Celebrity harassment, vulnerability and online anonymity

“The internet is allowing all types of vultures to take advantage of celebrities’ vulnerability. Abuse and harassment of celebrities online is permitted because we have decided, as a society, to encourage anonymous speech online.”

Last week, Kelsey Ferguson, the daughter of football legend Iain Ferguson had called for victims of online abuse to speak out following the death of Love Island presenter Caroline Flack. Ms Flack was reported to have suffered from a prolonged campaign of online harassment before being found dead in her own home on 15 February 2020. the media reported her death as a suicide.

In an earlier interview, Kelsey Ferguson had described how she herself was bullied and harassed as a child and although her own bullying was carried out offline, when she heard about the death of Caroline Flack, she felt there was no difference at all, to the victim, whether the harassment they suffer was carried out by kids at the school grounds or by adults on the internet.

She told the newspaper “I’ve been in that situation; thinking nobody would miss me if I wasn’t here.”

Until you have experienced abuse online it is very hard to understand how it feels. There is very little emotional or legal help for victims of online trolling, particularly for those in the public eye, who naturally find it more difficult to trust.

Ironically, people who are in the public eye often find it more challenging to handle online abuse despite being more exposed to harassment by professional celebrity trolls. The reason for this is that they are often (wrongly) led to believe that because they are in the public eye, they are meant to have been born with a thicker skin, or at least to have developed one.

They are also often told that they must appear strong because this is what is expected of them by their agent, fans, the press and their associates. Being considered a living legend does not mean that you have to become one, in real life.

The problem is that “legends” (at least the original meaning of the word) refers to the lives of saints. Celebrities are not saints. They are normal people who happened to be engaged in activities that place them under more public scrutiny than most people. This makes them vulnerable and susceptible to harassment, abuse and bullying.

The internet is allowing all type of vultures to take advantage of celebrities’ vulnerability. Abuse and harassment of celebrities online is permitted because we have decided, as a society, to encourage anonymous speech online.

This, however, can and should change because there is an easier way to help victims of online harassment with exposing online trolls.

The Protection from Harassment Act, prohibits harassment and stalking of individuals whether online or offline. The law is often being applied very rigidly to offline events, such as when someone verbally shouts, swears and intimidate another person, causing that person to feel fear and distress.

The difficulties in enforcing cases of online harassment primarily relate to the challenges the police are having in identifying offenders, rather than due to questions of whether a criminal offence was committed in the first place.

Because the police find the process of identifying online harassers extremely challenging, time consuming and expensive, they simply give up before even trying.

Whilst the campaign of Kelsey Ferguson encouraged those who suffer online harassment to speak out is a positive step in the right direction, to be effective, such campaign needs to be directed to Parliament, which must change the law to make it easier for normal people, and for the police, to identify online abusers.

The idea is to make those who regularly abuse others online aware that they could be easily identified if needed. This is likely to result in a change of mindset among online abusers, who often derive their power from their given right to anonymity.

Practically speaking, the Government needs to set up a body, made perhaps of a former judge, a representative of social media companies, a legal professional and members of the public, who will be receiving requests from individuals who had been trolled online, to order social media companies to disclose information about their online users who are accused of harassment.

This will replace the current situation where it could cost up to £5,000 for a victim of harassment to obtain a disclosure order within a couple of days and nearly 6 months for the police to do the same.

We need to think about changing the mindset of online abusers and make them understand that anonymity on the internet isn’t designed to harass and abuse others. Online harassment needs to be viewed as a form of anti-social behaviour. Easily obtained disclosure orders will make cases of harassment against anonymous internet users slowly disappear.

Regardless of whether the harassment is inflicted online or offline and regardless of who the victim is, you, me or someone famous, to avoid more deaths occurring as a result of harassment, we must think again about attitude towards the grant of anonymity to harasser, abusers and trolls.

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