Don’t Feed the Trolls – Harmful Digital Communication

Guest writer: Lee Chisholm. Netsafe Operations Manager.

Each week at NetSafe we have a number of contacts from people who are distressed, disturbed, concerned, angry or frustrated by unpleasant or offensive online postings. Some of the most offensive we see are posted by young people (usually around high school age) however adults certainly contribute their share. Some can be taken down by the website if the content breaches their specific terms and conditions and is reported in the correct way. Other postings will not be removed.

There is strong debate going on currently around freedom of speech versus speech which harms others, some debate as a result of the Law Commission recommendations on the “Communications (New Media) Bill ”. See for a summary.

Barrack Obama has just strongly defended the US Constitution’s guarantee of the freedom of expression, “even views that we profoundly disagree with.” And most of our most popular websites are based in the US and subject to US legislation.

What we see at NetSafe however, is the genuine harm caused to some individuals by gossip, lies, hate speech and vitriol online. Seeing that 20 or 200 people ‘like’ a derogatory comment made about you, or that many others join in the criticism – people who may not even know you – takes a lot of resilience to remain unaffected. In some cases the effects can be devastating and emotionally destructive.

Responding often escalates the level of abuse and feeds the situation, hence the mantra “don’t feed the trolls”. It is more effective to ignore the abusive content and check the terms of the website and report any breaches of terms if possible. NetSafe can offer information on our website and also through our contact centre.

We believe in the right to free speech and expression of opinion. We are fortunate in Aotearoa that we have the right to publicly challenge, disagree, argue, and protest however there are other rights to be considered as well. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 12 says

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

The protection of the law can currently be difficult, if not impossible, given the scope and scale of online attacks and the resources needed to dig beneath the perceived anonymity of many postings. NetSafe supports the recommendations of the Law Commission and we would like to see all adults taking responsibility for educating themselves and the young people around them in good digital citizenship. In particular in relating to others in positive meaningful ways and using ICT ethically and with integrity. NetSafe’s concept of digital citizenship can be found at

None of us are too young or too old to participate ethically online, and model and champion good digital citizenship.


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