How to identify anonymous anti-vax trolls
In the social media age, anyone can quickly and unintentionally become the subject of online harassment, such as speculation, ridicule, and abuse. A significant minority are willing to post, retweet or share content without care or critical thinking, spreading misinformation and hate. A smaller, but still significant, minority actively target and abuse those who do not share their (often warped) view of the world.
Recently Henry Dyne, a 29-year old IT consultant from Surrey, fell victim to social media trolling from anti vaxxers. Mr Dyne was unvaccinated when he was hospitalised with Covid-19 in the summer of 2021. By chance, the BBC was filming in the hospital where he was being treated, and he agreed to discuss his experience of the disease to encourage others to get vaccinated. Little did he know that his interview would be shared around the ‘Anti-Vax’ corners of the internet, generating hateful messages wishing him serious injury and death, and spark cries of ‘crisis actor’ (effectively a stooge for the national vaccination campaign).
After a time, the messages died down, and Mr Dyne added the line “1 x Academy Award Wining Crisis Actor” to his Instagram bio, sarcastically poking fun at his experience. Unfortunately, when the BBC re-ran his interview as part of a 2021 roundup between Christmas and New Year, his Instagram bio was used as ‘evidence’ that he was a paid crisis actor, pushing an agenda (a ‘get the vaccine’ agenda). This time around the abuse and harassment he received was significantly worse.
What is an individual to do when the social media trolls descend? While often emboldened by the perceived anonymity of social media, what many fail to realise is that, in England and Wales at least, there are ways to identify the anonymous.
The identity of an anonymous social media troll can often be obtained through the Court’s Norwich Pharmacal procedure, which we discuss in more detail here. In simple terms, a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO) compels an innocent third party to disclose information which they would otherwise be unable to provide for confidentiality/data protection reasons. Using Mr Dyne’s case as an example, had he wished to identify his trolls, he could have sought Norwich Pharmacal Order against Twitter for the disclosure of the account information associated with specific abusive tweets.
Amongst the data disclosed would usually be an email address, phone number, name, and geographical information, together with IP addresses for log ins and account creation. Even when a troll takes steps to hide his or her identity (for example by using throwaway email addresses and fake names), IP addresses will show the networks from which log ins happened. Analysing those IP addresses can show whether they are associated with a domestic internet service provider (ISP): if they are, the Norwich Pharmacal process can be repeated against that provider to obtain account information.
Signing up for a home broadband account anonymously is a practical impossibility: an address is a technical requirement, and the providers require payment and identification details to ensure they are paid. As a result, this two-stage process often yields the identity of the trolls. It is not a foolproof system: some trolls are particularly evasive and take steps to hide even their IP addresses (although many, if not most, slip up somewhere along the line).
Identification is the first step in pursuing legal remedies. Trolling may give rise to civil claims for harassment, defamation, malicious falsehood, breach of the UK GDPR, the misuse of private information and/or breach of confidence. A victim may be entitled to seek damages (compensation) for any financial loss they have suffered, reputational harm and - perhaps most significantly - the distress they have suffered. They will also be able to seek their legal costs, including those associated with the Norwich Pharmacal Order, and an injunction.
Once a troll has been identified, a victim may also be able to lodge a police complaint. Harassment is also a criminal offence and there are other specific offences under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and Communications Act 2003. These are not minor offences. For instance, harassment that causes one to fear violence (section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997) carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
In all instances, once a troll knows they have been identified, they will normally crawl back under the proverbial rock and curb their behaviour.
If you have been subjected to online abuse by anonymous social media trolls, our team of harassment solicitors can provide expert legal advice and representation. To request a consultation please send us an email, complete our online enquiry form or call us on 020 7183 8950. If emailing or using the online form, please provide a short outline of your situation.
Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.