The dark side of the net

June 8, 2014: Chris Johnston, The Dark Side of the Internet, (Fairfax Media),

Earlier this year when Garry met Sally, Garry was asked a simple question – ”How are you coping with the trolling?” He says it was a cathartic moment because he thought his campaign was the only one under attack.

Garry Muratore is the public face of Melbourne activist group No Maccas in the Dandenong Ranges, set up to oppose a new McDonald’s outlet in Tecoma. Sally McManus is from the national feminist campaigners Destroy The Joint. They met while speaking to youth leaders at a Melbourne NGO involved in helping poverty in the Asia-Pacific.

”She said, ‘How are you coping with the trolling? Because you will be trolled,’ ” says Muratore. ”It was such a weight off my shoulders because then I knew it wasn’t just us. Not an hour goes by when I’m not targeted online.”

Oscar's Law head Debra Tranter is standing down from the role because of trolling.Oscar’s Law head Debra Tranter is standing down from the role because of trolling. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Put simply, trolling is a deliberate attempt to upset or anger someone online. Methods evolve quickly; it is now an accepted fact that it is pervasive and dangerous.

By February, when Muratore met McManus, the pornography had already started. Last October he received a Facebook private message from an unknown and long-vanished user; it was a picture of his own head photoshopped onto a male body. Two weeks ago he got another, more disturbing, message: his 26-year-old daughter Amy’s head superimposed onto a pornographic female body.

Amy Muratore is seeking an intervention order against a former mayor of Preston (and Dandenong Ranges resident) Alan Coutinho-Hogan, 66, a vocal supporter of the Tecoma McDonald’s, which is now open and trading.

Sally McManus of feminist campaigners Destroying the Joint.Sally McManus of feminist campaigners Destroying the Joint. Photo: Alana Mew

She has alleged in court he first approached her at the McDonald’s construction site, knowing she was Muratore’s daughter, saying she should be ”gang-raped”, and has since posted sexualised statements about her online and stalked her in person.

Coutinho-Hogan has claimed in court he does not know her and will contest the allegations next month. He says the allegations are part of an ALP campaign because he has contested elections against local ALP member James Merlino.

But that is only the beginning. There has been a long-running, bitter and increasingly violent trolling campaign directed at anti-McDonald’s activists around Tecoma.

It includes further threats of rape against women, accusations of individuals being criminal, corrupt or a paedophile and personal details such as home addresses being posted online. A local councillor was told online that it would be good to see her dead in a car that had run off the road into a tree.

Muratore says trollers include Dandenongs traders who support McDonald’s and a hardcore cabal of locals who monitor the protesters’ every move.

”I was shown a Facebook chat between some of these people, using pseudonyms, explaining how to use a Malaysian SIM card to call my home phone to do death threats,” says Muratore.

”Two nights later at 2am the landline rings and I hear a delay and then someone says ‘We’re going to get you’. People have had nails thrown on their driveway, glass smashed on the driveway, drive-bys of houses with people beeping the horn, round and round the block driving past houses.

”People have had rubbish dumped on their driveways. Late-night phone calls – ‘Maccas are coming to get you, bitch.’ That was directed at a young mother with young children.”

Some of the anti-McDonald’s campaigners have been followed in the street in Belgrave or Tecoma and photographed.

”We know who has been doing it,” says Muratore. ”It is the same group of people doing everything.”

According to Australia’s Fibreculture Journal a troll plays with ”identity deception”, has a ”mastery of internet lore” and ”looks to … introduce a tiny break-flow into the circuit of discourse”. The Urban Dictionary is more direct. It says trolling is ”being a prick on the internet because you can”.

Trolling is now also within the framework of the law. Part of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act regulates the internet and can be used to prosecute trolls. There are also state laws in Victoria and New South Wales that can be used against offensive online behaviour; in Victoria cyber-bullying is classified as stalking. If the trolling includes pornographic content, a complaint can be made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Yet the battle is lost. Trolls are generally more clever and more determined than those trying to regulate the technology they use, and the great dilemma of the internet age is that while it provides great freedom, it also brings great risk. The anonymity it affords is both the greatest virtue and greatest vice.

Activist or campaign groups – lobbying for a specific political or moral cause online – have a different and more serious set of issues than other individuals or companies who get trolled in that the trolling of activists tends to escape digital bounds and burst into real life. That is the case with three Australian activist groups – Garry Muratore’s No Maccas in the Dandenong Ranges, the feminist group Destroy The Joint and Oscar’s Law, a Melbourne-based animal welfare group opposed to puppy farms.

Oscar’s Law head Debra Tranter this week revealed she would stand down as the figurehead of the organisation later this year due mainly to Oscar’s Law online sites being trolled and her own motivations and ethics being questioned. She has moved house within Victoria six times after threatening phone calls and having her home address posted online. ”All we are trying to do is help animals and shut cruel puppy factories. Why is that wrong? Why are we attacked?”

Tranter says most of the abuse online has come from people also in the animal welfare industry who are ”jealous” of her high profile. She has been widely accused of stealing donated money and casting doubt on dog breeders who consider themselves ethical but might be perceived to be running a ”puppy farm”.

South Australian man Mark Aldridge – a former One Nation and now independent political hopeful – has blogged and posted in social media extensively about Tranter, questioning her methods, motives and ethics. Aldridge owns an animal sanctuary near Adelaide and was facing gun charges after police raided his property last year. The charges were eventually dropped.

His lawyer for a time was Gregory Morcom, who received a suspended sentence in May after being convicted of six child pornography charges and a gun charge in an Adelaide court. Morcom is appealing his conviction.

Destroy The Joint’s Jenna Price, a Sydney journalism academic, says early in the group’s online campaigning trolls were spreading the message that Destroy The Joint was supported by or even formed by the Australian Labor Party and the union movement.

This a key tactic in the trolling of activists – subvert and then hurt their message and also the online forum in which they spread it. Ms Tranter says trolling of this nature would cause potential donors to reconsider giving money.

Says Price: ”In saying that we are a front for the ALP or the unions they are trying to undermine the group’s concept of itself. ”All we are is a bunch of individual feminists who came together to try and create something bigger. People love to confuse progressive politics with being the member of something. I often get emails from men who can’t believe a group of women have got together and built something that is not structured.”

One of the main ways in which Destroy The Joint got their message out was through Twitter and a hashtag of their name, which was taken from Alan Jones who had opined on radio that women were destroying the joint. The hashtag went viral. The whole point of Twitter hashtags is their inbuilt virality. But as well as attracting massive support, it also attracted vicious trolling.

Melbourne writer Clem Bastow helped organise the feminist event Slutwalk in 2010; their Facebook page was subjected to ”generally threatening and nuisance trolling” by a group of men she found had come to it from a V8 car forum. The posts were easily removed, she says, but ”if we weren’t there to constantly monitor and moderate the page and remove the bad stuff, we would have failed to create a safe space”.

For Jenna Price, online trolling also spilled over into real life in terrifying ways. She got a sinister message on her work landline. ”He said ‘I’m gonna find your daughters and I’m gonna rape them.’ I was so terrified I hit delete, I went into an immediate panic. I do a good job of blocking people on Twitter who harass me and our Facebook page is very well moderated. But no one should have to put up with threats of death or sexual violence just because they are expressing a political idea.

”I went to bits. When I think of it now I still feel tears welling up in my eyes.”

Similar real-life threats were made last year in Britain to Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist activist who was campaigning to have women retained on Bank of England notes. Her case strengthened calls for new, improved digital-era legislation.

Jenna Price has also been threatened on Twitter. She says Twitter trolls are easy to spot because they have the default egg for an avatar and few followers.

”They tweet things like ‘I know where you work, I saw you today, and next time you’re gonna get it. I saw you in the corridors today, you smiled at me’. These threats are malevolent and slightly terrifying.” she says. ”There’s a lot of simmering hatred out there.”

Melbourne digital marketing expert Ed Charles often works for those whose reputations have been smeared online. He says the internet has democratised activism.

Where previously activists or campaign groups might need to mobilise large groups for protests or to distribute material, it can now be done easily and cheaply, or even for free, online. Yet, of course, that means trolls can just as easily get involved maliciously.

Facebook’s policy on abuse, bullying or trolling is contained in their ”Terms” and ”Community Standards” that everyone agrees to when joining, says spokeswoman Jessica Faull from Sydney PR firm n2n. ”We remove all content that is reported to us that violates our standards,” she says. Page managers can delete, edit or filter posts to those pages.

Ed Charles says it is a ”golden time for activists online” despite the trolls. ”In most cases the trolls are nowhere near as organised as the activists,” he says.

The Melbourne-based Online Hate Prevention Institute – a charity – has broadened its watch from anti-Semitism online to wider instances of abuse. Chief executive officer Dr Andre Oboler says online abuse is only sporadically policed, with the Australian Federal Police unlikely to intervene in anything but extremely serious cases and state police largely uninterested. He says the nebulous nature of trolls’ geographic location is also problematic for policing.

In Tecoma, the No McDonald’s activists mostly know who is targeting them. Some use their real names. One is a prison officer from Werribee now under investigation by the Department of Justice after complaints were lodged with the state government about his online behaviour towards anti-McDonald’s campaigners. The man’s wife has been employed by a McDonald’s franchisee.

Jaxon Barnes has worked on major campaigns for the Wilderness Society, including the proposed James Price Point LNG project near Broome. Yet he says he has never seen such dangerous trolling as in Tecoma. He lives locally and was part of the anti-McDonald’s campaign, including doing a survey of 1300 residents showing 89 per cent were against the fast food giant coming to town.

”When you get someone like McDonald’s wanting to come into a community, it obviously divides that community. But that should not extend to death threats and rape threats or the level of stalking we have seen here. It means there is no proper debate. I was shocked when I saw what was going on. The tension has been explosive at times.”

A young local newspaper reporter was among those targeted after her coverage was questioned by the pro-McDonald’s lobby. She received threats and was told her own home address by those threatening her.

She was taken off the story by her editor temporarily for her protection.

Tecoma campaigners have identified four ”categories” of trolls who have been attacking their cause. The first are ‘nuisance’ teenagers who are considered harmless. Second, a handful of usually anonymous locals who go over the top with little or no worry about the consequences of making illegal death and rape threats online. Third, the local traders who see McDonald’s as a good thing because it will bring more people into the area. And then the ”astroturfers” – people campaigners suspect are employed by McDonald’s to support the company online.

A spokeswoman for McDonald’s Australia, Skye Oxenham, denies the company employed astroturfers.

”The only people who comment on behalf of McDonald’s are the administrators on our Facebook page and they are approved representatives of the brand.”

She says the company does not condone ”any form of bullying or harassment”. However, despite the McDonald’s now open in Tecoma, there are still multiple pro-McDonald’s in Tecoma Facebook pages with dubious content.

Oxenham says the company supports people expressing their views ”as long as they do so peacefully and lawfully”.

”That goes for those who support the Tecoma restaurant as well as those who do not,” she says.

Meanwhile, in the Facebook forums that have hosted most of the threats and abuse, a voice of reason among the shrill claims and counter-claims: ”This is the abject level of behaviour that has become the norm in this infantile echo chamber of dysfunctional trolls. Naysaying has been confused with reasoned argument, invective with rebuttal, and knee-jerk venom with constructive, effective campaign building.”

Whether that poster will himself be trolled both online and in the physical realm remains to be seen.

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