By Charlotte Summers and Atalanti Liapi
COVID-19 has created an online world with many of us glued to our phones for work, social connection and even out of pure boredom. As a result, many LGBTQ+ people are noticing a spike in hate crimes and online trolling across their social media platforms. With the internet now becoming our main source of connection and social interaction, what does that mean for victims of online abuse?
What actually is trolling?
For those of us old enough to remember, the ’90s were a time where chokers, double denim and platform shoes were commonplace. Britney reigned as queen and the internet was slowly but surely blowing up, little did we know just how dramatic an impact the world wide web would soon have on our lives. As the internet began to thrive, so did online trolls. People soon learnt that online you could hide behind anonymity in a way that is not possible face to face, this led to a particularly vicious form of abuse being born. Just as the many positive uses of the internet have grown, so have the many ways it can be used to harm those most marginalised.
The word trolling itself, an internet slang word, is defined by urban dictionary as “the deliberate act of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight.” In essence, trolling is an online action purposefully provoking the victim and often includes abuse and harassment. It comes in many forms and although occurs online, has dire physical and psychological consequences.
This type of behaviour was first brought to public attention in the form of cyberbullying, with the introduction of affordable private computers alongside the growth of chatrooms and private messaging platforms. These platforms, that were intended to connect people, have always simultaneously been used to harass and bully, with predominantly vulnerable teens and children as the first victims. These internet bullies, hiding behind their computers, often preyed on those most marginalised, with LGBTQ+ youth disproportionately affected. Today, this sadly still continues, with research from 2017 showing 40% of LGB youth have faced homophobic or biphobic abuse online and 58% of trans youth having received transphobic online abuse. As technology has advanced, its insidious side has too, however it has often seemed like the government and those that should be keeping these spaces safe, are left two steps behind. Although cyberbullying appeared around the early 90’s, laws against these behaviours didn’t come into action until 1998 and even now, cyberbullying is still not legally defined within UK laws.
Since the '90s a lot has changed; Britney and Justin didn’t make it, platforms went out of fashion (and then back in again), and social media has blown up in a way that no one could have ever predicted. The internet affects us in almost all aspects of our lives, whether that’s school, work or our personal relationships. There are currently 3.17 billion users on the internet, with a global average of 145 minutes each spent on social media per day. We are more connected than ever, something of profound value in these times of self-isolation. However, the way the internet is used to harass people has sadly also grown. We live in an era of trolling, with LGBTQ+ people often at the brunt of this. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, among other social platforms, have all become breeding grounds for anti-LGBT rhetoric. A recent Hate Crime Report from the charity Galop, found that 80% of LGBTQ+ people had experienced abuse online. Among these victims, 60% faced threats of violence and 40% received extreme death threats or sexual assault threats. The head of hate crime services at Galop, Nick Antjoule, spoke out about this “Despite progress on LGBT+ rights, online platforms remain hostile environments for many LGBT+ people. This report offers a sobering reminder of the harms caused by online hate. It targets individuals, poisons social discourse and limits opportunities to live open and fulfilled lives.” For LGBT+ people the internet can be a place of refuge, where they can find and connect with members of their community. For many, it is a place where they first come out and find vital resources, however, in response to online abuse two out of five LGBT+ people use social media significantly less and one in five delete their accounts altogether. Among them, are LGBT+ public figures, such as Ruby Rose, who have been chased off social platforms, preventing them from connecting with fans and being visible role models to their community.
This abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Just as we have seen anti-LGBT abuse increase online, we have seen it increase in the physical world, with many suggesting the two are intrinsically linked. Although we are often led to believe that today’s society is progressive and that discrimination towards minorities is a problem of the past, the statistics show a very different story. Recent figures reveal that homophobic hate crimes in London have increased by 55% in the last 5 years, not quite the progressive paradise it is often painted to be. With both anti-LGBT hate crime and online abuse increasing, it suggests that the two are symptoms of a larger problem; one in which anti-LGBT hate is the root cause.
For many, abuse online and offline cannot be separated, as the two are used in ammunition together. For Laura, a victim of an LGBT hate crime in Mali this is strongly the case, as her physical attack was recorded and is still being spread around the internet to intimidate her 2 years later. The link between online abuse and physical violence may seem obvious to some, however Police struggle to follow up on claims of online abuse. Lee, the secretary of the national LGBT police network, explains “Some things are proving a lot more difficult for us to take forward, especially with online hate, such as on Twitter … It’s very difficult to get that user account from Twitter because it’s based in the US so it’s very difficult for us to prosecute.”
The experiences of LGBTQ+ women online
Trolls find comfort behind their screens, as well as sexists and homophobes. With this online barrier, we see outrageous comments being made as there are no consequences for their ignorance.
Social Media Manager at myGwork and Founder of Unite UK, Charlotte Summers has gained a following across social media sharing her thoughts, feelings and life online. For the most part, it’s very rewarding and she’s created an online LGBTQ+ safe space for those in need of support. But as ever, there are always negatives and recently she’s found a spike in homophobia and graphic content across her platforms.
Those may question the correlation between COVID-19 and online harassment. But when we look at the rise in domestic violence cases and childline reporting a spike in demand for their services, we realise that COVID-19 is creating a toxic environment for those who are vulnerable and a minority.
With a reach of over 46,000 followers, Charlotte has shared her experience with how COVID-19 is contributing to online hate crimes.
“It’s hard to pinpoint when the influx of homophobia and graphic content started, but more so recently I’m noticing a huge spike in the number of “trolls” we encounter on a daily basis. From transphobic to lesphobic comments and direct messages that consist of unsolicited pictures, it’s becoming a worry that homophobes are targeting LGBTQ+ accounts.”
“The effects of this mentally are huge. I’ve started to change the type of content I post and monitor my social media accounts to ensure any hate that does appear is quickly deleted to protect young LGBTQ+ members. Not to say we’re the only accounts experiencing online hate crimes, many of my friends are noticing graphic accounts follow and interact with their content.”
“In order to protect ourselves, we’re reducing the amount of LGBTQ+ content shared, and many accounts have gone private to ensure they’re not at risk of enduring homophobic content.”
Charlotte Summers, Social Media Manager at myGwork and founder of Unite UK
The relationship between COVID-19, online hate and physical violence
COVID-19 has created a wave of new social and economic problems, with many witnessing blatant racism towards the Asian community, witnesses have reported adults coughing at young adults, name-calling as well as online racial abuse.
This is happening on a global scale, in New York, an Asian woman was attacked by a group of teenagers stating she caused coronavirus. Whilst in Birmingham, a Chinese student’s jaw was dislocated whilst he was attacked to racial taunts.
On LGBTQ+ dating apps such as Grindr, there also has been a wave of discrimination to those in the Asian Community.
On top of this, across the globe, we are seeing many leaders use the Coronavirus to hide their blatantly homophobic views. Evangelist Franklin Graham, has used COVID-19 as an opportunity to force volunteers to reject gay & trans rights before treating any patients.
Others such as Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are blaming the whole pandemic on gay marriage stating “One of most significant things to cause the spread of this epidemic is the legalization of same-sex marriage.”
These racial and homophobic attacks in relation to COVID-19 highlight how minorities online and offline are victims of hate crimes. Through extreme views shared by the media, it’s leaking through onto social media, dating apps and opinions around those being targeted.
What’s being done to stop this?
Tackling online hate crimes has been an ever-growing problem, but many social media platforms are working to combat it.
Instagram introduced a new feature where you could ban certain words, the only problem is you’d have to predict what would be said. They’ve also introduced a whole new setting that helps report, mute and restrict accounts. The number of likes has now been hidden and they’ve introduced new AI features that alert people when their comment may be considered offensive and asks if they still want to post it.
Facebook, which is considered the most regulated platform, provides its users with the ability to remove abusive comments completely, which has the effect of it being permanently deleted from the view of everyone, as well as require commenters to register their names and e-mail addresses.
Alongside social media apps, Galop has released online media with clear instructions, guidance and support for those who are experiencing hate crimes online.
However, there is speculation that social media platforms actually benefit from online trolling. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate’s (CCDH) conducted a report titled ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’ where it has been suggested that “abusive and offensive comments often generate a significant amount of attention from users which in turn boosts the overall time spent online, which is a core metric for platforms such as Facebook.”
Laws are meant to protect us, so what has our government put in place to stop online abuse? In England and Wales, there have been laws introduced as far back as in the 1980s, but as online life has become a greater part of our everyday life, new laws are also being introduced to cope better with the online reality of the modern world.
At present, a troll can be prosecuted under hate crime, anti-harassment laws and computer misuse laws as well as under some common laws relating to defamation. Some examples include The Malicious Communications Act 1988 which covers comments which cause “distress or anxiety”. The Communications Act 2003 expands on the protection offered by the 1988 Act by including the offence of making threats and establishing the powers of the regulatory authority, OFCOM.
Another key piece of legislation is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which contains offences of online and offline stalking. More recently, the latest law to protect people from trolling is the 2016 Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) which “introduced new laws that could see those who create “derogatory hashtags” or post “humiliating” Photoshopped images JAILED”.
Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said that “Social media can be used to educate, entertain and enlighten, but there are also people who use it to bully, intimidate and harass. Ignorance is not a defence and perceived anonymity is not an escape. Those who commit these acts, or encourage others to do the same, can and will be prosecuted.”
Although these laws have been around for some time, it looks like police are still far from taking it seriously. Talking to one police source it was stated that “The police have more than enough to do investigating real-life crimes - no troll wants a child to harm themselves because of cyberbullying and if this law prevents another needless death then that's great. But adults who provoke trolls into a reaction by not having a sense of humour are going to abuse this law and waste police time because they are unable to not search 'troll groups' for comments about themselves and have an inability to log off and live their real life. Images used for photoshopping are gained from being uploaded to Facebook, once you do this you are effectively making your picture fair game for public use.”
Although the police might not yet be taking this issue seriously, people all around the globe continue to suffer from online bullying and trolling. The negative effect trolling has on mental health and the general wellbeing of LGBT+ victims is an area of high importance that needs more attention. There is little quantitative evidence available regarding the impacts of trolling on their recipients but there has been common self-reporting evidence by victims on how trolling has affected them.
Victims of online trolling experience a range of negative emotional responses, including fear, anxiety, substance abuse, self-blame, paranoia, withdrawal from social life and suicidal thoughts, while many also fear for their physical safety following online victimisation. At the same time, commonly reported symptoms include depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although trolling may be an online phenomenon, it is very clear that it has severe consequences in the real world. Technology brings us together and connects us in ways previously unimaginable, however, we need a government that is not afraid to be clear and strict on what type of behaviour will be tolerated online. Furthermore, the platforms where this hate occurs need to be held accountable if they are not ready to stop it themselves. If the current crisis of COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that kindness and community are more important than ever, and this needs to include online too.