Early in the morning Friday, August 2, Hannah Smith was found dead in her family home in Leicestershire, England. The 14-year-old had hanged herself, and was discovered in her bedroom by her older sister.
The motives behind suicide are often complex and it can be hard to discern one key trigger, but when Hannah’s father checked her online trail, he was sure he had found it.
Hannah had been using a website called Ask.Fm, which allows people to post questions and have them answered anonymously. The website reportedly had more than 13 million unique visitors in June, meaning that Latvian-based website has eclipsed its similar rival Formspring, a U.S.-based site used by NYC mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner for sexual purposes.
For Hannah, the site offered something her real world apparently didn’t provide — a chance to confide in an online community about the return of her childhood eczema and her recent depression. However, she didn’t find support. When her father checked one message that described Hannah’s habitual self-harming, she found that the anonymous users who had responded to the question were insulting her — telling her to “drink bleach,” “go get cancer,” and “die,” according to Channel 4.
Hannah’s father is sure these comments helped drive his daughter to suicide, and he wants something done about it. “How many more teenagers will kill themselves because of online abuse before something is done?” David Smith told the Daily Mirror. “These sick people are just able to go online and hide behind a mask of anonymity while they abuse vulnerable teenagers.”
He also said he believes that the people who run the website should be convicted of “manslaughter.”
Within the United Kingdom there’s a huge amount of sympathy for David Smith and his family. An online petition demanding that the government “step in and insist that Ask.fm and similar sites help us protect our young people” is circulating. Just a few hours after it went live, the petition had more than 6,400 signatures. A Facebook page dedicated to Hannah has 45,000 “likes.”
More broadly, there are growing signs the British public are becoming increasingly upset by online “trolls” who use their anonymity to harass and threaten others online. On Sunday, dozens of prominent Twitter users went silent for 24 hours, hoping to bring attention to vile threats that had been sent anonymously to a number of users. More than 130,000 people have signed a petition asking Twitter to add a “report abuse” button to the service.
The issue had been brought to light by Caroline Criado-Perez, a feminist campaigner, Stella Creasy, a member of Britain’s parliament, and Mary Beard, a classics professor, who began retweeting the rape threats they had received from anonymous sources on Twitter at the end of July. Their crime? Supporting a campaign to feature Jane Austen on a 10 pound note.
Right now, it’s unclear what all this attention on online trolls will do. Twitter has ruled out manually reviewing each tweet, though it has updated its terms and conditions and attempted to make it easier to report abuse. Ask.fm’s owners have released a statement that called Hannah’s death a “true tragedy” and has promised to cooperate with police.
It’s hardly a new problem (Channel 4 notes that at least four other teenagers have killed themselves after being bullied on Ask.Fm), but companies are not exactly compelled to regulate abuse online. The Economist notes that the legal responsibility of websites like Facebook and Ask.Fm depends quite a bit on how robust the abuse protocols the companies set up are — the more robust they are, the more liable they would be legally.
However, there may be a tipping point, and online companies should not be surprised if the British government does take steps to combat the problem of “trolls.” While the United States may pride itself on free speech and many technological experts support anonymity online, the British government has no such qualms. What’s more, David Cameron’s Conservative government has shown itself willing to get involved in complicated matters of freedom online — take the ambitious (maybe too ambitious) plan to “ban” Internet pornography, for example.
There is another depressing takeaway though — even when confronted with their sadism, trolls frequently double down. Even as the controversy over online threats and anonymous insults raged, the trolls are still trolling; female Twitter users who complained about rape threats are now getting anonymous bomb threats, and the Facebook tribute page to Hannah Smith has seen her branded a “coward” and a “pathetic suicide case.”