Wed. Apr 24th, 2024

The charges for online threats against elected officials or the recent prison sentence imposed on a cyberstalker demonstrate that the judicial system wants to send a clear message: don't troll whoever wants.

Yes, trolling can lead to jail

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“Trolling” may seem quite harmless. According to semiologist Jean-Michel Berthiaume, an “acceleration” of antisocial behavior online has transformed the meaning of trolling.

  • Angie Landry ( View profile)Angie Landry

Voice synthesis, based on artificial intelligence, makes it possible to generate a spoken text from a written text.

There is a fine line between trolling and online harassment. Are the people who cross it really aware of the legal consequences to which they are exposed?

Indeed, trolling can seem completely harmless. In popular web culture, the word troll once referred to the behavior of Internet users whose objective was to disturb or provoke people online.

To my students, I say: "You could all tell me about a situation where you behaved like a troll," argues researcher Nadia Seraiocco, of the Laboratory on Communication and Digital Technology (LabCMO).< /p>

There are trolls who promote themselves online by correcting others, for example. We also have demanding [trolls], those who address politicians, she lists. As long as they don't fall into threats, they aren't very dangerous.

Even without talking about prison, the hell that a troll can represent is immense, maintains Jean-Michel Berthiaume, doctor in semiology and lecturer at the Media School of the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). According to him, it is very possible that we underestimate the impact of trolling on the Internet these days since the term is now overused.

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The problem, he believes, is that more and more digital attitudes have been added to the spectrum of the term troll, whether permitted or tolerated because of the anonymity conferred by the Internet. /p>

For the semiologist, it is an acceleration of antisocial behavior online which has transformed not only the meaning of trolling but also its targets. If the troll did not previously target anyone in particular, it now has specific communities or people in its sights.

We have plenty of terms to specify the nature of the acts, but we come back to "trolling" because it has become the portmanteau word. It blurs the seriousness of the acts committed, because we can say "troll" for "kids person on the Internet" as much as for a criminal found guilty of cyberbullying on a large scale.

A quote from Jean-Michel Berthiaume, doctor in semiology and specialist in popular culture

Sources: Documentation Center on Adult Education and the Status of Women; Jean-Michel Berthiaume, semiologist and lecturer at the UQAM Media School.

In Canada, such behavior is downright considered offenses under the Criminal Code.

December 2019. Following a message written on Twitter (which has since become , where we see actor Liam Neeson saying “I will find you and I will kill you” find you and I will kill you).

I am someone who is very talkative on the networks, who expresses my opinions loud and clear, whether they are environmental, feminist, anti-racist, etc. I am used to receiving, in return, messages that [attack] my comments, relates Mr. Rioux, who lives in a neighboring village of Trois-Pistoles, in Bas-Saint-Laurent.

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Documentarian and musician Sébastien Rioux received a disturbing message in December 2019.

He therefore keeps this first salvo of intimidation sent by Peter Poncak – a Gatineau resident whom he does not know from Eve or Adam – and makes a complaint to the police which, however, will not be accepted: not enough evidence. Poncak now has proof that an attempt was made to silence him.

He was quick to let me know that he knew that I had sent the police against him, and then that he was going to make life difficult for me.

A quote from Sébastien Rioux, victim of cyberharassment

Over a period of 18 months, Peter Poncak harassed his victim with violent communications, whether written or graphic. Over a period of two years, the documentary maker received between 400 and 500 messages, both insults and montages of images with childhood photos of Sébastien Rioux, doctored by Poncak to juxtapose a weapon.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">As much as we could say "Do not feed the trolls" [Don't feed the trolls] at the time, it is clear that this technique no longer works [today], notes the expert Jean-Michel Berthiaume.

Sébastien Rioux's troll was finally arrested on August 4, 2021. In March 2023, he pleaded guilty to criminal harassment.

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On March 22, 2023, Peter Poncak admitted his guilt.

Nearly five years after sending the GIF in question, Peter Poncak left the bench of the Rivière-du-Loup courthouse to be taken behind bars. His sentence: nine months in prison and three years of probation, a sentence considered significant for this type of case. If published, this decision by Judge Luce Kennedy could set a precedent since it is one of the rare cases heard in the matter of cyberharassment.

Public health experts agree: whatever its nature, the impacts of cyberviolence are immense. Among the range of consequences: depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, increased feelings of vulnerability, worsening health problems, personality changes, paranoia, substance abuse, etc. The list goes on.

And even if his case is settled in the eyes of the law, Sébastien Rioux feels a constant feeling of guilt. The documentary maker admits to feeling like an imposter in relation to his situation, which he considers to be privileged compared to that of women, who are more likely to be victims of cyberviolence.

A United Nations (UN) report published in 2015 (New window) indicates that women are 27 times more likely to be harassed on the web. Worldwide, 73% of female internet users have experienced some form of online violence.

Several women were also hesitant to tell us about their experiences with cyberbullying. It was, among other things, the fear of becoming targets again, of suffering the backlash of another wave of trolling, which motivated them to keep their story quiet.

They were probably right: in an interview, Sébastien Rioux admitted that his time on Everybody talks about it has completely rekindled the interest of new trolls.

It's worse than before, he admitted.

The cause which pitted Sébastien Rioux against Peter Poncak certainly made noise in due not only to the violence of the content that was filed as evidence, but also to the severity of the sentence imposed by Judge Kennedy.

However, it must be taken into account that the accused had a serious criminal record, which was considered one of the aggravating factors when negotiating the sentence, explains the prosecutor in the file to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions (DPCP), Me Camille St-Pierre.

However, in cases of online harassment, the fear instilled in the victim and the associated consequences are far from being underestimated, according to the prosecutor.

Regardless of the intention behind the words, behind what he did, [the fact remains] that he did it, that it is criminal and that this is unacceptable. No matter what name we give it — trolling or not — it is behavior that is criminal.

A quote from Me Camille St-Pierre, prosecutor at the DPCP

Despite the judicial option – where processes can be long and arduous – the fight against cyberharassment and cyberbullying must be a priority, experts say. Countries like France are well ahead of Canada in this regard.

For Jean-Michel Berthiaume, make online platform managers responsible to counter trolling — and all cyber violence — will be an uphill battle. And it comes down to governments.

The majority of people who engage in [trolling] behavior do not have a “breaking” moment. which allows them to [understand] that what they are doing is [bad and harmful], maintains the semiologist.

This illusion of power is a lure, a trap in fact, because in this feeling of power the limits that we cross become blurred. In this intoxication of power, we do not take this healthy break which would allow us to realize that we have gone too far.

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