There is a sad story out of London that is a commentary on the mutating influence of anonymity on the Internet. Brenda Leyland killed herself after being confronted about her online abuse of the parents of the missing girl Madeleine McCann. Sky News tracked her down as the troll responsible for thousands of hate filled messages to Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter went missing in Portugal in 2007.
What is interesting is that she faced a criminal investigation. We have previously discussed the worrisome trend in England in criminalizing different forms of speech. While Leyland (writing as @Sweepyface) was vicious, the 63-year-old was also engaged in what appears to be free speech. She is an online bully — something that we all have had to deal with on blogs as a constant reality. Some people find anonymity intoxicating — unleashing the most vile and hateful sides of personalities. It is truly chilling to think that some many people actively repress such impulses until they find a vehicle to attack others without accountability. However, I have serious concerns over the criminalization of speech.
Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has made clear that social media could be a criminal offence if they contain “credible threats of violence” or target an individual in a way that “may constitute harassment or stalking”. It is the harassment element that can be highly ambiguous. The prosecutors have said that “Grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” messages can be a crime if a “public interest” case. That creates a huge chilling effect on a wide range of speech that some might see as offensive or untrue. As one of the greatest vehicles for free speech in the history of humanity, these prosecutions threaten to curtail a significant resource for free speech.
The article below cites a study by Canadian researchers that concluded that “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun… and the Internet is their playground!”
The glee turned to a nightmare for Leyland when her true identity was revealed.