46-year old New Zealand born TV personality Charlotte Dawson was rushed to hospital last Thursday morning following a series of harassing posts to her Twitter account. Dawson was targeted by a number of anonymous cyber trolls who tweeted comments such as ‘please put your face in a toaster’, ‘kill yourself’ and ‘on behalf of the world would you please go and hang yourself’. The Herald Sun reported that Dawson spent a number of hours online fending off the insults before signing off at 2.07am with a picture of a hand holding pills and the message "you win x''. At 3am she was conveyed by ambulance to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. In an interview on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes, Dawson made the following statement about the incident: “it just triggered that feeling of helplessness when the trolls got to me… If people are wanting you to kill yourself and you are somebody who has previously tried to end your life it's very, very easy to feel like that's exactly what you want to do."
Social media is widely used by high profile people like Dawson as a tool for self promotion and social commentary. In using these tools however, there is a risk of being exposed to extensive negative feedback. It was reported in an article on Nine MSN that the stream of abuse which landed Dawson in hospital followed an inflammatory post which she had made about New Zealand, describing the country as “small, nasty and vindictive”. In a sense, posts of this nature can be expected to generate retaliatory responses. However, the anonymity afforded to users of Twitter has led to the crossing of normal social boundaries as people are able to take advantage of the medium to harass and bully without consequence. This incident was clearly a case where this was taken too far. A similar troll incident was also reported by high profile rugby league player, Robbie Farah following indecent and offensive remarks about his recently deceased mother.
Social media has contributed to the extension of bullying from the school playground into the adult world. Since the compulsive checking of Twitter and other online profiles has become a routine part of life for many people, these anonymous profiles can be easily and conveniently used to target somebody with hurtful or defamatory content. Ironically, while it is easy enough to tell a child to simply ignore the taunts and insults of the school-yard bully, our apparent obsession with social media makes it difficult for us as adults to do the same. It may be that there are times when we need to simply put our phones and computers away, however they an important form of media that currently lacks the regulatory checks on content that is afforded to other media providers in this country.
Social media s an area where the regulatory environment potentially needs to catch up. The Herald Sun reported that ‘the Federal Coalition is pushing for tougher laws for online abuse following the Dawson and Farah incidents.’