March 30, 2015

Cyber Bullying, trolls & online security in Barbados

A few weeks ago, a Barbadian woman went missing on an average Friday afternoon. The community effort that followed over the weekend was intense and admirable, and the first time something of that magnitude took place in this island. The community came together through physical searching, flyering, traditional media and social media. Her flyer was 'shared' like wildfire and I'm pretty sure every single person on the rock knew about it within 12 hours. Luckily, she was discovered safe and sound 24 hours later. This post isn't about the search, but rather the social media flurry surrounding this incident.

It was the first time we witnessed a response of that magnitude in Barbados - people came out of the woodworks to voice their opinion on the incident, whether they knew the woman or not. It was incredible to see that almost every Barbadian, from almost every walk of life, had something to say about it, mainly voiced through social media channels. Not even during the election did people voice such passionate opinions about something online, raising discussions and arguments about race, class, privilege and changes they believeneeded to take place for Barbados to develop a healthier society. Most of the discussions I followed were very interesting purely from the 'civic engagement' standpoint [I wrote my thesis on using social media as a tool for developing civic engagement in Barbados] and I hoped that the debates would lead to more positive action in some cases. In my opinion, discussions like this were needed in our society, and it was great to see so many people ruffling their feathers. Unfortunately, in the same way this incident stirred up healthy discussion and debate online, it also showed a darker, more sinister side to social media and there were lots of trolls who raised their ugly heads.

For those of you who don't know, I'm not referring to cute troll in my photo above, but rather the modern day version of a troll, who is:

a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Trolls vary from individuals who post deliberately annoying or controversial comments in an effort to stir up online discussion up to criminals who harass vulnerable people online. 

As defined above, these trolls really took the 'discussion' surrounding the event to another level; making up sensationalist stories, sharing inappropriate stories, going off topic on popular threads by implying things that were not true....Some took it a step further and stole photos from private Facebook accounts and used them in their stories to cause more of a stir. Reading this was upsetting and exhausting, and so frustrating to see because some people felt like it was the right of the trolls to share their opinion too. But that's not true, and I'll tell you why in a minute.

I have since discovered that there are many such trolls in Barbados alone, which is pretty ironic because it's such a small place [not even 300,000 people] and yet it is somehow possible to remain anonymous behind a computer/phone screen. A relatively large percentage of cybercrime involving abuse or threats is perpetrated by people known to the victim. On the flip side, because Barbados is so small, I think it's easier for people to feel disillusioned and that they 'know' someone [either directly or through association] and they therefore feel like they have more 'authority' to share their what they know about a person or topic. Comments and posts are often nasty, sensationalist and untrue, and this is the sad reality of modern day cyber bullying.

Coincidentally, I'm part of a team who is working on launching an Anti-cyber bullying campaign that is targeted at parents of schoolchildren. This project has opened my eyes to the plights of modern teenagers in Barbados, and it's terrifying. One of the main issues we have come across through our research is that people who have experienced cyber bullying don't know what to do about it. This is part of what our campaign aims to address but I also realised that many of us adults don't realise how vulnerable we are to online 'attacks' and how we can protect ourselves and our rights.

In order to attack others, the first thing that trolls need is a victim pool and a public forum of some kind, and they usually want an audience. Trolls gravitate to anywhere online users interact - like blog sites, social networks, multiplayer games, discussion forums, hobby sites and so on. The second thing that certain trolls need is some sort of content, which they can often get straight from the source: you!

While you can’t control whether you will become a troll’s target, you can decide if you will make yourself a troll’s victim. Knowing that the troll’s goal is to embarrass, humiliate, ridicule, demean and shame you, you have a choice about how you are going to react.

Trolling in Barbados hasn't quite reached the [life threatening] extremes that I have read about in the US for example, but it's still becoming a serious issue and I would like to share my opinion on how you can protect yourself against trolling and cyberbullying, and what you can do to deal with it if you find yourself being attacked or victimized online.

*Please note: I am by no means an expert, and my intention is not to come across as one. I have a pretty good understanding of everyday social media usage, and am merely sharing my opinion/experience based on what I know. My points touch on these issues very lightly as a general guideline for anyone in Barbados who cares to read this, and I would strongly advise anyone to do further research into these issues.


1. Protecting your online presence

Since the missing persons incident mentioned above, I have come across another troll who has publicly shamed close family friends of mine and continues to share stories publicly, using their personal photos from Facebook that the troll is able to access, save and share online. This part is somewhat legal [more on that below] but the fact that you share your life online doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned all your expectations on how, why, and by whom your information is used:

Private vs. Public Facebook photos

Scary Fact #1: our Facebook Cover Photo & current Profile Photo is always public. 

Anyone can click on those photos, save them, and share them as they see fit.

My advice is to ever have any personal photos as your Cover Photo or Profile Photo.

Similarly, Facebook the mysterious world of ever-changing Facebook settings is very difficult to navigate. Most of your photos are automatically set to 'Share Publicly' and you have to make sure that every single photo you post is set to 'Friends' anything else that isn't 'Public.' 

Sharing posts on Facebook

You can change your settings by going to Privacy Settings/Profile Information under the Account tab. You'll see options by each category, including Friends and Networks, Friends of Friends, and Only Friends. (Note that the Networks option will only show up if you are part of a professional organization or university.) There is also a Custom option, which opens a pop-up that lets you share only with yourself or with individual users.

Being tagged in photos on Facebook

If you want to prevent anyone from tagging you in photos and videos, you have to go to Account/Privacy Settings/Profile Information/Photos and Videos of Me and deselecting the Everyone default. The safest thing to do is to make them visible only to you (click Customize and choose Only Me) and then share images on a case by case basis.

2. Google yourself from an 'Incognito' window regularly

Scary fact #2:  The moment you post something on Facebook or YouTube, you enter into a contract with that company

From then on, they’re free to benefit from your material in any way they see fit, mainly by selling ads around it, but in some cases by selling your data, or using your avatar and other personal information for commercial purposes.

I think it's really important to understand your online presence. As a blogger, I Google myself regularly to see where my photos and content may end up. Call me paranoid, but I would rather know what's going on and be able to take control than find out my photo is being used somewhere without my consent. You can do this quite easily using an 'incognito' Chrome window, so that it doesn't just show you the results based on your browsing history and connections. Similarly, you can try it out on a different computer to your own.

One of the easiest ways to keep a 'lower' profile on Facebook is to hide your profile from Google’s search engine. You can do this by going to Account/Privacy Settings/ Search and unchecking the Public Search Results box. This will remove your public preview from Google, Bing, and Yahoo Search returns. You can also prevent your profile from showing up on internal search from the same page. Just use the drop down menu to select who you want to be able to find you on the service. 
Note: users could still find you through a friend of a friend.

3. Recognise & Ignore trolls

This point may seem obvious, or a lot easier said than done, but the best thing to do is to ignore the troll/discussion andeal with it indirectly. I've seen incidences where people have confronted their trolls/attackers in the public, and this only adds fuel to the fire. Please don't give them the satisfaction of knowing they have caught your attention, that's all they wanted in the first place.

 Trolling posts are not a signal for you to engage in intelligent argument. Trolls are childlike in their attempts to offend and provoke reaction – you will not be able to debate with them.

You can take other steps to ensure that the matter is dealt with more seriously. For anyone who feels they are being victimized by trolls, the first step should be to contact site administrators. Site administrators will have tools for dealing with such individuals – and are also well-placed to help you take legal action if they believe that it is required.

4. Block the trolls

Take away their power by blocking them. If they pop up under a different name, block them again. Blocking someone beyond social media accounts or IP address may require technical assistance, so I would advise that you get in touch with an I.T professional. IP addresses can be tracked and persistent attacks from an IP or a range of IPs can be effectively blocked.
Unfortunately, blocking an IP address is not often a permanent solution. It’s easy for a banned user to re-register under a new name. Usually all it takes is a new email address. Even an IP address ban is not perfect. Many modern ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) use dynamic (ever changing) IP address and it’s easy for a troll to use a proxy to get around any ban you have in place.

5. Report any offensive behavior

Saving the evidence of the cyberbullying, keep abusive text messages or a screenshot of a webpage, for example, and then report the trolls. If you don't report incidents, the cyberbully will often become more aggressive.

Facebook has a Family Safety Centre, which details "practical advice on what people should do if they are targeted online, from blocking someone to social reporting". The tools page succinctly explains how to block someone from communicating with you on Facebook and how to report a post that you consider to be from a troll, which Facebook promises to investigate. 

In Barbados you can report cyberbullying incidences to the police once they reach a stage that is in line with libel and a defamation laws, but it's very important to understanthe difference between the two:

Generally, defamation is a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone's reputation, and published "with fault," meaning as a result of negligence or malice. State laws often define defamation in specific ways. Libel is a written defamation; slander is a spoken defamation.

Unfortunately [and as far as I know] the laws in Barbados have not been updated to account for online harassment and cyberbullying [yet] I spoke with a lawyer about this, and she suggested that the closes thing is the 'Telecommunications Act', though this refers specifically to phones [more specifically threatening calls and text messages]


Please note: With online interaction & social media settings constantly changing at lighting speed, this post may not be very accurate even after a couple of weeks. For example, when I first scheduled this post, a friend informed me of recent changes to Profile Picture settings, so I had to edit this post to suit those changes. If any of my information is incorrect, please let me know. My aim is merely to start a discussion on these issues in Barbados, because I believe more needs to be done about it.


  1. a great break down of some useful information malou - thanks! this is something i definitely need to talk to my kids about before they get caught up with any trolls.

  2. Great post and great information! Glad she was found safely! When I lived in Barbados for law school there was never any of these kinds of things. What is the world coming to?!

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