Athletes take on Internet trolls

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Norwegian skiing star Therese Johaug isn’t sure if it’s envy or a lust for some sort of revenge that prompts some people to constantly make negative, insulting and usually anonymous comments about others online. She’s now joining a national campaign to take on the so-called “trolls” and bullies of the Internet.

Norway's Marit Bjørgen (left) took gold again, and Therese Johaug won bronze in the women's 15-kilometer pursuit at Holmenkollen on Saturday. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

Both Marit Bjørgen (left) and Therese Johaug, who’ve won multiple medals in skiing competition, have been insulted by Internet trolls. Johaug is joining a new campaign against online bullying that’s being launched by retired freestyle skier Kari Traa. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

“Even when you’re a public figure, it’s not okay that you’re subjected to comments that are offensive or, in the worst case, direct threats,” Johaug told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. That’s when Norway’s Olympic freestyle skiing champion Kari Traa was launching the campaign against the chorus of critics who spread written abuse online.

Traa’s goal is to form a network of women who will support each other and virtually disarm the trolls. “We will show that we’re tougher and stronger by chasing the trolls back into the forest,” said Traa, who has also had a video made in which eight women will reveal what they’ve had to tolerate in the form of online insults, agitation and threats, and the profiles of who may be behind it. The campaign will also support work being done by the organization MOTS to combat bullying in Norwegian schools and Traa, who became a successful businesswoman after retiring from competition, will personally donate money to the cause.

Retired freestyle skiing champion Kari Traa is intent on chasing Internet trolls "back into the forest." PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Retired freestyle skiing champion Kari Traa is intent on chasing Internet trolls “back into the forest.” PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

The women include entertainers, actresses, athletes, models and coaches, all of whom have been victims of online insults. “We must never let fear (of such hurtful commentary) stand in the way of our dreams,” Traa wrote in a commentary of her own published in Aftenposten on Thursday. “I hope we can get a peoples’ movement going, where the goal is to tell the trolls out there that what they’re doing is stupid and they should cut it out, but also that we have to learn how to just shake them off. I think we can get girls and women to be proud of themselves, and not let the trolls bother them.”

Johaug, who has won multiple Olympic gold medals and World Championships, said she has chosen to ignore the comment fields of websites. “I feel that I have enough self-confidence in what I’m doing, but I know that many get hit with rude comments about their physique,” Johaug told Aftenposten. Even Norway’s undisputed ski queen, Marit Bjørgen, has had to tolerate mean comments in the public arena about her muscles, Johaug said.

“I don’t really understand the point, or the need, to bring others down,” Johaug added. Nor do those doing research on the topic yet, because the volume of online harassment on social media is still relatively new. Women are those most targeted, though, researcher Jørgen Lorentzen, director of the Hedda Foundation, could claim, suggesting that many of the trolls are “lonely and abandoned men who sit in their rooms at home. There’s still little hard research on this because it’s so new, but statistics from Sweden indicate (those writing hateful or insulting comments) are mostly young and old men.”

Lorentzen said he’d gladly find out why they have a need to harass others as they hide behind their anonymity. He thinks websites should ban anonymous comments and require debate participants to use full names and addresses. Online debate should also be followed much more closely by editors of websites, he said. “We can’t protect ourselves from everyone but I wish the victims of online abuse would report it to the police,” he told Aftenposten. “Slander is illegal.”

Anette Sagen, Norway’s pioneering female ski jumper, is disgusted by it as well. “Yes, we have freedom of expression,” Sagen, who’s also supporting the campaign, told Aftenposten. “But it shouldn’t be used to spread muck.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund