The internet is no stranger to abusive comments and insults. Combining the ease of communication with the anonymity enables many to voice their opinions with little repercussions. Heated debates can often result in harsh insults and even threats. With the spread of Internet and social media the abuse has begun spilling into real life, however, resulting in a growing number of prolific and worrying criminal cases all over the world. The U.K. has just responded by hardening the laws against online harassment, increasing the maximum penalty from six months up to two years. This follows directly after remarks made against Chloe Madeley the past week.
Judy Finnigan appeared on ITV’s Loose Women, making several controversial comments about Ched Evans, a football player recently convicted for rape. She partly defended Evans, stating that since he was not violent towards the victim the punishment should not be as harsh as in other cases. Her opinion was met with a lot of criticism. However, the target of the vitriol quickly shifted to Finnegan’s daughter, Chloe Madeley, who stood by her mother despite the online harassment. Madeley soon received “extremely chilling and cowardly” threats on her life.
However, Madeley is hardly the first victim of online abuse. The world of video games has been ablaze with constant reports of online harassment and threats received by some of the more vocal women in the industry. Anita Sarkeesian has launched a successful kickstarter campaign back in 2012 to produce a series of short documentaries analyzing tropes and portrayal of women in video games. She received a lot of criticism even before releasing her first video, targeting her feminist viewpoints. This quickly spiraled into harsh insults and even death threats forcing Sarkeesian to call the police and stay at a friend’s house. The past week, she had to cancel her talk at the Utah State University after a school shooting threat.
Threats such as these are not always unfulfilled, however, which is one of the reason why hardening anti-online harassment laws in the U.K. might be a good idea. In several cases, online abuse has directly affected individuals. Many popular YouTube or Twitch video streamers have been subject to swatting, a “prank” where an anonymous phone call is made to the local police about a potential gun threat at the location of the streamer. In several cases, it has resulted in a Swat team storming the house in the middle of a live recording. In another shocking U.K. case, parents of a missing girl Madeleine McCann were victim of online harassment on social media after their loss. One of those involved and confronted about the trolling was later found dead. It is also not uncommon for groups such as Anonymous or 4chan to mobilize their best technical heads and uncover huge amounts of personal information about any disliked figure, including their addresses, social security numbers, bank accounts and more.
What might have started as just a bunch of gamers or internet trolls merely insulting each other during a virtual match of Counter-Strike a decade ago has grown into a dangerous wave of online harassment reaching all corners of the internet and social media. With the wealth of personal information available online, the virtual barrier is falling down and the abuse is increasingly spilling and affecting the real life of their victims. The U.K. hardening its anti-harassment laws sends a strong message that these activities can be seen as criminal and will be persecuted as such. As the meme goes, internet is serious business.
By Jakub Kasztalski