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Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online

by Paula Todd

“The Web was designed as an instrument to prevent misunderstandings.” So says Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web. Quoted early on in Paula Todd’s new book, Lee’s comment elicits about the only laugh in the entire volume. Not that Todd’s subject is one that lends itself to humour; the first sentence of the prologue reads, “This book is not for the faint of heart or easily offended.” This is not an understatement: Todd delves into the online world of trolling, predation, and “interpersonal terrorism” in detail that is often graphic, and will certainly be distressing to those who may possess only a passing familiarity with the kind of vicious abuse that is perpetrated online – often directed at women, and generally emanating from users operating under the cloak of anonymity.

Todd examines cases that will be familiar to many readers, including the relentless targeting of Amanda Todd (no relation to the author), which resulted in the B.C. teen’s suicide. Todd also looks at the case of Rebecca Black, who was dubbed “The Most Hated Person on the Internet” and repeatedly told to kill herself after the teen singer’s video for the song “Friday” went viral.

The book also addresses less well-known instances of hideous abuse, including the cyberstalking of a California woman who acted as a good Samaritan only to have the woman she was trying to help start setting up fake Internet sites accusing her benefactor, among other things, of being a prostitute. Or Caroline Criado-Perez, a U.K. woman who was subjected to rape and death threats after successfully advocating for the inclusion of Jane Austen’s image on British currency.

All of this material is deeply disturbing, and Todd does an admirable job of dealing with it head-on, refusing to shy away from the gory details, even when she herself admits to fears of online retaliation.

Unfortunately, the volume reads like something that was rushed to print before it was ready. The finished book contains instances of sloppy writing alongside a staggering number of typos and copy errors. There is a condescending glossary – which gives the self-evident definition of the term “dick pic” and offers a phonetic pronunciation for the acronym URL – but no index. Although she talks about online gaming, Todd neglects to mention the infamous “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” game that threw the spotlight on the culture of misogyny among gamers, and she also overlooks the groundbreaking Toronto trial, launched in 2014, focusing on the matter of whether a Twitter troll can be found guilty of criminal harassment.

Todd’s plea for empathy and understanding is resonant, as is her quoting of Ellen Page’s imprecation that we all make “an effort to be less horrible to one another.” However, when she notes at the end of the book that she is “thinking about cyberbullying and other digital abuse as a reaction to the abuser’s own personal issues,” a reader can be forgiven for marvelling that it took 300 pages to reach that elementary insight.