There's no place for this vitriolic abuse

03:12, Jul 21 2014

Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of a free society.

In the internet age, that freedom is at the touch of your fingertips any time of the day or night, on community forums and news sites, and the whole spectrum of social media platforms.

However, with the portals open so wide and largely unfettered by the behavioural norms of face-to-face communication, online expression often turns ugly.

Nelson woman Loren Heaphy felt the brutish force of such expression last year after appearing on reality show The Block with her husband, Tom.

Posts on social media sites linked to the show called the slim 31-year-old "fat and old" and, more despicably, fired barbs at her fertility.

The couple had been open on the show that they wanted to use any prize money to help them have children.


Heaphy outlined her experience at a Pecha Kucha performance in Nelson last week, with the aim of raising awareness of an issue that has plagued many who put themselves in the public eye.

She says she expected some negative reaction, but she was not prepared for the degree of viciousness.

The comments she was subject to were pathetic, but sadly unsurprising. The detachment provided by online forums, particularly those not closely moderated, allows excesses to flourish.

The issue is what can be done about it. As Heaphy points out most of the comments they received were supportive, and feedback from the viewing audience is a key part of such reality shows.

Moderation is part of the answer, allowing robust debate without descending into overly personal attacks.

Dwelling on the motivation for such vitriol is probably pointless, given that it is part of human nature. The trouble is abusers now have an instant loud speaker to make their views known.

A bill targeting cyber bullying was introduced to Parliament in December last year. Its provisions include making it an offence to send messages and post material online with intent to cause harm, punishable by up to three months in prison or a $2000 fine.

That would be for extreme cases, but the bill also proposes a civil enforcement regime, creating an agency that would initially receive complaints about online content. People would be able to "easily and quickly" request the removal of harmful content. The devil will be in the detail as to how effective such a regime can be, and it's unlikely to be a simple fix.

Internet safety groups advise not to engage with those who make abusive comments; a path that Heaphy took. Some comments on her weekend story suggest that she should not even go on social sites if she does not want to read hurtful comments. Anyone with a public profile can expect criticism of performance, but surely you should not expect vile personal attacks about the way you look.

Heaphy's stand to call out the online abusers is an act of bravery in itself. Raising awareness that freedom of public expression also brings with it some responsibility to remain civil is a message that should be spread far and wide, even to the dark corners of the web.