Calls for Twitter to clamp down on so-called "trolls" sending abusive hate messages via the social networking site intensified yesterday after a string of high-profile attacks on famous names including the diver Tom Daley. Coronation Street's Shobna Gulati, and the Conservative MP Louise Mensch. Even the father of Daley's internet abuser said the company needed to take action to stop the disturbing practice.
Their appeals came after a flurry of Twitter vitriol attracted police and public attention last week. The first incident involved the teenage Olympian Tom Daley, who received a string of malicious tweets from 17-year-old Reece Messer after he missed out on a medal. Appearing under the Twitter name "Rileyy_69", the messages also referred to Daley's father, Rob, who died of cancer last year.
One said: "You let your dad down I hope you know that", while another threatened to drown the sports star. The BBC Olympics presenter Gary Lineker revealed shortly afterwards that he felt "physically sick" after a Twitter troll mocked his son George over his childhood battle with leukaemia. The 23-year-old swimmer Rebecca Adlington and 18-year-old weightlifter Zoe Smith have also received taunts. And last Thursday the Blue Peter host Helen Skelton decided to quit Twitter completely because of the abuse she was receiving.
The latest attacks have prompted fresh calls for a stricter clampdown on the social networking site.
Ms Gulati, who has also abandoned tweeting to escape bullying, said it was about time the firm took action to solve the troll problem. "Twitter is a great social networking tool, but they need to examine their methods," she said. Ms Gulati left the site after trolls posted mutilated photographs of her and sent a stream of racist comments. One tweeted insult read: "You're not British, you're foreign." Another said: "You have got to be the ugliest fucker I've seen."
Ms Gulati said: "It was horrific. It's nasty, abusive and scary. It throws you off balance – people are not what they seem." She said she had previously enjoyed being on Twitter because of the human interaction. "I really enjoyed Twitter and thought it was a fun thing. It gave me access to people that I wouldn't normally have access to. I was known as a re-tweeter and that was one of the reasons I was on there, to re-tweet and promote people's good causes. I loved communicating with people who loved Corrie and the other programmes I was in."
But Ms Gulati, 45, said she believes she was targeted in part because of her public profile. She finally quit as there seemed to be no other way to escape the trolls stalking her. "If you're bullied when you're small you're taught mechanisms to deal with that," she said. "You look at it and you think: is this allowed? And seemingly it is. There are two things you can do with trolls on Twitter. You can report them and block them, but they can reinvent themselves and come back. One of my Twitter trolls reinvented themselves and said: 'I'll always be here to bother you.' "
Norman Messer, the father of the teen arrested after insulting Daley, said yesterday that Twitter should have shut down his son Reece's account a long time ago. Mr Messer, 58, said his son suffers from an extreme form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. "It's not just Daley. He's abused everyone on Twitter. If you go down his tweets you can see he's got a problem. There should be some way to close down the accounts of people who are not well, like Reece. I also think there should be an age limit. It's not right that young people should go on there and say things like this." He said his son is now full of remorse for his tweets to Daley. "He finds comfort going on Twitter – it gives him a buzz. He's tried to apologise to Tom, but hasn't got a reply, which has caused him more anxiety – although I'm not trying to blame Tom at all."
The Tory MP Louise Mensch says she has made repeated complaints to Twitter without getting any response about a parody account that shows her dressed in a Nazi uniform. "They need a better system to report racist abuse," she said, adding that her husband is Jewish.
"I'm a fairly well-known user of Twitter and so far I'm having trouble getting love from Twitter over this, so goodness knows what other people are doing."
Yesterday, a senior police officer said new laws were not needed to govern Twitter. Chief Constable Stuart Hyde of Cumbria Police, who speaks on e-crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said it was right for officers to intervene where people's lives were being made a misery by Twitter trolls. He insisted it was important for forces to take a "common sense" approach.
A week of cyber spite
Sunday Comedian Frankie Boyle joins Twitter trolls in an attack on swimmer Rebecca Adlington. Boyle tweeted: "I worry that Rebecca Adlington will have an unfair advantage in the swimming by possessing a dolphin's face." Comedian David Walliams tweeted in her defence: "I have met and spoken on the phone to [Adlington] and she is a beautiful woman, inside and out."
Monday Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith hits back at abusers. After Smith smashed the 58kg event in weightlifting this week (lifting more than 120kg). She said: "It's two fingers up to them, basically. What are you doing with your life? I've just competed at the Olympics! Have some of that, trolls!"
Wednesday Gary Lineker expressed outrage at trolls' abuse of his son. Lineker felt "physically sick" on seeing tweets to his son, who suffered from leukaemia. He re-tweeted them, saying the "culprit" had deleted their account.
Thursday Blue Peter's Helen Skelton becomes a "Twitter quitter" after trolls insulted her Olympic work. Her final tweet said: "Turns out I don't have very thick skin after all so I am closing my Twitter account. Enjoy the Games. skelts x."
Friday Kirstie Allsopp fights back against trolls. Abused on Twitter by two teenage girls, she tweeted to her 235,000 followers: "What's amazing is how incredibly positive the vast majority of people are. I do feel a big responsibility to be seen to say: No! Stop!"