The facts about Twitter trolling

Rebecca AdlingtonTwitter trolling is in the news again with GB short track speed skater Elise Christie becoming the target of threats on the popular social media platform following her disqualification from the 500m race at the Sochi Winter Games.  This is the latest in a series of social media attacks on GB Olympians with Rebecca Adlington (pictured), Beth Tweddle and Tom Daley, to name just a few high profile cases, all suffering over the last 12 months.

So just how unusual is this type of attack and is it limited to famous personalities?  The latest statistics on UK social media bullying from Harris Interactive’s *SocialLife tracker suggest that we should not be surprised.

The survey reveals that one in twelve (8%) of all UK social media users have suffered trolling in some form or other.  The incidence rises alarmingly among more vulnerable, younger users, peaking at almost one in five (18%) 16- to 24-year-old females. Those who use niche sites like Ask.fm, Tumblr, Pinterest and even Mumsnet are most likely to be bullied in this way. Other demographics are much less affected by social media bullying with zero incidences reported by men aged 65+ for example.

So what type of harassment takes place? Are we talking about relatively innocuous teasing from friends and family or something altogether more sinister – like the threats to Christie? It would appear that most social media harassment reported in the survey is sufficiently serious to warrant action on the part of the abused user, with around one in eight (12%) saying that they did nothing about it. The most common reaction is to block the abuser (65% overall and 71% among women) and, interestingly, 15% admitted they had retaliated by abusing back the person behind the trolling.  Men (19%) are relatively more likely to abuse back.

Only a third (35%) reported incidences of abuse to the site they were abused on, with half of those who did not do so saying they would have done if they’d known how to or if the reporting process had been easier.  Of most concern, this figure rises to 57% of all females who did not report the abuse and to 77% of 11-15 year olds.

Facebook is the site where social media users are most likely to have suffered harassment or abuse – reflecting its much higher usage incidence than other social media sites. Nearly three quarters (74%) have experienced this type of activity on Facebook with Twitter next at 12% and then YouTube at 9%.

As for athletes, the typical response is to close a Twitter account – as in the case of Christie and Adlington.  Others continue to embrace social media with Daley recently coming out as gay on YouTube.  Clearly there is a fine balance to be drawn between the benefits athletes can gain from social media and the downsides of potential abuse – one that will continue to tax sport governing bodies over the coming years.

Lee Langford is Director, Telecoms, Media, Technology and Entertainment, Harris Interactive

*SocialLife is Harris Interactive’s quarterly tracker of UK social media use.  5,517 nationally representative online UK citizens aged 11-95 years were interviewed during September – October, 2013.