Maybe they were always there, in isolation. Sad creatures living morbidly grim lives and having violent fantasies to compensate for their own obvious inadequacies.
Maybe reading other deeply sickening posts empowers them to think they are not objects of contempt. Regardless, it is clear the Web has swept away conventions and replaced them with something much less palatable.
Bernadette Francis (I’ll call her BF for short) entered the online dating market for a short period of time. A swipe was followed with a pleasant chat and an agreement to meet for coffee, which was quickly followed with an unsolicited picture of a penis. This is apparently known as a Dick Pic. When she cancelled the cappuccino he responded: ‘‘Too soon?’’
Here is another question: Has posting pictorial evidence of a penis ever worked? If it did, the florist industry would be bankrupt and Haigh’s would never sell another chocolate-covered scorched almond.
(We do know of one amorous boyfriend who sent the object of his affection a picture of his object of affection. Sadly his fingers were as clumsy as his thought process as he sent it to her mother, whose number was next on his contact list. With Mother’s Day just around the corner, this could be awkward.)
When did private parts become public property? Under Section 19 of the Summary Offences Act, it states: “A person must not wilfully and obscenely expose the genital area of his or her body in, or within the view of, a public place. Penalty: Two years’ imprisonment.”
Another woman we know has been hit on by strangers through a professional online networking group – an activity she simply finds tiring rather than flattering.
These sorts of events are annoying rather than threatening, but the dark underbelly of social media requires its own vocabulary. There is “swatting” – convincing emergency services to storm a person’s home by faking a critical incident; “doxing” – publishing personal details of a target to place them in danger; and “revenge porn” – posting explicit images without consent to embarrass and humiliate.
This reporter has been treated quite kindly as a rule by social media but as an old and slightly rancid-looking male I am probably not worth the effort to troll. It is rather like challenging a 100-year-old tortoise to a fist fight – the ancient combatant simply goes into the shell until the idiot loses interest.
Female colleagues tell a different story, with one wisely refusing to have an online presence for she sees there is no benefit in reading bile.
On May 17, as part of Law Week, the Victorian Law Foundation is to run a fascinating panel called “Stalking, Trolling and Bullying” with three expert authors: Rachel Cassidy, Ginger Gorman and Dr Emma Jane.
They have discovered that the internet, designed to free us by providing instant communication and endless knowledge at the touch of a button, is being used to imprison by those who choose to live in a sewer of their own making.
Those who justify their hate with the cloak of free speech do not address the problem that their end game is to intimidate and silence those who disagree.
In her book Troll Hunting, Gorman reports on stalker/trolls who appear to encourage their perceived enemies to self-harm and use relentless harassment, including stealing people’s identities, to destroy them personally and professionally.
Women have disappeared from the internet, moved homes, changed jobs, altered lifestyles, lost friends or ultimately taken their own lives due to being stalked day and night by ex-partners, former workmates and total strangers.
In her book Stalked: The Human Target, Cassidy talks to stalker ‘James’, who targeted a woman he met at a barbecue. “She made it clear at the start that she had a partner, but I just didn’t want to hear that,” says James.
He tracked her online and in person, learnt her movements and sent emails to her work colleagues: “I thought if they sacked her she would come running to me.”
His aim was to make her feel unbalanced so he could be the “hero” who rescued her. At one point he tricked a friend of his victim’s into giving him his target’s phone number and then rang her up to 60 times a day. It only stopped when he fronted and threatened her, leading to his arrest and incarceration, but even then the woman was forced to move to reclaim her life.
Journalist and academic Jane is an expert in gender-based cyber hate and has been able to track how the online world has sent some off their rockers.
She observes that her published opinions have always excited a response, often negative, but when she received feedback via posted letters the writers would criticise her views while sticking to the issue. Some threatened to cancel their subscription but none threatened her physical welfare.
Since 1998 she has monitored how internet responses have become filled with hate and violence, with female commentators routinely told they are ugly, fat and/or sluts.
As she puts it in her book Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History, the tipping point in civility was the internet: “The takeaway point here is that while many readers dislike me and my work very much, not once did any of them propose corrective gang rape as an intervention.”
She publishes a series of online posts sent to women that shakes your confidence in people and makes you wonder if humanity is heading at breakneck speed to some form of cliff. How could anyone not in need of immediate electro-shock therapy post something like “all feminists should be gang raped to set them right”?
And that is tame compared to some of the posts she has received. She says British activist Caroline Criado-Perez received 50 rape threats an hour after having the audacity to campaign for more female representation on banknotes.
The question with no answer is: how does an online dispute degenerate into an online sexual threat? Under Section 43 of the Crimes Act, a threat to rape is punishable by five years’ imprisonment, and yet hundreds of these online attacks go unreported and uninvestigated. If you want to align the online world with the so-called real world, then we need to start locking up these offenders.
Jane quotes the 2015 UN Broadband Commission’s statement that 73 per cent of women have been exposed to some form of online violence and that women are 27 times more likely to be abused online than men.
One cancelled a speaking engagement when a harasser threatened “the deadliest school shooting in American history” and that she would “die screaming like the craven little whore she is”.
Jane is a perfectly reasonable person who spoke to us while trying to juggle parenting and professional obligations, which makes her matter-of-fact comments harder to comprehend. “I had my first rape threat in 1998 and virtually nothing has been done since. I left journalism when the rape threats spread to my kid.”
As part of her research she interviewed 52 women who have an online presence. “Every one I spoke to said they had cut back on what they had said because of the backlash. There are topics that are just off-limits because of the reaction.”
She found a group online that was crowd-sourcing to look for plagiarism in her PhD thesis. She points out that increasingly employees are expected to engage online to promote their business and that if women are forced to withdraw, it impacts on their earning capacity: “Organisations who want their workers to have an online presence have a duty to protect them from what is workplace harassment.”
She says regardless of the dispute or the female author, the threats are depressingly similar. The victim is too ugly, sexually repressed, sexually active, fat, skinny or old and therefore, needs/deserves/requires to be violently sexually assaulted.
“Because they can get away with it. You decide what you can do when you won’t get caught – when you are invisible,” she says.
Those who hide in the dark do so because they know the world will shun them in the light.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.