The Troll Phenomenon

I want to talk about trolls and I’m going to grab a few examples from the British press and British public figures as I talk about it. I’ll try to grab a few links and examples here and there but I want to talk about the various reasons why trolling is a problem but also why I can’t see a particular solution to the problems that it causes.

There are several points that need to be tackled but I think the most important one of them all is simply this:

Most trolls don’t believe the things they say and their threats and obscenities are not genuine. They do what they do in order to elicit a reaction not because they necessarily genuinely hold the beliefs that they appear to espouse.

From that fact stems my belief that taking the words of a troll too seriously is counter-productive and obfuscates the real problem that lies behind the racism, sexism, insensitivity, homophobia and other tools they use to get a reaction. The real problem is their antisocial behaviour. The content is just a tool to upset someone and that’s what they ‘get off’ on. When you take the comment as genuinely *ist you are feeding into that pay off.

This isn’t to say that such antisocial behaviour is not damaging. It’s damaging in a lot of ways and harassment, sincere or not, is stressful, hurtful and can really grind people down. We see how this happens in ‘meatspace’ with antisocial youths and problem families. Trolls are the ASBOed of the global village.

Forever relevant

When you post things or when you gain a history or a reputation on various topics, when you address certain topics then you make yourself a target. If you’re a woman, especially if you write about feminist topics, you’ll get misogynistic and hateful comments. If you’re gay you’ll attract homophobic slurs. Simply by expressing yourself you’re going to flag up the things that make you a good target and the trolls will hit at that whatever they personally believe.

Really not that scary.

Why do I suggest that we shouldn’t take their threats and slurs seriously? Well, look at this guy:

This is Frank Zimmerman who sent a huge amount of threats to UK MP Louise Mensch. As a public figure, a member of Parliament and a frequently outspoken feminist, of a sort, Mensch was an obvious target. On the other side of the political spectrum, journalist Laurie Penny gets similar treatment.

Mr Zimmerman, however, is a 60 year old shut in with agoraphobia. For all the nastiness of the things he said, his threats were not remotely credible and so it goes for most internet trolls. Their arena is one of anonymity and hurt from the safety of the internet. When they’re brought to light, they’re like this guy almost all the time.

If you watched the video I appended at the top another troll was tracked down and exposed to be… well, nobody really. Just another seemingly unemployed spod getting his jollies online. In that case he was particularly noteworthy for defacing memorial pages on Facebook with horrible things said about the deceased. He didn’t know them and, of course, he didn’t care.

OK, point, hopefully made that while hurtful and nasty the content of the trolling messages is not genuine and we should not be that afraid of it. What then are the genuine problems when it comes to trolling?

1. People use troll behaviour to support positions that aren’t necessarily true.

If you write a blog about how racist contemporary culture is and you get a ton of comments/emails calling you a racial epithet then your position may appear to be supported. Trolls who may or may not be racist – or whatever else – end up creating an environment that seems to support a contention that may – or may not – be true.

2. Trolls hide behind freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

At least in the UK hate speech is not protected speech. I am not sure of the intricacies in other countries but I’d appreciate comments telling me how it works in other nations. Free expression is a hugely important principle but when trolls dress themselves up in it they devalue it and weaken its importance when it comes to real issues.

3. Trolls destroy useful communication on issues.

If you’re discussing something important that needs to be debated between two points of view a massive amount of trolling disrupts that and makes conversation impossible. Needless to say this is counter-productive. Genuine comments, observations and criticisms often get swept up amongst the trolling as well. It’s too easy to paint any opposition as trolling. Inarticulate and bad arguments, genuinely held, are almost indistinguishable from insincere trolling.

4. Genuine nutters can hide amongst trolls.

It is extremely rare but some genuinely damaged individuals can be nearly indistinguishable from trolls. I personally interacted with the Discovery Channel shooter on several occasions and in the febrile atmosphere of political fora, often rife with hundreds and thousands of trolls, he didn’t stand out. A genuine, damaged, troubled, fanatical individual was lost in a forest of pretend-extremists.

5. Trolls present a threat to internet freedoms.

The presence and existence of trolls, the offence and so on that they cause creates more and more people who are willing to accept less online privacy and the tightening of laws on what used to be a very free, very open forum without the problems of governmental and legal censure. That’s a risk to a global communication medium that has already shown its genuine worth – and the worth of anonymity – in the Arab Spring.

Solutions

I don’t think there is any real solution to this problem or, at least, no ‘magic bullet’ that can put an end to it. There are a few steps that online society can – possibly – take to mitigate the problem but ultimately so long as the internet is a free area there will be trolls. I consider that to be a price worth paying given all the good that free communication and free expression brings to the world.

Nonetheless, I want this to end on a positive note so I’m going to make a few practical suggestions:

a) Remember that they don’t mean it.

Odds are very good that the hateful things that are said are not genuinely held opinions. The troll is trying to get a rise out of you. If you treat their comment as serious, take it seriously, rise to it, you’re giving them what they want.

b) Starve them of attention.

Don’t react. Just block. They want attention. They want people stirred up. They want people upset. Don’t give it to them, deny them access to your comment areas, your blogs, your chatrooms and your fora. Just be sure they are a troll. Maybe people can share info, emails, IP addresses, that sort of thing. We already have spam filters, can we not develop troll filters? They wouldn’t be perfect, but that might help some.

c) If we must react, do it appropriately.

Treat it as what it is. Antisocial behaviour. Pursue it – if you can – offline rather than online.  In both Zimmerman’s picture and the video posted at the top you can see how uncomfortable and worried these people are about being confronted in ‘meatspace’. Of course, anyone with a lick of sense can hide their identity or make up fake email addresses to hide behind and anonymity is an important aspect of net freedom, so this needs to be carefully judged and worked on.

Anyway, that’s where I’m at on these issues and I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Keep in mind, this post is a likely troll target. You have to love irony. 🙂

 

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