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Cartoon troll typing on a computer

Online trolls targeting people with a disability

October 26, 2016

Many Australians have been abused by online trolls – and this includes many people with a disability. So why does this happen and what can we do?

Did you ever get bullied at school? If you answered yes, you’ll understand the damage it can do. Sadly, with the introduction of the internet, bullying is even more common these days, particularly as it’s often anonymous.

Cyber bullying, also at times called ‘trolling’, now affects one in eight Australians – and unfortunately, this includes many people with a disability.

What is most concerning about this increase in cyber bullying and trolling is that fact it can lead to depression, social anxiety, and low levels of self-esteem.

So why does this happen and what can we do about it? Let’s answer a few of the commonly asked questions.

What exactly is trolling?

Well, trolls are those people who write cynical, negative, abusive, or sarcastic comments online about innocent by-standers – just because they can.

Internet trolls are much like the mythical trolls – except they hide behind a computer screen (instead of under a bridge), and deliberately go out of their way to cause trouble by provoking, disturbing, and upsetting someone.

Why do trolls target people with a disability?

While no one is safe from trolls, they tend to attack people who they think are easy targets or in their minds some way “different”, vulnerable, or insecure. The reason people are seen as ‘easy targets’ is really because they don’t conform to society’s often incorrect ideas of what is “normal”.

This may be to do with disability, race, religion or sexual orientation, or it may be because someone is famous (we’ve all heard of celebrities who’ve been viciously attacked online).

No matter what the reason behind a troll’s actions, it is never ok.

How do trolls attack?

The sad truth is, there are so many examples of trolls being abusive towards people with a disability. Here are just two stories which recently hit the headlines.

Jameson’s story

Jameson Myer, is a young boy with Pfeiffer syndrome – a condition that alters the shape of his head and face. Jameson’s mum, AliceAnn, was horrified one day when she discovered that a cute picture of Jameson which she’d innocently posted on her blog had been turned into a cruel ‘meme’, likening Jameson to a pug dog.

AliceAnn Myers chose to send a message to her son’s trolls that would make them understand the damage they’d done.

“To everyone that “LOL’d”, shared, and posted that meme, let me start by introducing you to the child you find so funny. His name is Jameson. He is very real, and he was born with Pfeiffer syndrome.”

Lizzie’s story

Lizzie Velasquez, is another who has had to deal with abuse from online trolls, but also one who refused to let trolls get the better of her.

Lizzie was born with two rare conditions – Marfan and lipodystrophy – which means she is visually impaired and unable to gain weight, no matter how much she eats.

At just 17 years of age, Lizzie’s life changed forever when she found that someone had made a YouTube video of her titled ‘the world’s ugliest woman’. The video had been watched over 4million times, and many people had left awful comments including that Lizzie should have been killed at birth.

Since then, Lizzie has embarked on a campaign to end bullying, and raise awareness of her conditions. She has established her own YouTube channel (with 240,000 subscribers), given a TED talk, and released a documentary, to inspire others to feel confident in their own skin.

So, how do you fight back?

Unfortunately, while you might be tempted to fire back with anger, sometimes the best tactic is to ignore the trolls.

After all, ultimately what trolls are looking for is a reaction. Deny them the pleasure of an angry reaction, and they’ll probably leave you alone – in other words, don’t feed the trolls.

However, there are times when it also pays to take a stance, especially if the trolling is particularly abusive and especially if it is threatening. Read on to find out how to take action.

What else can be done?

While more work still needs to be done by social networks and also changes in the legislation, there are some steps you can take if you experience trolling of any kind:

  • Use Facebook and Instagram’s tools to unfriend, block, and report any kind of online bullying.
  • If it’s targeted at children, report the culprit to the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner.
  • If the behaviour is causing serious distress, harm, harassment, stalking, violence or includes threats to harm you, contact the police.
  • If you witness trolling – do something about it. Reach out to the victim and ask if they’re okay.

If you or anyone you know is being affected by trolling or cyber bullying, you can seek support from ACORN, Kids Helpline or Lifeline.