ONCE upon a time, the word “troll” was rarely found anywhere outside of fairy tales.
These days the term “troll” has been given a whole new meaning, to refer to something that exists very much in the real world.
Internet “trolling” or “trolls” refers to someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community, such as Twitter.
Whereas sometimes these comments are nothing more than irrelevant, in recent months a number of more disturbing cases of trolling have made the headlines, with bereaved families mourning dead children among those falling prey to cruel internet campaigns.
Just over a week ago Frank Zimmerman, aged 60, found himself in the dock and narrowly avoiding a jail term after he sent a series of abusive messages to Corby’s Conservative MP, Louise Mensch.
The emails contained not just personal insults, but took a far darker turn, threatening her children, claiming she faced a “Sophie’s Choice”, a reference to a novel in which the heroine had to choose between the life of her son or daughter at a Nazi concentration camp.
“I hadn’t experienced any-thing like this before, it very much came out of the blue,” said Mrs Mensch, a mother-to-three.
“I had experienced all the diff-erent kinds of generic abuse, that all women in the public-eye get, but this elevated abuse was not something I was prepared to tolerate.
“You do expect to get attention when you lead a public life, but not death threats towards my children, so I reported it to the police.”
The leader of Northampton Borough Council, Councillor David Mackintosh, has also recently decided to take act-ion against an internet troll, after he said the line of what is expected in public life was crossed.
“A fake Twitter account was set up last May in my name, but I only really noticed it just after becoming leader at the beginning of November,” he said.
“When I first saw it I thought ‘that’s just a parody’, and that’s what you expect when you are in public life.
“But over the last few months it has become a lot more vicious, and not just towards me but towards other people as well.
“There have been a few occasions when people haven’t known the difference between what is my real account and the parody one.
“Whereas people in public life expect some level of parody, when they are giving up their time for public life, they do not expect these levels of abuse, and my concern is that it may make some people question why they devote their time.”
The Government has recently argued that changes to the Defamation Bill could help to tackle the problem of trolling.
Under these reforms a duty would be placed on internet service providers to try to identify internet trolls without victims needing to resort to costly legal action.
“It is hard when you are dealing with Twitter on this, because obviously they want to maintain freedom of speech and for people to be able to set up parody accounts.
“But I think there is a real line between parody and personal attack.
“Media is evolving and part of the problem is that social media is so easy to use that some people forget themselves and say things they shouldn’t.
“We all sign up to a code of conduct on these sites and it’s about making sure people follow that.”
When we went to press, it appeared that the parody site had now been removed.
But it is not just those in public life that can find themselves the victim of trolls.
Mum-of-three Karen Moriarty, from Abington, Northampton, has found herself persistently harassed by a troll on a Sports Chat Forum, called Sports Answer Bank.
Among the abuse she has suffered from a fellow forum user she has never met, have been threats to her children and an abusive message written to appear as if it were from her dead father on Father’s Day.
“The stuff that has been written has been absolutely vile; he has even looked up my address and posted it on the site,” said the 38-year-old.
“It is really upsetting, especially when they say things about your family members and you have no idea why they decide to do it or how to make them stop.
“It is difficult to know what to do. I told the site administrators about it, but it’s still up there,” she said.
Pc Carole Walton, child exploitation and online investigation officer, for Northamptonshire Police, said: “Think carefully about how you use social networking and what private information, thoughts and feelings you are sharing with the world. Unfortunately this does attract unsavoury comments from trolls who enjoy the attention and reactions they get,” she said. “Do not respond to the troll’s comments. Report the troll to the site owner/moderators/admin etc, as soon as possible.
“Inform family and real friends about the troll to ensure they do not respond to them or give them information about you. Consider reporting to the police if the trolling has become harassment.
“If offences have been committed do not delete the offensive material if possible, retain it as evidence.
“You may want to consider closing the account and creating a new one in a different username (let family and real friends know so they can keep in touch).
“If the police are involved do not close the account until they have been notified and had time to preserve the evidence, but in the meantime you can move onto a new account.
“Do not announce you are leaving because of the troll as this will encourage them even more.
“Don’t forget they are quite likely to be using multiple identities within any one forum/social networking site to make it appear as though others support their views and you may, without realising, have them as a friend as well so they can infiltrate your life further.
“If you don’t know someone in the real world then you don’t really know them at all.
“Think carefully about interacting with any online contacts. You have no idea who they are or what their real motives are.”