OPINION: Online abuse has gone too far. We need to weed out the trolls

Online abuse has gone too far, says Rachel Moore

Online abuse has gone too far, says Rachel Moore, who been the victim of trolling during her long career as a newspaper columnist - Credit: PA

This is my 22nd year of writing weekly opinion columns for newspapers.

On top of these two decades, my debut column was as a 20-year-old reporter back in 1984 when I was tasked by the new editorial director with trying to engage a younger readership by launching a new newspaper page called Trend – for teens and twenties.

It’s always felt a privilege to be able to choose social issues, current affairs and news events to share views about with a readership that might or not agree with the content.

It’s a role I take seriously, fully aware that any strong opinion will attract opponents and provoke debate.

The role of any columnist is to take a stand, write from the heart, entertain, inform, stimulate discussion and bring personality to a publication.

What I never anticipated back as a young journalist, or again in 2001 when I was approached as a self-employed mother of small children to start an opinion page was that my job would make me a target for vile personal abuse.

Strong reactions are one thing, but personal attacks unrelated to anything written but purely to try to hurt someone doing their job are baffling, but increasingly rife.

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Our wonderful online world that opens so many positive opportunities has also nurtured the vicious bully who prowls, sniffing around for any chance to have a go, weedily hiding behind a fictitious name.

They’re called trolls, but as TV personality Scarlett Moffatt, said after being driven to the point of taking her own life by online bullies, trolls made them sound like a cuddly novelty akin to Dreamworks’ chuckling primary-coloured wild haired characters.

Nasty cowardly bullies are a more accurate moniker for those who vomit revolting abuse they would never have the courage to say out loud to your face for their own amusement.

These people are far from the loner keyboard warriors lurking behind closed curtains in dingy flats. They’re people you would never believe had it in them; people you know.

Back when I started, readers could only voice their views about the columns in letters to the editor.

I so enjoyed seeing those the letters on the page, whether they were taking me to task or calling for me to stand for Parliament. I felt I had done my job. I was engaging with people, sparking debate and making people feel so strongly either way to take the time and effort to take pen to paper, buy a stamp and posting it to the editor.

Through my thousands of columns and millions of words, changing times and technology, shaped reaction has escalated to instant online anonymous attacks.

Online gang culture with fictitious names egging each other on to be nastier, more vicious and more ‘in the know’ about the columnist than the others.

I can guarantee that if I came face to face with these people, they wouldn’t even disagree, let alone scream a tirade of insults, personal abuse in my face.

Journalists have been subject to increasing abuse through the years, some being driven out of their jobs, had counselling and most ploughing on regardless.

Like them, I’ve always said my skin is thick, shrugging off the abuse. However, as a senior newspaper executive told me this week, we shouldn’t have to.

Why should we soak up abuse for doing a job from people too feeble to post under their own names? These people should be stopped and outed.

A decade ago when I was at an event, a woman on our table heard I was a journalist and launched into a soliloquy about why she couldn’t stand that columnist Rachel Moore.

Oblivious that I was sitting two chairs down from her, she recited columns “that bloody woman” written years earlier.

Much to the amusement by the table’s host, he introduced her to me. She put her head in her hands and said she would never have said those things had she known.

The internet has denigrated debate into a sewer of personal insults and threats. Healthy, clever and lively debate has given way to polarised ‘sides’ in arguments with no grey areas between.

“Never read the comments," a hugely talented female journalist and columnist I’ve known for nearly 30 years told me. Unsurprisingly investigative journalists and women journalists are more likely to be targeted and most of these people are male.

I rarely do. The same old trail of the same old made-up names and insults. One person wrote a few years ago that I had a big nose when I was at school, whatever relevance he or she felt that brought to the discussion.

Last week’s comments took the level of inflammatory, abusive, malicious and inciteful material to a new level

‘Readers’ – who I doubt had read any of the column above – were appealing for people I went to school with more than 40 years ago to share stories about me.

One decided to post inaccurate and defamatory details, unrelated to anything I had written – and encouraged other people to post comments about me in the hope I would “go away,” whatever that meant.

It took my investigative skills just a few seconds to scan this person’s account of previous comments to identify exactly who he was and take action

Whatever motivates these people? Are they so desperate for attention they don’t get in their daily lives, to be heard and feel power?

These horrible human beings – troubled and unhappy as they might be – need to be driven out of polluting the internet that should be a place for people to share ideas and communicate rather than a climate that allows people to cause pain.

We should report not shrug off and expose the individuals hiding behind a mask.