My eldest daughter is ten years old. A lovely, bossy, strong-willed, savvy kid. Like anyone that age, she has skin-deep bravado and is all soft and sensitive under that. She (like the rest of her class) is a digital expert, so group messaging such as Instagram, Twitter and Skype are part of everyday life, and her school world follows her home on a treasured iPod Touch.
Conversations with her mates probably go on into the night, throughout the weekend and into holidays.
As kids do, in the many online conversations that they have, someone says something mean, disruptive, rude or unfair, and the kid on the receiving end visibly falls apart under the strain of what must feel like public shaming.
Bullying has been around in many forms since time began. In the analogue days, a crying child could retreat from the playground to a teacher and, in society, extremes of harassment could be dealt with by the law. But with the proliferation of social media, bullying from people you know or, in extreme circumstances, trolling from people you don’t has created a new phenomenon that needs us to think again.
Who do we turn to when someone attacks you online? What’s the right response? Phone the police, call your lawyer, shout back, mount your own campaign?
Like Dexter’s "Dark Passenger", everyone has some sort of perverse thought. In social media, we have a perfect platform of anonymity to scream out the most extreme and absurd observations. It’s like the advent of the nuclear bomb. It has brought a whole new arsenal for the worst sort who harass as a hobby.
In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy receive rape and death threats on Twitter. And, of course, there is the tragic story of a 14-year-old girl who took her own life, perhaps as a result of trolling on Ask.fm. These are extreme examples, but we also have a new day-to-day phenomenon to understand – one that you can’t sit back and pretend is just part of a kid’s fairytale.
In recent years, we’ve been breeding a new type of bully. It’s no exaggeration: trolls have become dehumanised as a result of the anonymity the web can offer. Social media channels allow people to act without inhibition, say things that they would never have said aloud or face to face.
For most, social media has led to a loosening of social norms but, for trolls, it has meant a complete abandonment of their inhibitions. There is no fear of meaningful reprisal; when one online account is closed down, another springs up.
My mum is a psychotherapist. In her words, social media provides trolls with "dissociative anonymity" – an environment where there is no authority and the chance to hide their history through a delete button.
The internet was built and given away for free, with the promise that anyone can access anything, that people across the globe can talk to each other, collaborate, create virtual friendships and fandoms that are as real as any other community. When we joined the internet in the 90s, we entered our own pact: that being more connected would create a better world.
I’m a big fan of this independence, but what we are seeing more through social channels is a new kind of dehumanised communication. With no face, no tone of voice and no volume control, cold, hard text is blunt, often aggressive and lacks emotion. This, in itself, causes another issue: what is the difference between a harmless prank, a joke between friends and an incitement of violence? There is a need for us to pursue technical, social and legal options to cut down trolling, but could this lead to a Minority Report-style society?
Platforms such as Twitter have apologised to those affected by vicious trolling and promised to do more to prevent abuse. But I’m not sure they should be apologising or trying to be the police online. We can do more as a society to help nip the problem in the bud by supporting those who speak out and by teaching our kids that freedom comes with responsibilities. Trolling is forcing us to shape a moral compass that includes the online environment. For children, this needs to resonate with their daily lives but includes their online lives too.
A few weeks before the trolling stories came in droves, we created a campaign for the energy drink V called "V-hab recovery", which focused on injecting positivity back into the internet. When we saw the staff at GQ being bombarded by angry One Direction fans weeks later, we created VQ-hab as a tongue-in-cheek way of helping to take the heat off them and inject a bit of positivity into the discourse.
Instead of telling people who are victimised by trolls to "deal with it or get off the internet", we ought to aspire for more and for better. The internet is for all of us. So the next time you see an unprovoked piece of nasty behaviour online, call it out.
Jason Goodman is the founder and chief executive of Albion