A new campaign has been launched in a bid to tackle the problem of online ‘trolling’ - when people attack others purely to garner a reaction.
Celebrities have joined the fight against online trolls - but County Gazette editor PAUL JONES looks at how the issue is also having an impact closer to home...

IF you were walking down the street and saw someone being shouted at, or accused of being a ‘traitor’, you would probably think it was a bit strange - and unnecessary.

But in the digital world, such abuse is becoming part of daily life for many people.

A quick glance at your County Gazette’s Facebook page, for example, reveals a litany of unfounded accusations of bias, commenters being called traitors, and worse.

While we do what we can to police comments - removing anything we deem racist, targeted or overly aggressive and not to mention anything libellous - the very fact someone feels it is okay to make such comments (which they simply wouldn’t do in the street) reveals a whole new world of conflict which has opened up, due to social media.

The people who use the likes of Facebook and Twitter to dish out abuse are called ‘trolls’. 

And now, high-profile celebrities - including ex-England striker Gary Lineker and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley - have pledged not to publicise the social media abuse they receive from vile online trolls.

Instead, the group of television stars, politicians and campaigners will be muting, blocking and reporting “abhorrent” and derogatory comments - with the worst handed to the police - in a bid to starve so-called trolls of the wider audience they reportedly crave.

The move aims to stamp out entirely those who are using social media to spread racist, sexist, xenophobic and other hateful messaging via retweets and public shaming by well-known figures on social media.

Lineker, with his 7.4 million Twitter followers, is encouraging fellow social media users: “Don’t rise to the bait, block the trolls and take some time out.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, former home secretary Alan Johnson and ex-minister for business Margot James MP are among the politicians to have backed the initiative, while Dragon’s Den star Deborah Meaden, Pointless quiz show host Richard Osman, former The Apprentice sidekick Nick Hewer and comedian Aisling Bea have also vowed to no longer engage with trolls.

The public figures have been convinced by new research that suggests hate speech is being inadvertently spread via social media when insults, put downs or worse are quoted or shared.

To reverse the worrying trend, the likes of Lineker and Riley have signed-up to instead reporting the worst cases of online abuse and vile messages to the police, while sending lesser examples to social media companies to put pressure on them to act.

And new charity, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), the group behind the Don’t Feed the Trolls report, is advocating an even simpler solution for those being badgered online - it recommends muting notifications and taking a break from social media in the first instance, before escalating anything thought to be unlawful.

In one eye-opening piece of analysis, a quoted tweet by Labour and anti-Brexit MP David Lammy to his 562,000 followers was able to increase his abuser’s own popularity by 14 per cent. The abuser had accused the politician of not being “indigenous English”.

Lineker, presenter of BBC’s Match Of The Day and ex-Tottenham Hotspur goal scorer, said he was determined to “show online trolls the red card” after seeing the racist abuse directed at young black Premier League footballers.

Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham, 21, admitted his mother was in tears after reading the torrent of racist comments targeted towards him after he missed the decisive penalty in the European Super Cup against Liverpool last month.

Lineker said: “We’ve all been shocked by the way in which racist trolls have been targeting footballers recently.

“It is frankly horrifying that they have done so in a calculated way to spread their abhorrent views. 

“Let’s not allow the beautiful game to be tarnished in this way.

“Don’t rise to the bait, block the trolls and take some time out.”

Somerset County Gazette:
CAMPAIGN: Gary Lineker

CCDH’s report - co-authored by charity chief executive Imran Ahmed and Dr Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist featured on television and previously contracted by the Home Office - discovered neo-Nazi groups in America had actively encouraged supporters to target public figures.

The report, published on Monday, contains excerpts from a playbook produced by the US neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, advising that the best way to gain “media attention and general infamy” is “to troll public figures and get them to whine about it”.

Jewish TV-personality Riley, a former Strictly Come Dancing contestant, has been on the receiving of anti-Semitic abuse and was involved in the research behind the report.

“Before having CCDH’s knowledge it felt like not responding to trolls or blocking them was weak, and calling them out, trying to engage in conversation and education was helpful, but the research shows otherwise,” said the Celebrity Gogglebox star who has campaigned against anti-semitism in the Labour Party.

“I now block trolls as common practice, and have changed my settings to avoid seeing much of their output, which has made life much better from a mental health standpoint and vitally, is not inadvertently helping to grow their audiences or feed their negativity.”

But she has also faced accusations of ‘trolling’ herself, after branding Jeremy Corbyn an ‘antisemite’ in a tweet and urging people to share the message, as if to emphasise the difficult line anyone expressing an opinion walks on the social media tightrope.

On one side, that opinion, on the other, claims you are trolling.

But trolling doesn’t just take place on social media.

The comments sections of our own countygazette.co.uk can be a vibrant place for debate on range of issues.

But they can also degrade into vicious, rage-filled cesspits of personal attacks and hateful rhetoric.

Our reporters have faced abuse, including one reader calling for a journalist to be ‘shot’ for omitting a piece of information they deemed important.

And Somerset West and Taunton Councillor John Hunt took to social media to highlight the problem.

Cllr Hunt has called on your County Gazette to restrict ‘anonymous’ profiles, forcing people to register their full names in order to comment on our stories.

“Surely if everyone used their own name, trolling would be much reduced,” he said.

“I’ve been trolled a few times, mainly on Twitter and without exception it is been by an anonymous person (coward) using some made-up name or handle. 

“Our very own County Gazette, invites people to comment on articles published on their online offering, however, people don’t have to use their own name and of course, this results in rudeness and abuse to those featured in the relevant article and rather strangely, they are also unpleasant to each other. 

“Perhaps I could suggest that our County Gazette lead by example and stop people creating anonymous accounts. 

“I’m very sure that the level of trolling would drop dramatically and actually encourage many people to get involved in the conversation.”

Somerset County Gazette:

It is difficult to police because, as an editor, I want people to comment. 

I value genuine feedback, reporters want to know what people think about issues, about stories, and for them to tell theirs.

However, it does appear hate is growing - and the digital sphere is leading the way.
And we must confront it.

But does that mean banning comments completely?

Do we install a system of mandatory identification, removing people’s ability to comment anonymously? Or something in between?

All of these measures have pros - and cons - but it is clear online abuse is on the rise and we are keen to hear from you on what we should do about it.

What do you think should be done to counter trolls? Should your County Gazette ban comments completely? Should more be done to identify those who comment?

Whatever your view, let us know in the comments below - and cast a vote in our quick poll...

You can also email paul.jones@countygazette.co.uk.