Turning the tables on the stalkers

On 13th November, I presented a talk at a joint Paladin/Collyer-Bristow event. Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, assists high risk victims of stalking throughout England and Wales. Collyer Bristow’s Cyber Investigation Unit (CIU), which is headed up by partner Rhory Robertson, comprises a dedicated team of lawyers who advise victims of cyberstalking, cyber harassment, cyber bullying and internet trolls/trolling.

The major discussion of this event surrounded the notion of cyberstalking, how it affects victims, and how to combat this increasingly prevalent crime. My talk covered the research we are currently undertaking on the DOOM project, and how networks of abusive individuals can form online, potentially leading to escalation. Other speakers at the event included:

  • Nadine Dorries MP, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, and a cyberstalking target
  • Betsy De Thierry, Founder Director of the Trauma Recovery Centre, and a cyberstalking target
  • Laura Richards, CEO of Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service
  • Steve Slater, Computer Forensics Manager, Devon & Cornwall Police
  • Alison Morgan, Barrister at 6KBW

Several points clearly emerged from this event, including the fact that there is much work to be done around stalking and harassment, that victims need to be taken much more seriously, that the correct legislation needs to be applied when prosecuting, and the recognition that online stalking can be just as damaging – if not more so in some cases – as physical, offline stalking.

Sweepyface: a linguistic profile

This morning brought news of the suicide of a media-branded ‘troll’[1]. Brenda Leyland, the 63 year-old woman behind the @sweepyface Twitter account, a self-proclaimed “researcher” and “anti-McCann” advocate was found dead at a Marriott hotel on Saturday 4th October in Leicester. She was recently contacted by a reporter at Sky News regarding her Twitter activity which frequently suggested that the disappearance of Madeline ‘Maddie’ McCann in May 2007 was being covered up to the profit of her parents Kate and Gerry McCann.

Part of an online community of “antis” – people who challenge the McCann’s account of Maddie’s disappearance – Leyland frequently posted under the @sweepyface Twitter handle tagging her posts with #mccann. “Antis” distinguish themselves from “pros”, or “pro-mccann” advocates, who believe the McCann’s account of their daughter’s disappearance.

Here, we offer a brief and broad analysis of the content flowing to and from the @sweepyface Twitter account during the entirety of 2014, including the language use and online networks in which @sweepyface operated.

Please note that our analysis does not attempt to validate any claims made by any party with regard to the disappearance of Madeline McCann.

Who is sweepyface?

As presented on analysis of the @sweepyface Twitter account

  • Description: researcher
  • Location: London/Los Angeles

What was sweepyface talking about?

  • Number of tweets sent between Jan-Oct 2014: 2,136
  • Tweets by sweepyface which contained the ‘#mccann’ hashtag: 1,992 (93.26% of all tweets in 2014)
  • Frequency
    • We looked at the most frequent words used by @sweepyface in all the tweets sent during 2014. After cutting out frequent grammatical words (like to, the, is, of, and, etc.) which don’t typically reveal much about content, it was found that the most frequent things talked about were:
    • “K & G” – freq 222
      • K & G was used as shorthand to refer to Kate and Gerry McCann, Madeline McCann’s mother and father. They were one of the most frequent topics of interest
      • ‘Kate’ and ‘Gerry’ also appeared, but less frequently (60 times and 39 times, respectively) and were never referred to using their full names, Kate McCann/Gerry McCann
  • “shills”
    • ‘Shills’ was the most frequent lexical word used(unlike grammatical/functional words, lexical words have clear semantic meaning – they are word classes like nouns and verbs).
    • It was almost unique to sweepyface – it was characteristic of her particular way of framing “pros”
    • Shills was used as a catch all term to talk about:
      • Those who would express “pro-mccann” opinions – “pros” and “shills” appear to be interchangeable
      • those who would opposed the opinions of “antis”
    • used as an in-/out-group identifier
  • “police”
    • mostly used to question police practices as in the following Tweet from sweepyface:
      • “#mccann  Rarely a month goes by when our police force are not highlighted as having flawed investigations, PJ is no worse than any other”
    • Tweeted the police, as in the following examples:





19/03/2014 15:32

@metpoliceuk  This is becoming farcical Why will you not consider McCanns as suspects, plenty of clues

08/08/2014 15:31

@gracey52marl @metpoliceuk  #mccann  Not me, I wd like to see Gerrie Nell, prosecute the Mcanns, he wd tear them to shreds

Who did sweepyface affiliate with and what did they say?

Examined only the top 10 accounts with whom @sweepyface had most interaction with. These accounts were:

Rank Account name # of interactions Group
2 TrulyJudy73 456 pro
3 martin_liz 445 anti
4 siamesey 417 anti
5 RothleyPillow 393 anti
6 AdirenM 323 anti
7 1matthewwright1 314 anti
8 ModNrodder 309 pro
9 B_balou 256 anti
10 basilandmanuel 250 pro

Sweepyface most frequently associated directly with others who were actively engaged in talk about the disappearance of Madeline McCann, whether as a “pro” or as an “anti”. Moreover, contact between these accounts was evident and many more accounts were frequently interacting with sweepyface on the same topic.

 [more to follow]

[1] We argue that ‘troll’ as used by the media is defined too broadly – it captures behaviours from low level insults to rape and death threats – and is thus harmful. We adhere instead to the definition of ‘troll’ given here: https://cass.lancs.ac.uk/?p=621

An afternoon with OFCOM

In August I was invited to visit the Office of Communications (OFCOM) Southwark Bridge Road headquarters beside the Thames, to give a talk as part of Inside OFCOM – a series that has been presented at by such notable figures as Tim Wu, Vint Cerf, and Robert Peston, to name but a few! My remit was essentially an introductory talk about the online behaviour known as trolling. In the talk, we covered six major areas:

  • Definitions: given its rapidly changing nature, what does this word, “trolling” actually mean?
  • Facilitators, motives/triggers: what makes people feel like they can get away with this kind of behaviour? And what encourages them into behaving this way?
  • Strategies, logistics, networks: how is trolling carried out? What networks do individuals who troll form?
  • Self-protection: how do individuals who want to “misbehave” online go about protecting themselves from the consequences of that behaviour?
  • Legislation, policy: what legislation and policy currently exists that deals with this behaviour, and how useful, up-to-date, and comprehensive is it?
  • Ways forwards: what are the long-term, future ways of dealing with this behaviour?

The question-and-answer session after talk presented an excellent opportunity to discuss the current issues in managing online behaviour. It was especially helpful to be able to talk these aspects over with individuals and specialists actively working across a range of communicative environments (e.g. television, press, etc.) and who may, in the future, be called on to work with online communication too. In particular, there was a great moment of relief (for me!) when asked about the shortfall between media reportage of trolling, which tends to focus on only the most extreme, clear-cut cases, and the actual majority of real-world cases which tend not to be so clear cut. For instance, one issue that OFCOM itself regularly deals with is that hugely difficult grey area between freedom of expression and responsibility of expression, such as in extremely provocative press articles that cause widespread offence, and this exactly mirrors the same concerns found in regulating (or not) online interaction.

Overall, I look forward with great interest to the governmental developments in how to manage this particular area, and would like to extend my sincerest thanks to OFCOM for inviting me and being especially warm and welcoming hosts.

Writing for the press: the deleted scenes

In late July and early August 2013, the stories of Caroline Criado-Perez, the bomb threats, and latterly, the horrific tragedy of Hannah Smith broke across the media, and as a result, the behaviour supposedly known as “trolling” was pitched squarely into the limelight. There was the inevitable flurry of dissections, analyses, and opinion pieces, and no doubt like any number of academics in similar lines of work, I was asked to write various articles on this behaviour. Some I turned down for different reasons, but one that I accepted was for the Observer. (Here’s the final version that came out in both the Observer and the Guardian.)

Like the majority of people, I have been mostly in the dark about how the media works behind the scenes. That said, throughout my time at university, I have studied areas like Critical Discourse Analysis and the language of the media, and over the past three years, my work has been picked up a few times in small ways by the media, so I probably had a better idea than many. I realise now, however, that even with this prior knowledge, I was still pretty naive about the process. I wasn’t too surprised, then, when I got a number of comments on the Observer article raising exactly the sorts of questions I too would have asked before I’d gone through what I can only describe as a steep media learning curve. There were, essentially, three main issues that kept recurring:

(1)    Why didn’t you talk about [insert related issue here]? This other thing is also important!

(2)  Why didn’t you define trolling properly? This isn’t what I’d call trolling!

(3)   Why did you only mention the negative types of trolling? There are good kinds too!

All three questions are interrelated in various ways, but I’ve artificially separated them out because each gives me a chance to explain something that I’ve learned about what happens behind the scenes during the process of producing media content.

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Web of words: A short history of the troll

Over the past fortnight, various broadsheets and media outlets (see bibliography) picked up the story of my recent article, ‘“Uh…..not to be nitpicky,,,,,but…the past tense of drag is dragged, not drug.”: An overview of trolling strategies‘ (2013), which came out in the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. Of the thousands of comments collectively posted on those articles, one particularly interesting point that came through (out of many) was the general sense that there exists a single, fixed, canonical definition of the word troll which I ought to be using and had somehow missed.

So what is the definition of troll? In my thesis, I spent a rather lengthy 18,127 words trying to answer precisely this question, and very early on I realised that trying to discover, or, if one didn’t exist, to create a clean, robust, working definition that everyone would agree with would be close to impossible. There are at least three major problems, which for simplicity’s sake are best referred to as history, agreement, and change.

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Dr Claire Hardaker takes part in Houses of Parliament Debate asking “Does the Punishment of Trolls Infringe on an Individual’s Freedom of Speech?”

Yesterday, Dr Claire Hardaker (Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University) took part in a ministerial debate hosted by Steve Rotheram MP at the Houses of Parliament. Dr Hardaker specialises in linguistic aggression, deception, and manipulation, particularly online, and looks at behaviours such as flaming, trolling, cyberbullying, and online grooming.

The roundtable, entitled, “Does the Punishment of Trolls Infringe on an Individual’s Freedom of Speech?” was prompted by the Director of Public Prosecution’s guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. The discussion aimed to establish what can be done to better police, prevent, and punish trolling, and the panel of contributors included academics such as Dr Hardaker and Dr Thom Brookes (Reader in Law, Durham), Chief Constable Andy Trotter, Members of Parliament Nadine Dorries and Stella Creasey, and representatives from the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office.

Representing the victims of online abuse, Nadine Dorries and Stella Creasey gave examples of the types of trolling that they had experienced, and their struggle to have these cases dealt with by the police. In turn, Chief Constable Trotter explained from the perspective of the police the scale of resources required to investigate and prosecute every case of trolling. Dr Hardaker also explained the difficulties involved in establishing the identity of trolls, the ways in which trolls can operate individually or as organised groups, and how content that trolls produce is unlike face-to-face abuse, since it can be broadcast to an enormous audience very quickly, and proliferated across the internet such that it is almost impossible to eradicate. The panel further debated whether the term “trolling” itself was useful given its ill-defined nature, and whether current legislation, and the DPP’s interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communication sent via social media were suited to dealing with trolling. Whilst the panel did not always agree on the best answer to several of the points raised, one generally agreed upon point was that reactive responses to trolling, such as prosecution, were inadequate, and should be supported by proactive methods such as school-level education and early intervention.

The DPP’s final guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media have been published today and can be found here: http://www.cps.gov.uk/consultations/.