As the woman accused of abusing Madeline McCann's family online is found dead, social media expert and academic Dr Bex Lewis shares her thoughts on internet trolls

Today, 63-year old Brenda Leyland from Leicestershire, accused of directing a stream of Internet abuse at the McCann family, was found dead in a hotel room.

She had recently been exposed in a Sky News report as the person behind the Twitter account @sweepyface, which had been posting ‘trolling’ messages about the McCanns, convinced that Madeline McCann’s parents are responsible for her disappearance.

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When confronted by the Sky news reporter as to whether she should have posted such messages, she said “I'm entitled to do that”.

For many, a ‘troll’ is a Nordic creature, whilst for others, it means “to trail a baited line” for a fish. In recent years, the word has come to be more commonly associated with baiting others on the Internet, usually with negative, insulting, harassing or provocative comments designed to draw out a response.

Last week, BBC Radio 4 ran a story about how the police were investigating abusive social media messages sent to the McCanns. On Friday, Madeleine's father, Gerry McCann, told the BBC: "Clearly something needs to be done about the abuse on the Internet”, noting that “"I think we probably need more people charged." He explained that his family tends to avoid the Internet because of the nature of threats and insults they receive.

I would often describe what happens on the Internet as ‘human nature amplified’, often-exaggerating offline characteristics.

Many who use the Internet forget that there is a human being at the other end of the computer, not just a feeling-less screen, and that they are not operating in the ‘Wild West’.

Brenda Leyland said that she had not “broken any laws”, but the Malicious Communications Act 1988, which covers Twitter, notes that it is an offence to send messages to another person which are “indecent or grossly offensive”, threatening or false.

If the message is intended to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient, as these could be construed, then they breach the law. There are, however, a large number of sites that discuss the McCann case online, and, as one of my Facebook connections said, are we really saying that people are not ‘entitled’ to share adverse views online? If we view both the offline and the online environments as part of the same continuum, then we would expect the limits as to what are acceptable to say (and not say) are the same as elsewhere – including face-to-face conversations, and other published spaces.

Sky approached Mrs Leyland on her own doorstep, presumably one of several ‘unknown’ people who had been expressing such an opinion online (and not necessarily directly to the McCanns). I may not like what she has been doing, but is doorstepping people and outing them live on TV really the answer? Had Sky done any research into this woman before they put her face in the public domain? Did they know anything about her mental state, and did she just have the misfortune to be the person chosen to be ‘made an example of’? This reminded me somewhat of the recent media treatment of Cliff Richard. It’s entirely legitimate for the police to investigate such stories, but where have we got to as a culture where ‘trial by media’ or ‘trial by gossip’ seems to be acceptable?

Brenda Leyland was tweeting under the pseudonym of @sweepyface. We can’t see what these tweets about the McCanns look like as part of her whole account as the account has been removed. I’ve been working on a piece on online anonymity for The Methodist Church, which included stories such as the online harassment of Caroline Criado-Perez. As with most issues attributed to digital technology, as Criado-Perez herself said: "If we don’t like what social media is presenting us [with], we should look at society instead, not just the tool they communicate with."

In September 2013, The Huffington Post banned anonymous commenting, citing trolling as the problem, indicating that anyone who posted comments to the blog should be prepared to stand up behind their comments in a ‘grown-up’ fashion.

Anonymity is not a phenomenon new to the Internet, although we have to find new ways of dealing with it, including policies, etiquette and education.

Those who have clearly breached the law need to face the charges, ensuring that education, and potentially restorative justice, are part of a fitting ‘punishment’.

Dr Bex Lewis is Research Fellow in Social Media and Online Learning for the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology, Director of Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age (Lion Hudson, 2014).