IN cyberspace, no one can hear you scream. Or cry. It’s the internet equivalent of being alone in the dark.
Growing up, trolls were the stuff of the legend. They lurked in dark corners emerging only to pounce on unsuspecting victims.
Now they’re everywhere.
The term internet troll was first applied to people who left intentionally offensive comments on online memorial pages. It actually derived from the fishing term – to troll, when you cast a large net into the water, drag it along and see what you catch.
But high-profile victims – from Olympian diver Tom Daley to grief-stricken bereaved dad Gary Barlow – are finally casting light on the monsters who hide behind anonymity online, dripping bile on memorial forums and oozing venom on Twitter.
Blackpool families were among the early victims. Mothers were left distraught, family friends outraged by the casual cruelty of others.
But cases of people saying awful things online are now making the headlines on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
The ease of accessibility to commenting online is both a blessing and a curse. An open invitation to comment has turned freedom of speech into a platform for abuse.
The immediacy of registration under an invented identity is a factor.
Addresses can be traced by those with time and technology on their side.
In reality most get away with it, until comments are moderated. In some cases it becomes a form of hate crime. For most it’s a cheap and nasty jibe at someone else’s expense.
But the consequences can be dire. And it’s clear, for all the warnings, that more could slip through the internet safety nets.
Lin Jones, of Norbreck, commemorated her son Matthew’s 21st birthday the other day.
It should have been his coming of age but he took his life in December 2008, after years of physical, verbal and cyber bullying took their toll.
He gassed himself after looking for guidance on methods of death on suicide websites.
Parents Lin and Roger have campaigned to raise awareness of bullying and cyber menaces ever since. Lin also actively lobbies on mental health issues. She wants the internet trolls flushed out into the light of day – and locked away.
She’s shared the outrage at taunts being tweeted on Twitter about Gary Barlow and his wife,within days of suffering the tragedy of a stillbirth.
Daley’s initially disappointing debut at the Olympics led to a Twitter dig that he had “let down” his dad who died last year.
Daley went on to win a bronze medal.
Lin admits: “My heart just went out to Tom. He’s only a boy. And it must have been so hard for him. I just wanted to hug him.
“The means of stopping these vile people – whether the internet trolls or the suicide and other websites – exist but it’s a question of using those means.
“This hits the headlines when politicians or royalty or sportsmen are involved, but there are hundreds of other people, including vulnerable kids, taunted and bullied, who you never hear of until it’s too late. Greater safeguards must exist.”
A local Facebook regular, North Shore autograph hunter Aaron Parfitt, wants his favourite social site monitored closely too.
He’s been upset by Facebook pages claiming cancer “is funny” or featuring “dead baby jokes”.
His mother Janet Monkman admits: “I monitor him. The computer is in the living room where I can watch. I take the laptop off him at night, but he comes across these sites and gets upset.”
Aaron, 12, adds: “I’ve reported them to Facebook, but it hasn’t stopped. It should. I think it’s disgusting.”
Lisa J, 17, of Fleetwood, who doesn’t want her surname revealing, says she had 525 Facebook “friends” this time last year, but deactivated her account after taunts and abuse, including on the email and mobile phone associated with her account. Even revising her privacy settings failed to work.
“I’d open my messages to a stream of abuse. I was called fat, stupid, a slag. When my mum died of breast cancer last year I posted ‘love you forever mum’ and got some awful messages back.
“These people had mutual friends of mine so I thought they were safe. My friends didn’t know them either.
“I couldn’t even put a face to them – they used animals as their profile pictures. The worst one used a kitten as her picture. I reported them to Facebook.”
Lancashire Constabulary offer online advice to beat cyber bullying and report offenders. The Metropolitan Police use a site called True Vision to report online hate crime and abuse. And offenders are being brought to justice.
In April, a man who tweeted jokes about footballer Fabrice Muamba’s “death” was jailed for 56 days after being deemed racist. In June, a man who sent a threatening email to Tory MP Louise Mensch was given a suspended sentence.
Policing internet trolls has been discussed in Parliament, with amendments to the Defamation Act being considered.
As Lin Jones points out: “Gagging bills are put on the media and super injunctions taken out, but people get away with slander, libel and virtual murder online. It’s wrong and it must stop.”
n Useful addresses: www.thinkuknow.co.uk, email@example.com/helpline 0844 381 4772, http://www.saferinternet.org.uk
n firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet her @jacquimorley