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Ignore nasty online trolls - it's the best way to deal with them

Online trolls caused a great deal of harm - but how do you deal with them? Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

Online trolls caused a great deal of harm - but how do you deal with them? Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

Archant Norfolk Photographic / James Bass © 2011

Speak out with a view on anything, however minor or insignificant, and you are almost guaranteed these days to get a torrent of abuse in return.

Are trolls best ignored, or should we hit back at them? Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA WireAre trolls best ignored, or should we hit back at them? Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Whether you are a journalist who is deliberately trying to stoke up debate - as some might say I am - or a teenager like Greta Thunberg simply saying what they think, no-one seems to be spared the attacks of online trolls.

Most are cowards, hiding behind an anonymous profile and not brave enough to attach their names to their nastiness.

Yet despite being some of the most gutless, they can be some of the hurtful and upsetting - in extreme cases, they have been known to trigger mental ill health episodes.

I should say that I can't claim to have been subjected to anything like the abuse some people have had sadly to face.

Greta Thunberg is one of those who has been targeted by online trolls. Picture: PAUL CHAISSON/APGreta Thunberg is one of those who has been targeted by online trolls. Picture: PAUL CHAISSON/AP

Some have been cruelly tormented for their race, gender, sexuality or religious beliefs, sometimes with the most grotesque threats of assault and violence.

Mercifully, the worst I have probably received is being called a few names by people who didn't like what I'd written. You might possibly think I deserved them.

On one column about why in my view we shouldn't celebrate Valentine's Day, one commenter told me I was a "sad piece of work". I guess he or she was not a secret admirer.

Even when I have tried to present a balanced argument, I have not been spared. In one piece, where I admitted that my views were out of kilter with most people, I was labelled "an out of touch doughnut".

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The online troll does not recognise humour and goodwill - indeed, I sometimes wonder if they recognise anything other than abject misery. Although one commenter speculated about the state of my mental health, which showed an unusual level of care and concern…

In a comment on one piece I'd written, one person thought I was the EADT's esteemed political writer Paul Geater. While I was delighted to be mistaken for such a giant of the regional press, I should imagine Paul would regard it as probably the most offensive online comment ever made.

Of course people like me have to expect a certain amount of rough and tumble, much like a rugby player has to expect a few bruises and broken bones from time to time. If I cried every time I was called a doughnut, I would be in the wrong job. As it happens, for me provoking a reaction - good or bad - is better than an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.

I'd also be the first to say that I'm fully deserving of having my views scrutinised. While I wouldn't wish to overstate the power of local newspaper columnist (there really isn't any), we do still have a privilege in being able to express our views to thousands of people online and in print. People are right to question what I say. Besides, when not writing columns, my colleagues and I spend our days scrutinising the words and actions of others.

Some can come up with witty replies to trolls that put them in their place. I envy those that can do this, but usually my personal preference is not to respond. I believe many trolls are looking for a reaction and it's best they feel their abuse is just like silence in an empty room, which it often is. Witty put downs are fun to read, but they risk just responding to abuse with abuse and making you no better than the troll you are denouncing.

In this whole debate, I do think we must be careful to distinguish between abuse and what is tough but fair comment. I have seem some people call out alleged abuse, only to think that all they are highlighting is a view expressed forthrightly, but legitimately. You might even think the examples I've highlighted above qualify in that category.

Unless we want a completely sanitised public debate, we must still allow people to talk frankly and directly without always crying wolf. Yet too much far too much of our current debate crosses the line into abuse and prejudice.

That is not only deeply upsetting, but it risks destroying our public debate. Our success depends on people being able to speak out with their views - a diversity of opinions makes our organisations, businesses, politics and country a better place. If people are too scared to do so for fear of being targeted by trolls, we will all be the poorer for it.

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