Thursday, August 30, 2012

Don't Feed The Trolls

I read with concern that Australia's Next Top Model judge and all around trans-Tasman media personality Charlotte Dawson has been hospitalised following a crisis linked to an avalanche of abuse on Twitter. I'm not a fan of Ms Dawson, and I'm not a hater; I'm entirely neutral, and I don't follow her Twitter account. Nevertheless, being hospitalised due to twitter abuse is extreme.

Time to find out what Ms Dawson has been up to lately, and to catch up on the story. 

It seems that from time to time, Ms Dawson adopts the 'Dicko' role on Australia's Next Top Model. She's often seen as the nasty judge, the one who is there to stop the entire judging process from becoming a saccharine love-in. That persona is also the one who tends to cut through the facade of glamour and provide some much needed reality when the fumes from the hairspray get to be too much. It's an important role that lends the show a touch of credibility.

Charlotte's role was probably the toughest on the show. The modelling industry is known to be superficial and bitchy, based around self-centred teenaged girls; the only possible outcome is exposed nerve endings and rivers of mascara. Put the whole thing into a competitive environment and then televise it and it's anyone's guess who survives...which is the point, I guess.

Did Ms Dawson overstep the mark in her criticism of some of the competing models? That's impossible to answer; everyone has their own ideas of what level of criticism is appropriate, but know this. It's irrelevant.

This isn't: Ms Dawson also made the mistake of criticising something to the media, and that something is her home country, New Zealand. Her criticism might well be justified, but I wouldn't encourage my clients to say it to a New Zealand. She told the Herald on Sunday:

"New Zealand is small, nasty and vindictive. It's a tiny, little village ... a tiny country at the end of the earth," she told the Herald on Sunday.
It's a brutal assessment, and has triggered this latest round of Twitter-hate from Kiwis and ex-pats. I don't advise you to read back through the twitter stream. It's literally hateful.

Ms Dawson is involved in the anti-bullying campaign. Mia Freedom said this morning:

Being an ambassador for the anti-bullying program Community Brave, Charlotte holds the firm belief that these trolls should be brought out in the public eye and held accountable to the awful things they say.
She takes a stand against the online bullying by retweeting abusive tweets to shame those that have sent them. Now setting aside whether or not this is the best way to deal with internet trolls (is there a good way to deal with unmitigated vitriol?), what happened to Charlotte this week was truly horrific. 
I've been the victim of bullying too, once in the schoolyard, and once in the workplace. I wish I'd been able to "retweet" all those instances when Mark Miller punched me in the stomach at the bus-stop, but I was five years old and the internet was decades away. The workplace bullying was a different situation: it was quiet, constant, hidden, but it destroyed my confidence while simultaneously leaving me without the emotional wherewithal to act. Eventually, I did blow the whistle. It irks me to this day that while I climbed out of the hole and she lost her job, it was classed as a "redundancy" and she walked out with close to a six-figure payout.

No-one ever deserves to be bullied. Not my five year old self with my curiously ethnic features, not the 30-something year old self was undermined by her boss at every opportunity, and not Charlotte Dawson, who is now in hospital as a result of Twitter bullying by mainly anonymous trolls. Unfortunately, even though no-one deserves to be bullied, some people seem to attract it. Ms Dawson's less than charitable comments about New Zealand, and her role as a judge on ANTM would make her a magnet for that kind of behaviour. 

So, how did a few mean tweets get to this point, a place where her last, desperate response was a vaguely suicidal tweet in the middle of the night?

It's my turn to dish the honesty. Ms Dawson mishandled the whole thing. I'm not blaming her, but I would suggest that she's been getting some terrible advice.

1. Don't feed the trolls. I understand her desire to shame Twitter trolls by retweeting them, thus bringing them into the light and exposing them to ridicule. I'd advise the opposite approach: ignore them. Bullies want power and to be seen as having power. Exposing them to hundreds or thousands of twitter users gives them what they crave, and encourages more of the poor behaviour. Ignoring them gives them nothing. No acknowledgement, no evidence that they've hit their target, no additional audience, no reason to repeat the behaviour.

2. Don't feed the trolls. Don't talk about it on mainstream media, particularly the tabloid kind. Avoid A Current Affair and Today Tonight in particular. Don't allow it to be that important, don't give it that credibility. Don't feed the trolls

3. Don't feed the trolls.Don't try to track down your haters and reason with them. They are, by their very nature, unreasonable. You can't beat stupid.

4. Don't feed the trolls. Don't track down your troll at work and report her to her boss. That's a tad stalkerish and obsessive. It's also a sign that the trolls are winning in their efforts to bully you. If your troll is threatening you, go to the Police, but meddling with someone's employment because they troll you on Twitter is unreasonable. If there are no threats and it's "just" trolling, block and report. 

5. Don't feed the trolls. If you're copping a walloping on social media, get off social media for a while. Seriously, you don't need to read that stuff. Staff it out, or get a friend to monitor your accounts, but step away from the keyboard for a few hours, or a day or a week or as long as you need.

I'm sure that Charlotte will be okay. I know she has great friends, and that she's being looked after. I hope that if she decides to come back to Twitter, she'll get a warm welcome, and she'll remember to not feed the trolls.

For now, as they used to say on Hill Street Blues, "let's be careful out there."

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