Who will help the women being traumatised by anonymous trolls?

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“The day of the rope draws nearer with every f—ing online whinge post you make.”

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Interview with a troll

Ginger Gorman sits down with a troll who is part of an international network that relentlessly bullies online victims.

This was the final line of a message received by Carly Findlay on her blog this week. The rest of the comment included shocking racial and homophobic slurs as well as vilifying her for having a disability – it is the second death threat the writer and appearance activist has received in the past two weeks.

Despite her best efforts to report the incidents to police and agencies set up to deal with cyber-crimes, Findlay has been unable to get any action taken. She said the reason she cannot get help is that she doesn’t know the identity of the troll, and she’s been “handballed from pillar to post”.

After contacting the Australian Federal Police after her first death threat — which was a tweet with a screenshot of someone shooting themself​ in the head — Findlay was told to try local police. Victoria Police then passed her on to the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) and advised her to get counselling. She did not pursue that incident further. After the second incident, Findlay went straight to the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), who run ACORN. “They said ‘sorry there’s nothing we can do, you’ll have to contact your local police department’.” After trying to report it to Victoria Police on Friday, Findlay was told it was outside their jurisdiction, and to go to the AFP. Full circle.

The office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner (which on Friday officially extended its remit to adults) was able to get in touch with Twitter after the first threat. The offending individual was removed.

A spokesperson for the office said “people being affected by cyber-bullying or trolling are often in distress and need to talk to someone who can help explain their options to resolve the situation. We can empower people to take positive steps and make the right kind of report — whether to police, social media services or other support services.”

In a statement to Fairfax Media, the ACIC echoed the importance of victims providing the right kind of information: “We encourage the community to provide as much detail as possible when submitting a report, so the system can best process the report including referring it on to the most appropriate law enforcement agency.”

Carly Findlay, a Melbourne author and disability activist, says she's received two anonymous death threats online in the ... Carly Findlay, a Melbourne author and disability activist, says she’s received two anonymous death threats online in the past fortnight.  Photo: Justin McManus

ACORN is a referral and reporting mechanism with no investigative or recovery powers. Its purpose is to receive complaints and, where appropriate, forward them to the relevant enforcement agency. But as Findlay found out, individuals making reports to ACORN are given no indication of where that report will go or what will happen next.

Findlay, who suffers from the painful skin condition Ichthyosis and writes about disability, isn’t new to online abuse or derogatory comments about her appearance; and she’s received help from police before.

While Carly Findlay was feeling frustrated in her attempts to pursue anonymous trolls, Tracey Spicer had a minor victory. While Carly Findlay was feeling frustrated in her attempts to pursue anonymous trolls, Tracey Spicer had a minor victory. 

But the visceral hatred sent to her in the past fortnight is unprecedented – and the fact that it’s from anonymous individuals has left her without recourse from authorities.

“They said if I knew them, I could give them details of who they are, but they said because that person is anonymous online ‘we can’t do anything, they’re just online’. And I said, ‘but I’m online too’.”

These trolls are not mucking around, they have told me themselves that they are trying to incite people to suicide.

Given the scale of trolling activity on the internet, and the ease of maintaining anonymity, Findlay is far from alone. Since Fairfax Media published a three-part series on trolling last weekend, journalist Ginger Gorman’s inbox has been inundated with cries for help from women in the same boat as Findlay, some of whom are at the point of contemplating suicide.

“The story is almost universal,” Gorman says. “Women are trying to reach out for help from their local police stations, or they may be referred to ACORN … they are told to report to ACORN, and essentially nothing happens.

TV personality Charlotte Dawson was found dead in 2014 after being mercilessly trolled online. TV personality Charlotte Dawson was found dead in 2014 after being mercilessly trolled online.  Photo: Getty Images

“They are receiving tsunamis of hate, and sometimes the tsunamis are very sustained, and it’s having a great impact on their mental health. They’re just desperate.

“How many Charlotte Dawsons will it take for us to pay attention to this? These trolls are not mucking around, they have told me themselves that they are trying to incite people to suicide. They find vulnerable people, they pick on them in a sustained way and they find their weakest point.” 

In a statement to Fairfax Media on Saturday, Victoria Police said “it is the duty of the police to investigate these matters and to determine the best avenue of dealing with perpetrators utilising formalised procedures and processes. Each case is then dealt with on its own merit. We encourage anyone who believes they are a victim of harassment or suspicious behaviour online to come forward and report the matter to police.”

This advice was echoed by NSW Police, who said anyone with concerns about material being sent to them that makes them feel bullied, harassed or intimidated should report it to local police. 

Detective Inspector, Dr Carlene Mahoney said the NSW Police Force “has on several occasions investigated and provided advice on technology-facilitated abuse matters, most specifically issues of stalking and intimidation.”

Findlay is heartened by the expansion of the office of the e-Safety Commissioner, whom she describes as “excellent, with personal responses that have been very fast”.

One small victory

While Findlay was feeling frustrated  in her attempts to pursue anonymous trolls,  Tracey Spicer had a minor victory. On Monday, with the help of a researcher, the journalist and writer identified a long-term troll who had returned with a vengeance from a “period of fallow” in the months since her book was released.

Spicer was shocked to find it was “a university-educated IT expert working in the banking and finance sector, living in Sydney, with a partner, aged in his late 20s to early 30s”.

Her next move will be to collect all the information she can before deciding whether it is worth proceeding with a defamation case, or if threats have been made, to police.

“But I do really agonise over either of those actions,” she says. “I’ve got small children, you know you really do fear for your safety when you don’t know what people like this are going to do.”

Spicer says without her “brilliant” researcher she would not have been able to identify the troll.

Spicer is sympathetic to Findlay’s plight. “Why should people, why should women, be put in the position of having to spend their own money when there is a police force in this country, in every state, and they’re not really doing their job?”

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