regarding trolls on social networking sites. The trolls I am referring to are those who post inflammatory, offensive, and often off-topic messages in forums, chat rooms, blogs, etc, in order to provoke an emotional response; not the kind who hide under bridges tormenting billy goats.

Last week saw the sentencing of Reece Elliot, of South Shields, following posts he made under a false name on a Facebook page dedicated to two US teens that had died in a car accident. Elliot wrote that he was going to take a gun and kill his Dad, and then drive to a school and kill at least 200 before killing himself. In his defence, he said this was a sarcastic joke, and that it was never meant as a threat. His girlfriend said he ‘does things on Facebook for a laugh, that’s what he does’. (I would prefer not to go to a party at their house if this is his idea of a laugh).

He went to the trouble to create a false profile to post from and directed another threat to one girl in particular. He was unaware of the kind of upset this may cause. Really? In this day and age, this sort of threat, especially in the US, is tantamount to joking about having a bomb in your shoe at an airport check-in.

Now, years and years ago, local nutjobs would stand on a crate in the town square and preach about this, that or the other. One or two people might have actually got themselves a bit of a following as they maybe, sort of, somehow, made a bit of sense, and/or promised the most fantastic (I suspect this is how many religions were formed). Back then though, not everyone had time to stand around and listen, they had more important things to do, they had pox, etc.

Today, everyone has a platform. And everyone has time. The internet has changed the world in ways that I would have never have thought possible when I was a teenager. Each of us has been given a voice, all be it a small, squeaky one on the general scale of things, but there’s always someone listening…more than you think if Ed Snowden’s revelations are anything to go by.

I for one am certainly guilty of keeping my Facebook page open while I’m doing other things online, or checking it on my phone in a bar while my mate’s in the loo. But then, I’m not a nutjob. I look at what my friends are up to, I don’t go looking for people to upset for my own enjoyment, not even the Scientologists.

It has been suggested that laws should be changed to effectively deal with modern day, ‘cyber-crime’. Elliot was prosecuted under a 150 year old law (section 16 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861). Some say they are merely playground threats, brought into the public domain by modern technologies. Others feel that as it is more public and often more sinister than your everyday playground threat, it should be punishable by suitable laws.

Playground threats at my school usually threatened nobody speaking to you for ever more, or possibly a punch in the face (more likely for boys but occasionally comes up in girl arguments depending on your opponent). But, we didn’t have the internet then.

We could change the laws to bring them up to date, it might make people think twice before writing offensive. We could also educate people better. In several of these cases the spelling and grammar was terrible. Many of such defendants have claimed their comments were jokes, and they didn’t realise what the consequences might be, demonstrating a lack of common sense and a misunderstanding of humour. Throw in some social skills for the hell of it.

Both may help to create a better society. Neither will eradicate the problem.

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