Anonymous trolls vs the Olympic (double) Gold MedallistPosted on

Rebecca Adlington

Depressing headlines this morning about the evil of trolling, this time the target was Olympic Gold medallist Rebecca Adlington (@beckadlington).

Targeted by insults and abuse on Twitter and comments on newspaper websites Rebecca has taken the decision not to access her Twitter account during the Olympics in London.

Her experience is, sadly, familiar. The anonymity granted by social media, online forums and comments boards creates an opportunity and, it would appear, the motivation to behave in a way which should not be tolerated in a civilised society. It is naïve, however, of those “keyboard warriors” to believe that they are truly anonymous or untraceable. One client of mine was racially abused on Twitter and it only took a matter of 30 minutes research and a small report to the individual’s local police force to give officers enough information to make an arrest.

Rebecca has apparently, and bizarrely, been abused because of her looks and, as she rightly says, it is an all too familiar tale for women in the public eye. With only a few small exceptions it is largely female celebrities who suffer hurtful comments and insults about their appearance in this way. Despite the apparent leaps and bounds which have been made in the last century it appears that women will still be judged on how they look rather than their performance in their chosen profession.

Such hate-filled messaging is akin to racism, particularly when gender is a factor. Like ethnicity the way an individual looks is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of genetics. As Rebecca puts it herself I can’t help the way I look or who I am. Just as humans are born with ethnic characteristics passed on by their parents, so are humans born with features and looks which are inherited. To ridicule and insult someone for something so sensitive, and something which that person is entitled to feel proud of, is ignorant, bigoted and malevolent – something which civilised society should guard against.

So, why should the hate mongers get away with it?

They shouldn’t. Just because trolls often do skulk away unscathed themselves does not mean that they are not in breach of laws or terms of service on the websites they use. Twitter’s terms are clear:

Twitter strives to protect its users from spam and abuse … user abuse is not tolerated on, and will result in permanent suspension

The law has much more serious penalties than account suspension of course. Where an online abuser is persistent this will ordinarily be a criminal or civil offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Even messages of hatred sent in isolation can constitute a criminal offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. The Act makes a criminal offence any message which:

is … of an indecent or grossly offensive nature”


“one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should … cause distress or anxiety to the recipient”

The messages described by Rebecca Adlington fall fairly and squarely within this category.

Twitter is a wonderful form of communication, it brings people ever closer together, however, there is a small and vocal minority that abuse that privilege and they must expect to be held to account for their acts of hatred and bullying.

Everybody is free to speak their mind, nobody is free to target others for abuse.

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