Let’s talk about trolling. Last autumn I began working on a documentary for the BBC and, after several months and many late nights, it finally airs this week. In Troll Hunters I join YouTube vlogger Em Ford, a high-profile victim of internet trolls in the past, to investigate the rise of online abuse in Great Britain.

BBC Troll Hunters Em Ford

YouTube beauty vlogger Em Ford joins forces with tech journalist David McClelland in Troll Hunters (image: BBC)

Online trolling has what could be described as a rich history that dates back to the first exchanges on the internet. Some consider trolling an art-form, others a menace. Opponents say it’s the internet equivalent of assault; supporters argue it’s about humour, mischief and freedom of speech. I believe the very term ‘trolling’ has become confused, too often a generalised catch-all used in the media for any harsh words online.

In making Troll Hunters we’ve strived to understand where trolling stops and online hate-crime begins. Throughout I’ve found myself challenging my own understanding of what trolling is and where the line falls between robust-but-defensible discourse and unacceptable online behaviour. I defend free-speech on the internet, I defend our right to express opinions and to question those in authority, and anonymity can play an important role in those. Provocation, mischief-making, mockery is a part of life online (fuelled by the online disinhibition effect, perhaps). As the saying goes, just because I disagree with you it does not make me a troll. But there are lines that should not be crossed.

For me, more often than not it comes down to intent: directing posts with a determination to abuse, menace or threaten somebody because of their gender, race, how they look, who they’re dating, their political beliefs or sexual orientation is not trolling, it’s abuse.

In its most extreme form, trolling is a criminal offence – one increasingly pursued by the police – but online anonymity remains a major barrier to conviction. As we learn in the show, trolling can escalate to levels so severe that victims and their families succumb to anxiety, depression and, tragically, suicide.

We also explore online anonymity and investigate whether it is possible to track down a troll. We attempt to understand the psychology and motivations of a troll, and to shine a light on the real-world impact of online bullying. The film also hopes to encourage cyber-victims to put a stop to the hatred levelled at them and stand up to their trolls.

All of the victims of trolling, online abuse, net-hate – call it what you will – that we spoke to had one thing in common, a question above others that they each needed answering: Why? What motivates their troll, why do they expend so much energy in singling our their victim? Sadly, there is not one common answer.

I find it difficult to believe that a documentary like Troll Hunters will make a substantial difference to life online, but I do hope it empowers victims of online abuse to see beyond their abusers’ masks. I also hope that by seeing the real-world distress caused by their actions some would-be trolls are persuaded to behave more responsibly online.

Troll Hunters airs on BBC Three at 9pm on Wednesday 27th January 2016 as part of the One Click Away season.

*** Update *** Troll Hunters will also run on BBC1 on Tuesday 9th February 2016 at 11.15pm