Why it's high time to #ReclaimTheInternet from the trolls

Reuters

I'm racking my brain for the last time I had a day without using the internet. There was that time a few years ago when I gave up social media for Lent, a retreat I went on two summers ago in rural Scotland, but except for that it's probably been eight or so years since I spent a day without going online.

For the most part that's been a positive thing. I've made friends online, learned about whole cultures and subjects I never knew existed, paid bills, watched TV, in fact pretty much my whole life (including writing this piece) has something to do with the internet. Yet, there's a dark side to the online world that we don't talk about enough.

Much like money, the internet is a neutral tool that can be used for good or for bad – to build or destroy relationships, to edify or to castigate.

Today a group of British politicians and campaigners are launching the 'Reclaim The Internet' campaign. They are mostly women who have been the victims of terrible abuse online – especially since the advent of social media. They have gathered stories of women who have faced rape threats, death threats, stalking, as well as more low-level verbal abuse on an alarmingly regular basis. It's not just women – the campaign is seeking to highlight other forms of bullying, racism and intimidation which have become commonplace.

Christian campaigners have been targeted for all kinds of abuse online. Vicky Beeching has written about the bile which has been thrown her way. She says, "I quickly fell out of love with social media when the police had to move me out of my apartment overnight due to rape and death threats. These were sparked by me simply being a woman who put her head above the parapet on issues of gender equality."

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Sadly, of course, Christians aren't immune from doling out online abuse. The problems are so widespread that one article last week simply asked the question, When will the Internet be safe for Women?

But is it really 'unsafe' to be a woman online? Surely you can just ignore the trolls or switch your device off, say the critics... Well, no. Not now that so much of our working and personal lives are lived online. In fact, following the #ReclaimTheInternet hashtag today, I saw plenty of men suggesting there was no problem at all and women were simply making it all up.

Spot the theme? All men. All pseudonymous. All unfailing unfunny. There's much worse out there that I won't subject you to.

It isn't just women who are fed up of the abuse received online. Racist bile is being pumped out at an alarming rate. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken out about the chilling prevalence of anti-Semitic abuse online, describing it as "nauseating and criminal".

Trolls have been especially prevalent around Donald Trump's campaign. The astonishing litany of racist abuse thrown at one writer who dared to criticise Trump and his supporters shows just how deep this problem runs. Social media is swimming in a sea of abuse, ranging from mild name calling, through to threats of violence and even worse.

Trolling can impact not only the person being abused, but also the person handing out the abuse. The tragic story of a woman who allegedly trolled Kate and Gerry McCann before being confronted by the media and then found dead may be an extreme example, but it is salutary. No-one wins as a result of online abuse. It just drives wedges between people who, in most instances, have never even met in real life.

So what should we do? Well, firstly, get familiar with the block button. It's an important tool to get pathetic, attention-seeking trolls out of your timeline. However, if you suspect there is a real danger to you or someone you know, report it to police and make sure they take it seriously. If there is any hint of a threat of violence, then you are right to do this.

Given that so much of our lives are lived online and that being connected can be so fruitful and rich, we can't simply walk away from all online engagement. Having blocked and reported the worst offenders, it's worth remembering a few things. Freedom of speech is a vital component of our democratic societies and we abandon it at our peril. To retain it, we're always going to have a fair number of people who use it in disappointing ways.

The answer, sadly, isn't to ban anyone who doesn't agree with us or who says things in a way we don't like (blocking is different to banning in that we don't have to read other people's thoughts but they are free to keep expressing them). But we can build a better online culture. This starts with teaching our children to interact online in a way we'd want them to do in person. It also involves doing so ourselves. I often find myself getting dragged into long debates online. Though these can be lifegiving, they can also lead to a propensity to being more rude about people than I ever would be face-to-face. Showing some self-control and simply logging off when things become too heated is not a defeat – it's actually a victory.

Ultimately, I support #ReclaimTheInternet because the online space is too important to be polluted by trolls and the victims of abuse online are too important to be ignored. Let's lead by example.

Follow Andy Walton on Twitter at @waltonandy

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