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The harmful impact of trolling and online abuse

Whoever said ‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but Words will never hurt me’…was wrong!

The origins of the rhyme which persuades children to ignore unpleasant taunts, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-living, dates back to a very different era, well before social media and the internet, way back to 1830 according to some records.

The recent documentary featuring Jesy Nelson from Little Mix fame, demonstrated that words, including in the written form can actually be extremely harmful and have had fatal consequences. Jesy talked about the abuse she received as leaving her feeling permanently heartbroken, waking up feeling sad with the abuse eating away at her, going from an amazing, successful young lady to a ‘broken doll’. This is how she felt at a time when she was achieving all of her dreams, whilst wishing she could go back to her old ‘normal’ life.

The trouble is, the trolls who targeted her wanted exactly this…for many of them, it isn’t personal as such, they just enjoy making someone feeling like that. They get their pleasure from others misery.

Having watched the Jesy Nelson documentary on more than one occasion, I think you’d have to be heartless to not be moved and feel for this young lady, fulfilling a lifetime’s dream only for her passion for what she’d achieved to be stripped away, and for her to become a nervous wreck and start to believe every word she read. My own experience of working with leading political figures mirrors this. I have witnessed passionate, predominantly female, politicians becoming paranoid, believing they were going to be attacked at any moment and being side-tracked from representing the issues that that believed so strongly in.

I have had conversations where the word ‘resilience’ is repeatedly mentioned as well as suggesting ‘they deserved it’. Both these views are misjudged. Firstly, they don’t deserve any of it, whether they are an elected politician, a pop star, professional athlete or a reality ‘star’. That is just nonsense and completely wrong. It is so important to remember that they are all just people, doing their best and often trying to make the world a better, happier place or doing what they are good at, and making lots of money living their dreams with it. I’m guessing jealousy is a driving factor for a lot of these views.

Those targeted are usually very resilient, if they weren’t, they would not have achieved what they have. However, we all have our tipping points and I’m pretty confident that if we were all inundated with literally hundreds of abusive and hate filled messages every hour, we’d soon break. In essence it a modernday version of ‘water torture’ with the drip effect continuing until they reach breaking point.

A good place to start tackling this 21st Century issue, begins with understanding the impact and human cost, being more compassionate to those targeted and ensuring trolls and those that target others with abuse are challenged as strongly as they should be had they used racial or other hate filled abuse in any other environment.

A recent report published by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate suggested that one way to combat trolls is to ignore them, never respond and block and delete them so they can never contact you again. Research tells us that these trolls often behave like wasps, coming at you in swarms and repeatedly stinging. The truth is that many use anonymities making it increasingly difficult to identify and where appropriate prosecute them. There are emails accounts whose USP is that they are pretty much untraceable…which begs the question why? Why would you need to be anonymous unless you are doing something you shouldn’t?

Dealing with these issues and understanding the risks involved and managing the human cost requires specialist expertise. Defuse Global was set up to help those in the public eye with these exact issues.

A key element of this specialism is being able to identify the threats from the abuse, or to use well known threat assessment phrase the ‘Hunters from the Howlers’. Defuses experience, together with our extensive knowledge of how threats really look, together with an in-depth knowledge of what attack planning looks like and how the key red flags are communicated sets us apart from any other consultancy.

Very simply, if you or someone you know experiences any of the issues discussed, contact Defuse, and we will help you feel safer in public life.

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