'Success' of attack will encourage further trolling

5:22 am on 3 May 2018

By Gavin Ellis*

Police Commissioner Mike Bush gave a commendable performance as Big Billy Goat Gruff today. He head-butted a troll and knocked it off the bridge.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush

Police Commissioner Mike Bush Photo: RNZ

The commissioner's highly unusual move in dispelling ugly rumours about the Prime Minister's partner, Clarke Gayford, was a necessary step to stem viral online slander that had reached alarming proportions.

Mike Bush may have put paid to this particular social media troll. It was dealt a body blow by his unequivocal statement and by the subsequent disclosure that at least three mainstream media investigations failed to substantiate any of the rumours. However, just as there was more than one troll in Norwegian folklore, social media has spawned an unedifying number of malcontents who use its anonymity to poison with impunity.

This particular troll did not act alone. Rumours about Mr Gayford spread with astonishing speed, helped on their way by blind political prejudice and by otherwise intelligent people posting veiled social media references to "the story about Clarke Gayford" to signal they were in-the-know.

Trolling of this sort exists in the same environment as fake news. It has a life because some people want to believe it is true and are prepared to set aside their cognitive functions - and their ethical principles - to make it so. Then they feed it to other like-minded individuals as fact.

The 'success' of the attack on Mr Gayford will encourage further trolling. It may not be aimed at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - the real target of this attack - but other public figures are equally vulnerable. Their vulnerability lies not in any skeletons that may exist in their closets but in the unfortunate reality that there need be not an iota of truth for a rumour to take flight.

But how many times will the police commissioner be willing to play the Big Billy Goat Gruff? He is unlikely to make a habit of it so what others means do we have to deal with these attacks?

The Harmful Digital Communications Act - the so-called Cyber Bullying Act - was not designed with politicians and their partners in mind but could it be used to hold trolls to account? It would not be a simple process.

More often than not trolls hide behind the anonymity that social media so readily and unquestioningly affords them. How can you bring proceedings under the Act if you do not know the troll's identity?

And the original troll is only the beginning of the process. A rumour's 'success' will be judged by how far and how wide it travels. That requires the willing participation of others to act as receptors to ensure viral spread. The origin of the rumour may be difficult to track.

Should there be a specific criminal offence to stop direct or indirect troll attacks on politicians? No, we should not go down that path. First, there is no compelling reason why we should protect politicians against malicious rumour but not the rest of the population and secondly, such a measure would effectively resurrect the offence of criminal libel which was abolished in 1993 (except for a provision directly relating to elections).

Our existing civil and criminal remedies would be sufficient if we were able to readily identify those who create and spread malicious rumours.

Anonymity has some useful attributes on social media: It facilitated communication in repressive regimes during the abortive Arab Spring, and it allows the vulnerable to be more open in discussing their problems. However, those attributes are outweighed by negative effects that expose unedifying aspects of human nature.

Social media providers - who can trace every byte that passes through their servers - should be required to demand identifying registration.

Then a court order could reach behind the rocks and extract the trolls by the scruff of their hairy necks.

*Dr Gavin Ellis is a media commentator on RNZ's Nine To Noon programme.