Charlotte's tangled web

ANDREA O'NEIL
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014
Fairfax NZ
CHARLOTTE DAWSON: Tormented by trolls online, will her legacy new cyber-laws to protect from internet bullying?

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Charlotte Dawson's legacy should be a kinder world where people are not judged by the life they appear to lead, her friends and colleagues say.

A funeral was held in Sydney yesterday for the 47-year-old television personality, who was found dead in her apartment last weekend. She took her own life after a long and public battle with depression.

Dawson was constantly judged for who she appeared to be, and did not have the strength to cope with life in the public eye, TV personality Suzanne Paul said.

She had assumed Dawson would be a spoilt diva before they co-hosted chat show How's Life a decade ago. "We all judged her before she even arrived. She was a gorgeous thing with a fabulous life as a model, of course we were prepared not to like her."

Paul has suffered depression and financial woes like Dawson, but she said she had a more robust character and chose not to acknowledge online bullying. "I don't look. I don't type my name into Google. You have got to be very strong in your mind."

Dawson's death should remind people to be honest about depression and have compassion for those who suffered it, Paul said.

"Nobody ever knows what's going on behind the smile. They think she had it all, but obviously she didn't have it all, and didn't feel she did."

Josh Kronfeld, who appeared with Dawson on Celebrity Treasure Island in 2003, said her mental health declined after her messy split from husband Scott Miller in 2000, which was treated to the full media glare. "It takes a strong person to escape that. She was a wonderful woman that just got lost and it's a shame that they feel they can't cope."

Dawson's death had brought fresh light to the risks of anonymous online bullying, said Paul Henry, another of Dawson's How's Life co-hosts. "Her legacy might be drawing attention to these scoundrels and low-lifes on the internet. She would take things very personally, and it was a constant annoyance to me that she would engage with her detractors. She was just the loveliest person, and to think that in the end these mindless scum have won. I just hope they realise what horrible loathsome people they are."

A "Charlotte's Law" petition to introduce tougher cyber bullying legislation in Australia had reached 181,000 signatures yesterday.

A Harmful Digital Communications Bill is currently in the select committee process in New Zealand, which could impose three months' prison or a $2000 fine for those who post or distribute information online that would cause emotional distress or humiliation.

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The bill would target persistent online harassment and threats, but was unlikely to eradicate anonymous trolling, Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker said. "I don't think it would have stopped people launching those attacks [on Dawson]."

There was little point encouraging people to leave social media, he said. "It's part of their life, it's how they communicate with family and friends."

People with low self-esteem can be harmed by social media, but can also be boosted by positive feedback. Young "digital natives" who had grown up online were better equipped to discern true abuse from banter, but were still vulnerable to harassment, he said.

Dawson's legacy was to start a conversation about safe online lives, Cocker said. "If people have learned from this that online attacks can be harmful and can come to negative outcomes, that's a good thing."

CHARLOTTE'S SELFIE LOATHING

Charlotte Dawson lived a public life, tweeting prolifically and frequently updating the world through her Instagram account.

While people with low self-esteem are often drawn to social media, positive feedback online can be a good influence on ego, Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker said.

Dawson copped plenty of vicious abuse online, attempting suicide in August 2012 after a torrent of taunts for her to kill herself, many with the hashtag #diecharlotte.

She sometimes confronted her bullies by retweeting their abuse, and met two of her trolls face-to-face for a TV broadcast in 2012.

- The Dominion Post

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