Is there anything more pernicious than the online troll? Angry, vulgar, and common. What should have been a vehicle for people coming closer together and promoting better understanding has been hijacked by a bitter few intently spewing their hatred on others.
According to a 2014 Pew survey, 40% of online users have experienced being the subject of online harassment; 65% of young adults, 18-29 years of age, have been victimized by trolling, with women in particular subjected to stalking (26%) or sexual harassment (25%).
Studies have been made on the psychology of trolls. Australia’s Federation University lecturer Evita March tells us that “trolls tend to be male, show higher levels of psychopathy traits — low levels of empathy, guilt and responsibility for their actions — and higher levels of sadism traits, the enjoyment of causing others physical and psychological pain.”
March recommends, for individuals targeted by trolls, to simply ignore them: “If the troll knows they have succeeded in disrupting the social environment in some way, this will reinforce their behavior.”
Nevertheless, having said that, governments may need to come in and help stamp out trolls.
There are laws, of course, for these types of people. Cyberbullying, libel, and measures against misinformation are aplenty. The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service, for example, has issued rules designed to criminalize trolling.
For the Philippines, there is the Cyber Bullying Act, RA 10627, which covers “any severe or repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another student that has the effect of actually causing or placing the latter in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm or damage to his property; creating a hostile environment at school for the other student; infringing on the rights of the other student at school; or materially and substantially disrupting the education process or the orderly operation of a school.”
The problem with that law is it limits protection only to students, while at the same time throwing responsibility to the schools, and with merely a passing referral to existing penal laws, presumably the Cybercrime Prevention Act (RA 10175) and the Revised Penal Code.
Sadly, actions against trolling have been hindered by some raising fears that doing so may violate freedom of speech or other rights. But such arguments are misguided.
Firstly, the Supreme Court has long been consistently clear that certain speech can and should be regulated. Child pornography is one, falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is another. There have been various standards laid down by the Supreme Court to determine if certain speech should be silenced: balancing of interests, clear and present danger, and the balancing of interests test.
There are, relatively recently, laws against joking about bombs at airports or spreading disinformation about the coronavirus.
It is time indeed for Congress to take a serious look into the matter and provide legislation criminalizing trolls. In this regard, two things need to be looked at: the individual troll and that of troll armies.
As mentioned above, the Cyber Bullying Act needs to be expanded to protect every innocent person. Teachers, professionals, businessmen, writers — they all need to be shielded from trolls. And the laws should have sufficient teeth to enable effective prosecution and imposition of the necessary punishment against individual trolls.
On the other hand, troll armies (which accessnow.org defines as “a group of people assume false identities in order to participate in internet forums and social media to send — or suppress — a specific message”) are even more malignantly harmful, endangering not only an individual’s wellbeing but profoundly to society itself.
The fact that troll armies are primarily organized to advance particular politicians’ interests and policies, while demonizing opposing ideas and harassing those they disagree with, makes inutile the very concept of free speech.
To allow them to hide behind the very right they are corrupting, while at the same time denying that right to others, is utterly ludicrous.
An avenue worth exploring is prosecution based on election law violations, particularly those requiring supporters or donors that engaged in election advertising (which troll armies are perverse versions of) to be named, identified, and reported.
Finally, along the same logical lines providing Constitutional rationale for legislation sanctioning conspiracies to commit sedition, rebellion, and terrorism, or business officials for their individual or their corporation’s illegal acts, Congress would be completely within its mandate to enact laws criminalizing and putting to jail:
• those organizing and paying trolls to bully, ridicule, or silence a person, whether public or private;
• organizing and paying trolls to engage in “virtual mobbing” whereby groups of trolls comment or contact a person, either using harmful or supposedly neutral language, designed to harass or silence that person; and
• individuals that received money to predatorily troll another person as described above.
Trolls and troll armies have no place in a decent democratic society.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.