How Free Speech was Actually Threatened

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Political comics aren’t just limited to newspapers. You also find them online, related to various issues. This one’s been doing the rounds lately and while all such political cartoons are simplistic, this one is particularly terrible. I don’t think I’ve seen one that misrepresented the issue of free speech so badly since the somewhat notorious XKCD one. That was a shame, as XKCD normally has something of a level head. This one, however, is just ludicrous.

It is, of course, alluding to various online spats from Gamergate to ‘Ghostbros’ to the regular Hugo Awards side show, but it utterly misrepresents.

Panel 1: Title – Ironically, it may well turn out to be accurate rather than sarcastic.

Panel 2: The idea that feminism attacks free speech is meant to be seen as ridiculous, but it does – indeed – happen. There are any number of examples from building moral panics about video games (now the idea is that they cause ‘sexism’ rather than ‘violence’) to collusion with government to ban forms of pornography (Gail Dines and the UK kink porn production ban) to No-Platforming and Safe Spaces. It’s not just limited to feminism, but it is found across a swathe of people who – ironically and laughably – consider themselves progressive even as they attack people’s free expression, sex lives and other fundamental human freedoms they should be fighting for.

Panel 3: Case in point. ‘Calling out sexism in video games’ doesn’t mean that there is sexism and ‘criticism’, coming from the likes of Anita Sarkeesian or Jonathan McIntosh is not ‘criticism’ in the sense most people would understand it. This is not “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work,” or even “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.” This is claiming that these things do harm and should not exist. It is not presented as a matter of opinion or a disagreement that can be discussed, but something that ‘is’, and something that is ‘bad’. It is a bald assertion and any attempt to discuss, debunk or otherwise counter that claim is treated as confirmation of that claim and as a crime or violence in and of itself.

So ‘feminist criticism’ is, indeed, a threat to free expression because it’s not criticism, and it presents calls to action to change, remove and to force artistic works and other expression to change or be removed. If you think censorship is limited to governmental action, this kind of ‘criticism’ works there too, but even so, the ACLU has a fairly up to date definition which includes:

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.

This isn’t differences of opinion. They are presented as facts, beyond question and to reiterate – since its important – any rebuttal is treated as confirmation and as an ‘attack’ of its own.

It’s also important to note for later that these kinds of ‘critics’ seem genuinely incapable of telling the difference between thought and action. So they will see a cultural artefact that includes – say – violence against women as violence against women (and approving of and encouraging it). This also works in reverse as we saw in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. It allowed many people – even artists and writers – to refuse to commemorate and support Charlie Hebdo because they could not see a meaningful difference between Charlie Hebdo’s criticism of Islam and the ’emotional pain’ it caused, and the violent, actual, physical backlash they suffered.

Panel 4 & Panel 5: One of the great things about social media is that it empowers people to criticise, comment and debunk. This is, of course, not popular in some quarters which is why many sites of various kinds, but tending to have common ideological slants, have taken to removing comments sections or even up and down votes. This stifles the ability of people to point out problems in the assertions directly and such ‘fighting back’ is often conflated with the trolling etc that goes on, making a handy excuse to dismiss, deflect or drown out criticism. The irony here of course is in ‘critics’ lashing out at things people love and then recoiling in terror when they get the same kind of treatment in return. When their ideas are picked apart and tested – as they should be.

Panel 6: Here we see the conflation of criticism and trolls. Anyone and everyone who posts a controversial opinion of any sort online will get blowback and everyone gets trolled. Some people seem to advertise their soft-spots to trolls though, and yet still act surprised when they get attacked on it. A fat acceptance activist will be attacked for their weight, a feminist will receive trolling masquerading as misogyny, black people will receive trolling masquerading as racism. Trolls are not sincere, that’s the definition of a troll – someone who says something horrific or controversial simply to get a response. There are genuine crazies as well, of course, but – again – what happens is that all criticism and rebuttal gets lumped in with the trolls, and the trolls treated as sincere.

Panel 7-8: Nobody is being actively silenced here. They are deciding for themselves to stop speaking. All they have had is disagreement, sometimes strident, online from people they have insulted and tried to censor. The people coming at them have no ‘institutional power’ to do so, while in the reverse you will often find people going to authorities (see earlier) or abusing site rules, DMCA rules etc to silence people. In this instance there is no censorship going on. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone amongst the enemies of these ‘critics’ who advocates that they should not be allowed to speak or present their views. Rather they’re happy to have a free exchange of views, a ‘marketplace of ideas’. This is a very real and important difference. If they truly believed in their ‘criticisms’ they should be willing and able to stand by them, argue for them in the teeth of criticism. That instead they run, hide and attempt – again – to censor dissent suggests that their ideas are indefensible.

Panel 9: Indeed they did. They didn’t silence anyone, they stood up against people who attacked them and forced them to retreat. To any rational and reasonable onlooker who genuinely understands the terms and the differentiations, this is a victory for free expression – just couched in sarcastic terms by someone who knows nothing about it.

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Internet Harassment: A Different Narrative

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Read plebcomics. They give lulz.

I wasn’t entirely sure which of my blogs was the best fit for this article, but I decided – in the end – that the one devoted to skepticism and atheism would win out, because this is very much about skepticism. I am going to be talking about some particulars of my experiences though and those relate primarily to gaming and gamer/geek culture.

For those who don’t know, I’m a tabletop game designer. I’ve written many books and games and worked for Wizards of the Coast, Steve Jackson Games, Mongoose Publishing and others. I’m currently the creative director of Chronicle City, but for about a decade I’ve been freelancing and self-employed under the banner ‘Postmortem Studios’.

This is just to establish some background. TL;DR I have been an indie game designer for some years, with something of a profile and a degree of exposure and niche fame/notoriety.

I’m also a straight, white, vaguely middle class (in education and mores, rather than money), cisgendered male.

I also suffer from bouts of moderate to severe depression which can reach suicidal levels and I’ve been to the brink of suicide three times in my life.

I say this not to garner any particular degree of sympathy, monetary donations or anything else. I don’t really expect (or want) you to treat me any differently because of my illness, I mention it because it underlines some points I’m about to make and because being open about having a mental illness helps others.

So. I’m a straight, white, cisgendered, male, ‘middle class’, gamer nerd. This means, by the current narrative, that I am an avatar of everything that is wrong in the world and – likely – a bigoted internet troll. That’s the story that we have, that people like me are the problem and that the targets of concerted internet harassment are women, people of colour, LGBT people and so forth.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this isn’t necessarily the case.

For years now I have been subjected to abuse, disinformation, threats, slander and libel in a seemingly unending stream. Initially this was because I wrote an article defending the use of rape (and any other unpleasantness) as a plot or story element. This drew the wrath of the ‘social justice warrior’ crowd and ever since I have been pilloried and any work I have put out has been gone over with a fine toothed comb for anything that can be twisted around into something ‘problematic’.

Harassment against me has included, but not been limited to:

  • Death threats.
  • Rape threats against my wife.
  • Threats to kill my pet cats.
  • Petitions to browbeat any potential employers not to hire me.
  • Hit blogs.
  • Twitter harassment.
  • Harassing comments on my blogs.
  • Facebook harassment.
  • Threatening emails.
  • False accusations of making rape threats.
  • False accusations of rape (!)
  • Harassment and threats made against people who do work with or employ me.
  • Attempts to undermine projects.
  • Whole ‘satirical’ products aimed at a strawman caricature of me.

I’m not going to go into details on this stuff from the past, but I am going to make a case-in-point in a minute. However, there’s a couple of things worth pointing out at this stage. While much of this came from anonymous internet trolls and can – in my opinion – safely be ignored (and I wish more people would realise this) much of it did not. Much of it came from social justice keyboard warriors who felt no need to hide their faces or where they were coming from and continue to operate their accounts today.

This still goes on today.

Currently I’m seeking support for an RPG and (separately) a worldbook based on the controversial fantasy novels of John Norman – The Gorean Cycle.

This is, apparently, ‘asking for it’ and I’m ‘doing it for attention’ (doesn’t that remind you of troll comments about prominent feminism bloggers and youtubers?)

This has resulted in yet another torrent of abuse and hate from people who should know better, and indeed claim to know better when it’s someone who fits their political and social orthodoxy who is rocking the boat, rather than me.

As a case in point and limited to a single thread in a single forum, here’s a catalogue of the hatred directed towards me.

  • Childish
  • Claiming fantasy reflects real views
  • Despicable
  • Dishonest
  • Faking it for attention
  • Horrible
  • Insane
  • Kink shaming (a LOT of kink shaming)
  • Liar
  • Loathsome
  • Misogynist
  • Misrepresentation of media appearances
  • Pathetic
  • Persecution complex (there’s irony for you)
  • Pervert
  • Plagiarism
  • Plagiarist
  • Pro-rape
  • Racist
  • Rape apologist
  • Rapey
  • Scam artist
  • Shitty
  • Silly
  • Sociopathy
  • Stupid
  • Terrible product
  • Thief
  • Toxic
  • Trolling
  • Victim blaming
  • Violent
  • Weasel-worder
  • Whining

And all this on a site that normally enacts a very strict policy regarding personal and group attacks, yet whose moderators only really stepped in once someone pointed out the divide between reality and fantasy and other people’s failure to acknowledge it. Were similar attacks and harassment being directed at someone making a game within their political/social orthodoxy this thread would no longer exist.

And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So yes, this will just contribute to accusations that I’m ‘whining’ or ‘doing it for attention’ or to promote my current project, but it’s much more to do with the ongoing debates and fights in the broader nerd community. I just want to show that the narrative you’re being sold – that women and minorities get the harassment and the hatred and get squeezed out – isn’t the whole story.

Everyone gets harassed on the internet, and it’s not always by meaningless, anonymous trolls.

Everyone.

Phat Pipes: Critique of Cybersexism by @PennyRed

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Myself and Laurie Penny share a fairly conterminous experience of the internet, but a very different viewpoint. Here I try to address the main thrusts of the book and to give my alternative experiences.

This is For Everyone

My life with the internet starts a little earlier than Laurie Penny’s. I started up visiting BBS boards and playing Avalon over dial-up with a modem about the size of five, stacked, iPads. Via those early BBS systems it was sometimes possible to get email and to access ‘the internet’ though we never really understood what that meant until the real thing became available to everyone.

This was back when phone calls cost a lot more money, there was no broadband and using the modem would tie up the line. It was a far cry from the Neuromancer fantasies that beckoned the early pioneers (I was a NetGoth) but in the MUD virtual realities and the thrill of text-talking to strangers (this was even before mobile texting took off) there were flickerings of what was to come.

I’d used to escape into books, films and role-playing games. Those were my VR and the internet came in as an extension of that. Adopting different ‘fictionsuits’, avatars and handles came easily to us in a way that the current generation of ‘let it all hang out’ social media junkies can’t really understand. The avatar/alias culture only really still thrives amongst us oldies, roleplaying, trans and troll communities. The loss of the old guard in the Google NymWars pretty much put paid to that old culture and represents the victory of FaceBookism where your offline and online identities become the same.

Like Laurie, we swallowed the idea that the internet was a freeing medium. An opportunity to mix and meet and share information. To form communities that weren’t linked by petty geography and for a while it was glorious. You would get to know people via their mind and their writing, not the superficial realities of ‘meatspace’ and it didn’t matter. It was a consequence free, free-mingling ‘wild west’ utopia with a natural gatekeeper in the form of the technological capability needed to get online.

‘No girls on the internet’ was almost true back in the day and thus the origin of many internet proverbs, besides that one. ‘Tits or GTFO’ for example was a demand for proof. Why was this? Nerd culture – early adopters – was, and remains, stubbornly male. Tech culture even more so. Computers weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now and consoles didn’t hook up to the internet. Schools weren’t linked up either and so by a process of simple demographics access was limited to the relatively well off, technically minded and nerdy.

For many, men, women and all points in between this was rather freeing. You couldn’t genuinely know what or who anyone was and that meant people were largely treated the same, based on the ‘content of their character’ rather than the ‘configuration of their meat sack’. Not that this meant people weren’t still arseholes, but it gave cover to early adopters, especially women, that some benefited from.

I have the same, or more, degree of experience of the internet as Ms Penny has, yet my conclusions – despite coming from the same root – are very different.

ngYfSh2_No Girls on the Internet

Ms Penny suggests that the idea that the internet was for everyone was somehow untrue. That it was really for boys. This statement is both true and untrue. The internet was – and is – for everyone but by the nature of its genesis and the groups that were interested in it it became a male dominated space by simple virtue of emergence. The majority of users were men and so the spaces that developed – usenet, email lists and so forth – were ‘male’ spaces.

This was not a deliberate or exclusionary measure by any means and in the early days the few women you did encounter were generally given kudos for getting online. They’d proved their worth and their chops simply by the fact that they had managed to get online and access a community. As internet access broadened this began to change, both in terms of people able to prove yourself and in the need to even do so in the first place.

Where Laurie presumes – given her background – that this is down to misogyny or hatred of women, or a desire to exclude them, I have a different hypothesis which we’ll call This is What Equality Looks Like, TWELL for sake of typing ease.

One of Germaine Greer’s best known phrases is: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.”

Which is catchy, but a little uncharitable, especially if you’ve ever had the misfortune to overhear women on a night out complaining about their husbands and boyfriends with equal, if not more, viciousness than men do about their wives and girlfriends.

However, I think Germaine’s commentary is germane to TWELL, with a subtle twist.

“Women have very little idea of how horrible men are to each other.”

The presence of a woman in a social context tends to lead men to be considerate, toned down and to consider her feelings and upset. Language is often softened, opinions remain unexpressed and people make more of an effort to be pleasant – until they know where the boundaries are.

Why? Well, we can argue about natural proclivites and culture, but upsetting people in person is generally frowned upon and men and women are solicitous of each other more (generally speaking) in a meatspace environment.

Online the context is different, consequence free and gender truly doesn’t matter. Men – and women – no longer moderate their behaviour in the same way that they do in person. This doesn’t seem to have been much of a shock for men (again we can have arguments about culture, upbringing and nature here) but it does seem to have been a shock for women.

Stripped of the usual societal cushioning women are often afforded, the female of the species seems to have recoiled in horror from the kind of nasty – if not always serious – behaviour that men and boys have been putting up with since the first days of kindergarten.

TWELL is not intended as a flip response, but to underline that the difference here is in reaction, not content.

I think my first social online experiences were with Usenet and email lists, but like Laurie I migrated to Livejournal and some other abortive social networks in the following years. I primarily used Livejournal for RPG material and blogging about the LARP group I was a part of. It was a vital communication tool back then for both purposes and much more connected and hooked up than having your own website was. This was also my first real introduction to ‘internet drama’ and this was a direct consequence of more ‘normal’ people using it. This was the first clue that the defences were down and the barbarians were at the gate.

It wasn’t the ‘internet people’ that were the problem. It was the normal people.

If I describe Livejournal as being the prototype for the excesses of Social Justice Tumblr, many of you reading will shudder in horror and know what I mean. Let’s just say that in former insular, echo chamber cliques it began the radicalisation of internet activism that would reach its – hopeful – peak of awfulness this year with Suey Park and #CancelColbert, with it’s spectacular, po-faced, failure to understand satire.

Here, again, is where my experience begins to diverge from that of Ms Penny. She describes an online world of routine misogyny and hatred as being exclusionary, while I – for my sins – experienced no less amount of hate, challenge, vitriol and bile, just not what one might characterise as ‘misogyny’.

I am not convinced misogyny is even the right word. Misogyny is an irrational hatred of women and disagreeing with, arguing with or trolling women doesn’t seem – to me – to fit the bill. We both seem to have been subjected to hatred, and I’ve seen much of the disgraceful and horrible abuse Ms Penny gets, but I see little difference in the scale or nastiness of that hatred between us. Just our reactions. So it goes for all these pseudo-controveries throughout the last ten years or so of the internet. What is striking to me as an internet hate veteran, every time, is the difference in reaction.

Tits_or_gtfoPictures or it Didn’t Happen

The selfie culture isn’t something I really understand and I get the sense that despite more experimentation than me in this arena, Laurie and I share a degree of incomprehension about the total lack of privacy embraced by Generation Y. I occasionally participate in things like #NoPantsFriday and have succumbed to using my actual image as an avatar but to do either, to have ‘pictures of me on the internet’ still feels rather uncomfortable and somewhat silly.

This is old fashioned of me, I know.

At the same time I don’t think anyone should be shamed by photos, or indeed old posts and blogs that people like to drag out. People mature and change, their views alter or become more nuanced, they do silly things. Whether it’s Laurie’s boobs, my cock or some lightweight covered in vomit on his eighteenth birthday with a knob drawn on his forehead we should be able to laugh it off as indiscretion, accept that everyone does it and move on.

The trouble is, we don’t live in a world that has adapted to this yet. The people in power are forty and over. The generation below that, including people like me and Laurie are still somewhat uncomfortable with letting it all hang out, even with libertine political views and even the Millenials aren’t all sold on the idea of living a scandal free public life. One need only look at the difference between Belle Knox’s resilience and Alyssa Funke’s suicide to see that even the younger adult generation is struggling to adapt to the Mutual Surveillence Society we find ourselves in.

While I’m sure there’s some truth to what Laurie says about the minority of men online who harass women doing so out of hatred, I don’t think it is as true as is stated. Time and again I see reports of harassment of women online and go looking into it only to find many more bad-taste jokes and incidences of trolling than I do genuine abuse.

A case in point being Caroline Criado-Perez whose high profile campaign to replace Darwin with Jane Austen on British bank notes gave her a position of public awareness which, inevitably, drew the trolls. She received a lot of – apparent – hatred, a lot of trolling and, also, a great deal of genuine criticism and advice. To which she reacted – universally – poorly.

It’s important here to both define what a troll is and to introduce a new concept in trolling which has only recently emerged.

As originally used on Usenet, and perhaps etymologically connected to ‘trawl’ was to make the kind of comment or post that many, many people would react to and post on. One that would provoke arguments and chaos. You could almost ‘score points’ by how many replies it got or how many extra threads it spawned. The more controversial or ridiculous the statement, the ‘better’ it usually was as a troll. Hardy perennials of the art were posting religious nonsense in an atheist forum, Satanist nonsense in a religious forum, or mentioning abortion anywhere.

To an extent much has remained the same. Trolling is still about scoring a reaction. It is now a little more nasty though. It is about upsetting people, provoking a ‘rage quit’, or creating an enormous fuss – the bigger the better. This is why the advice on trolls has always been ‘don’t feed the troll’ and why it remains the best advice. Reporting, complaining, let alone writing huge media articles on the topic is the very opposite of this advice and will only excite the troll.

In an unguarded moment I compared this to ‘grinding your rapist’ and while the analogy is crude, its force serves to convey the point. By paying attention to the troll, by getting upset, you are giving them exactly what they want. So why would anyone even dream of doing it?

In the case of Criado-Perez we need to consider a new concept. That of the synergistic or symbiotic troll. Why would someone give a troll what they want in terms of media exposure, public melt-downs and notoriety? Perhaps because doing so also gives the victim something they want. If your ideology is centred around the idea that the world is male oriented and horrible to women then playing up to trolling, taking it seriously and presenting it as a genuine problem and an example of cultural misogyny both reinforces your belief and helps contribute to a moral panic in which ‘something must be done’.

I don’t know if Criado-Perez and others are doing it deliberately, but the consequences stemming from it certainly seem to be deliberate and, strangely for feminist concerns, seem to run concurrent to conservative politics and legislation.

The vast majority of abuse online seems, to me, to be insincere trolling. Though there are exceptions using this to claim an overall culture of misogyny and woman hating – when it happens to everyone regardless of gender – seems disingenuous at best. Studies presented by Ditch the Label and Know the Net have both suggested that men receive equal abuse to that of women online, perhaps more, and that 19 year old men are the peak target of online abuse and bullying.

We need to grasp that trolling is an internet problem, not a gendered problem and that it’s a hard one to tackle while preserving a free internet.

Where myself and Laurie perhaps agree is in that the culture of shame and sin needs to change. There should be no more Alyssa Funke’s and while part of that must come in attempts to change the broader culture it is still worth reminding people to be cautious and teaching them internet survival skills and that there’s support available if they do get ‘outed’. Lest we get swept up too much in thinking this is a uniquely female problem though, we should remember that boys have been similarly shamed, particularly those of alternative sexuality and that under stress it is men who are far more likely to complete a suicide attempt. Girls are also pressuring boys for pictures, the stereotype that it is only boys or the sad reality of the unsolicited cock pic should not get in the way of us remembering that all are vulnerable.

Laurie loses me again when she gets into discussion about women being used to surveillance of their behaviour. Certainly, as man and boy I feel and felt the pressure of being watched for behaviour very keenly. Where it is more, but not exclusively, authoritarian when imposed on girls it does still exist for boys where it is more, but not exclusively, mutual.

Girls might be mean, but boys are cruel and one’s adolescence is one long attempt to fit in, to never give a hint that you’re not a regular heterosexual, rough and tumble, football loving lad. Boys also succumb to the system, constrained and held, especially in education where many end up drugged so that they’re compliant and less boisterous. There’s also huge pressure to demonstrate one’s sexuality by losing ones virginity. Something which I think we’ve all been reminded recently can cause a psychotic break and a lack of feeling of self worth.

As such it is, again, disingenuous I think, to compare our increasing surveillance society with feminist interpretations of social pressure and culture. Men have felt it in a similar but different way. Outrage at CCTV, NSA surveillance etc comes from a concern over privacy, rather than public reaction, and political ramifications. If surveillance were more of a concern for women, one wouldn’t expect to see higher approval of CCTV and other surveillence measures by women than men.

Business surveillance, presenting the right image and ‘behaving oneself’ outside of work is not a uniquely feminine issue either. This also happens with men and it’s also completely unfair. An unguarded comment over a beer down the pub would not, in the past, have been picked up and formed grounds for dismissal. The internet is both instant – like a conversation – and eternal – like a book. As a result every little indiscretion is available in eternity, even if intended to be private and so we’re forced to endure any number of pointless or insincere apologies and to see people get fired as PR stunts to appease the howling mob.

aldpost1It’s for Your Own Good

In talking about online sex I think we must return back to the beginning of Ms Penny’s book and the idea that we can be anyone or anything online. Sex drives technology and always has but this is especially true of the internet. The moment there were chatrooms and email people were trading erotic stories and engaging in cybersex. ‘Tits or GTFO’ and ‘There’s no girls on the internet’ were, in part, calls to prove one’s gender status as a prelude to cybersex. So strong is the male prohibition against homosexuality that even in an entirely fantasised encounter it is desirable that ones partner at least be of the opposite sex. Meanwhile, other people WERE playing opposite gender roles, genderbending and even pretending to be things other than human.

All sex takes place, ultimately, in the mind.

To see Laurie’s view on pornography, which I hope is still in flux, is somewhat depressing. Someone who is intimately familiar with artists, comic book creators and writers of fiction would – I would have hoped – have had a better understanding of the divide between reality and fantasy. While she, at least, is not blaming pornography for misogyny, she is blaming misogyny for pornography. It is true that a great deal of pornography is rough, violent or ‘degrading’ but given that some 40% of women admit to enjoying rape fantasies (note – fantasies, not actual rape) is it really any surprise? It’s also notable that female use of pornography is slowly approaching parity with that of men and that best-selling book 50 Shades of Grey is an enormously problematic bundle of abuse masquerading as BDSM that has set that entire community’s teeth on edge. It has sold primarily to women.

One can blame this on internalised misogyny or some such I am sure, but again this seems to be disingenuous and kink-shaming, as well as ignoring that divide between reality and fantasy. What turns one on, one might not necessarily want in real life. Increasingly, also, one must recognise that pornography is consensual and a great deal is being produced by amateurs as piracy renders conventional production non-viable.

We do have a problem when it comes to pornography and censorship. As Laurie rightly points out, concern over pornography has been co-opted by governments seeking to control the internet as a whole (mingled with ‘blasphemy’ concerns in some other countries and political concerns in others). This is where we find strange bedfellows like mainstream feminism in bed with the UK’s coalition government and in favour of criminalisation of ‘extreme’ porn and the imposition of a compulsory filter.

Like trolling, this isn’t an especially soluble problem. If we want a free internet with all the benefits it brings, we have to maintain anonymity and relatively unconstrained content.

Sex and romance and everything else can, indeed, be online. I met my wife online as have many other people I know. We know, from leaked logs intended to embarrass people that a hell of a lot of human beings are typing obscenities to each other, writing explicit love letters and masturbating wildly to each other’s pictures. Sex is ultimately in the mind and so is love. It’s possible to fall for someone a world away, whom you have never met and as borders tighten that’s going to lead to a lot more tragedy.

odd_skirt_viralA Woman’s Opinion is the Short Skirt of the Internet

Yes, Ms Penny and many other opinionated people on the internet get hate messages, such as she has related in her book and online. Yes, many of these are graphic, sexual and/or violent. You know who else gets hate, threats and horrible messages online?

Everyone.

This is something I have a great deal of experience of and while my experience, like Larie’s, is anecdotal I’ll refer you to the reference I made earlier that men suffer equal or greater abuse and cyberbullying.

Personally I have been threatened with beheading, that my wife would be raped, I have petitions organised to try and prevent me being able to work – I have been cost work. I have been called every kind of bigot under the sun without justification.

There’s some differences though. I haven’t taken it as seriously. I have not presented it as a problem for my entire gender. The people attacking me have included trolls, but also ‘true believers’ who weren’t hiding behind anonymity. People who consider themselves to be ‘social justice’ activists and aren’t at all ashamed of what they say and do. It’s also true that far less of these threats have been sexual, though many of them have been violent.

The concern with the abuse of women online and the great seriousness with which it is taken is erasing the online harassment and bullying of men. Men are also erasing it by not taking it as seriously as women do (though this may be a healthier approach, all things considered). Men are also erasing their own negative experiences by brushing them off or not talking about them, ceding the public debate to concern over the abuse of women in the public sphere, which has only allowed this toxic and incorrect concept of a misogynistic online reality to emerge when it is truly a universal problem.

Anyone expressing an opinion on anything in the online sphere can expect to get abuse for it.

Where there is a difference is in the nature of the abuse.

As a woman Laurie is more likely to get abuse of a sexual nature while I am more likely to get violent abuse or to have my sexuality questioned.

Why is this?

I humbly submit that the reason women get targeted with this kind of abuse, especially women, is because it is a fairly reliable bet that they will be upset by it or rise to it, while threats of violence or aspersions about my sex partner preference are more likely to get a rise out of me, because I’m male.

Trolls will go after whatever they think will get you going. Those who troll religious forums will ‘blaspheme’ or try to outrage their morals, trolls who troll computer forums might get into PC Vs Apple, trolls who target homosexuals will use homosexual slurs. Your status as a woman is only important in that it highlights some obvious ways to cause upset.

Trolls rarely, if ever, mean what they say.

Terminology Ms Penny uses starts to lose me at this point. Misogyny is being used in a way other than I understand the term (pathological hatred of women), ‘gender violence online’ strikes me as an oxymoron, since violence can’t be done to you online. Structural sexism is over with equality laws, leaving only individuals and their increasingly outdated views.

She characterises these things as a ‘backlash against misogyny’ yet many of the complaints seem as petty as those found on sexismbusters while others seem valid but outside the framing of a misogynistic society. This backlash via things like Everyday Sexism or – more recently – the #YesAllWomen tag do not appear as a backlash, but rather a lashing out at all men, an outpouring of misandry against crimes that are unrecognisable and for which the overwhelming majority of men are not responsible.

#YesAllWomen is differentiated from trolling by sincerity. The sheer hatred found on #YesAllWomen (and #KillAllMan) hits home precisely because it is sincere as much as it seems invalid, stemming from a victim mentality and a paranoia of men which simply does not seem justified. It seems like a whole generation of women is growing up unjustifiably terrified of, and hateful towards, all men.

I had to stop following the tag as it began to trigger my depression, but I doubt things have improved in the interim.

Penny goes on here to talk about Anita Sarkeesian, a common mistake of late which I had hoped Laurie would not fall into. Sarkeesian has been exposed as a fraud with links to shifty practices like pyramid schemes and handwriting analysis, she has failed to produce the material she said she would and seems to have essentially soaked up the money and called it a day.

Sarkeesian attacked gaming, as has so often been done, by trying to bleed fantasy and reality together. Studies in the 80s on RPG players demonstrated that gamers have no problem differentiating between the two and there’s little reason to think things are any different when it comes to computer games. Nor has Sarkeesian’s treatment been any different to any that of other shallow, narcissitic critics of gaming. Jack Thompson was widely ridiculed for his attempts to link games with violent acts and, like Sarkeesian, had games made about him where he could be mutilated and otherwise disposed of.

The difference then? Sarkeesian’s a woman who has been subjected to exactly the same treatment as a man. TWELL.

Perez is covered next, but I believe I’ve addressed that instance above, a case of symbiotic trolling.

Ms Penny rightly bemoans governmental censorship but fails to grasp the implications of private censorship and social censure. For the internet to be free we need to accept that people are going to say and do things, hold opinions, have fantasies that we personally do not like. If you cede the moral high ground and accept censorship and the erosion of anonymity you not only remove the trolls but you also remove the capacity for political dissidents to communicate safely, for protests to organise, for people in violent relationships to seek help and so it goes on.

At the time of writing more and more worrying instances of private censorship are coming to light. Blacklisting of erotica on Amazon – vital to self-published authors, Paypal and other online money transfer groups holding or confiscating money belonging to perfectly legal adult performers. Credit card processors doing the same. The internet, increasingly, is at the mercy of a very few choke points, especially if what you’re doing involves money and people are too quick to tightly define censorship as a governmental activity in order to excuse this.

The concerns of feminist groups over ‘cybersexism’ and pornography are empowering and making politically acceptable the kind of broad brush censorship that Laurie herself bemoans.

There is no hypocrisy here. Trolling and abuse can’t make you stay offline, the choice is yours. Censorship and restriction via private and governmental action, however, can. When protests alter EULAs or policies they harm everyone. When you censor a nipple, you block pictures of breast feeding.

On the internet we have an option we do not have in real life. We can erase abusers from our existence by using ‘block’ or ‘ignore’. Again, don’t feed the trolls is the best advice. The abusive messages you get? Well, TWELL.

Laurie repeats Ally Fogg’s analogy of a woman on a soap box in a public square being shouted down by 5,000 angry people yelling abuse, but this analogy doesn’t only break down under close examination, as all analogies do, but right at the start.

Online your soapbox speech cannot be interrupted or drowned out. Everyone can hear you. The abuse can be ignored. They can’t force you, shove you, drown you out, you can ignore them but they retain their right to object and their ability to do so. In real life you can end up with stifling activities to ‘no platform’ people, but on the internet – even with DDOS attacks – this never sticks for long. You can’t end a recorded talk by pulling a fire alarm or chanting, you can’t turn the water cannons on a forum, you can’t tear-gas a chatroom.

Freedom of speech absolutely does include the right to criticise, call out and oppose others. You can’t silence anyone and the abuse is ultimately petty, pointless and harmless if you block and ignore it – especially in the case of trolls. Comparing the online situation to almost any real life situation is invalid from the get go.

Anyone can speak online. EVEN straight white males, though you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the exception sometimes.

Dts_news_bill_gates_wikipediaAnd the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

This section of the book is, perhaps, the most important and the one where some understanding from, rather than towards, the online feminist is required. Laurie believes geeks are sexy, and I agree wholeheartedly and without reservation.

The nerdy boyfriend mentioned in this section could easily be me (without the jedi robe, but with the comics and the glow in the dark dice) and while I’d put it differently ‘Some people are just butthurt that girls get to come into our special club’ is a valid and meaningful observation.

The universal, rooted, geek experience of my and Laurie’s misspent youth no longer really exists for the current generation, where everyone plays computer games, where there are cosplay shows on TV and where the ‘tribe’ is large enough to look out for itself. Geeks today genuinely do have it easy and I’m envious of them and I hope they never have to go through the same hellish childhood experiences me and Ms Penny seem to have shared.

There were no nerd girls at my rural school and the small number of geeks that there were, were universally looked down on. There were a couple of goth/metal girls with a bit of crossover with the nerd squad, but they held themselves apart, even from us. There were nerdy girls elsewhere of course, there always have been, but they’ve been fewer and further between. Nerd culture used to be utterly dominated by men – completely unintentionally – and it still is, even though there’s been a seismic shift since then.

‘Geek misogyny’ is a term I am extremely hostile to. Geek culture is extremely vulnerable to political interference precisely because it is so accepting and so willing to please and accomodate anyone who wants to join in, up to a point. The problems with female ‘intrusion’ into geek spaces is twofold.

  1. Girl-related ‘PTSD’.
  2. Geek loyalty/fandom.

The older generations of geeks suffered immensely at the hands of dominant school/college/uni cultures. Especially – being predominantly male – at the hands of women. Endless rejections, total lack of romantic success, being outcast. Rightly or wrongly they associate that pain with women as a whole and want to be sure they’re safe and aren’t going to be ridiculed and treated like shit again. Hence the hazing.

Is this OK or rational? No. It is, however, understandable and deserving of empathy.

An analogy in the feminist sphere might be the argument over whether transwomen should be allowed access to feminist spaces and what sort of gate-keeping might be required.

When it comes to geek loyalty, geeks are fiercely loyal to their passions, whatever they might be. In previous years accommodating geek girls was less of a ‘problem’ because they seemed to be into what was on offer, passionate about the same things. Now barely a day goes by without some controversy related to a nerdy TV show, game, comic or similar and people wanting to change everything.

To a nerd this can be hugely confusing. Why would you even get into a hobby if you hate everything about it and want to change it all?

There’s also the fact that nerd culture has been under constant attack by fear-mongers and moral panics since forever. From Seduction of the Innocent to Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons to the Heavy Metal trials and Jack Thompson, there’s a context to the attacks on hobbies, a history. In this narrative the attacks from the Anita Sarkeesians of this world are just the latest in a long line of hateful attacks on hobbies and to be resisted with the same scorn and strength as before.

This whole argument would be completely avoidable if those who want to see something different and changed set about doing it themselves rather than trying to force people to alter what they love. That’s where the resistance comes in.

Understanding that many of these places have been ‘male safe spaces’ is important to understanding why the intrusion is unwelcome in many quarters. Just as women need their spaces men need theirs, but men will be condemned for creating those spaces while women will be celebrated. It’s a contradiction predicated upon the idea that somehow only men can be exclusionary and only male presence can be unwelcome. This is why mens clubs are being forced to open their doors to women while women are permitted to close men out of their gyms and other places, to ‘protect’ them.

Why are there less women working in information technology despite massive efforts to get women into STEM fields? That’s a puzzler given the investment in promotion and the fact that women are, generally, doing better in education than men and have been for some time. Ms Penny seems keen to pin the blame upon sexism but some of the problems she states are economic and practical, relating to the control factors that have virtually eliminated the pay gap myth of late. The demands of the job are the demands of the job and if that is less suitable for a woman who wants a child and/or wants to be the primary caregiver to that child then this isn’t sexism so much as biology and choices. Again, the best way to prove them wrong is to do it yourself, just as it is with comics etc and women like Cindy Gallop or Nica Noelle show how that might turn into success. ‘More things!’ more than ‘Change things!’

Paradoxically, greater gender equality might well be the reason less women are going in for these fields. Norway is one of the most gender equal countries on Earth yet as its equality has increased, so ‘gendered’ work has become more gendered, not less. It seems that when ‘women’s work’ is as valued as men’s women choose those lines of work even more.

I am glad Laurie seems to accept and understand the ‘origin story’ of the pained male geek and shows some empathy, but we need more, not less, of that and to stop talking past each other. ‘Fake geek girls’ need to understand why they are placed under suspicion and geek men need to understand why that suspicion is hurtful – and they will if it’s explained sensitively and related to their own experience, rather than as a way to further judge and bully them.

Ms Penny quotes David Wong on Crackd talking about how so much of what men do is for the sake of women, or impressing women. In particular:

“You’re all we think about and that gives you power over us. And we resent you for it.”

He’s speaking generally, on a societal level and he’s not wrong. At all. This breaks down at the individual level but female hypergamy is a great deal of what drives status and power seeking in men. It’s the biology stupid.

Criticising the tolerance that geek circles have for people of many different stripes has long struck me as… silly. Geek circles were places that were open to anyone regardless of race, gender, politics, creed etc and tolerated and accepted people with behavioural and socialisation issues. In gaming circles I’ve seen tabletop RPGs help people on the autism spectrum come out of their shell and that acceptance and patience was a definite virtue there.

Accepting people with opposing or ‘nasty’ views also serves a valuable purpose, it exposes them (and you) to alternative points of view and in a world plagued by polemical ‘news’ and the fracturing of people into insular echo-chamber social groups that normalise extreme points of view, this mixing is even more important.

A call to ‘clean house’ is potentially very dangerous in that it will both further isolate people with dangerous points of view and remove their exposure to contrary arguments.

The shaming going on at conventions via ‘free bars of soap’, the infamous Magic Tournament buttcrack shots and more recently Posthuman Studios banning ‘MRAs’ from being fans of their games is not a good development.

Dismissing neuroscience, genetic, behavioural and psychological differences between the sexes (as overall demographics) out of hand seems, to me, to be on dangerous ground. The politicisation of the field means we may be unable to find out the true scale of gender differences until some point in the far future but that doesn’t mean that they do not exist. Indeed humans would be virtually unique if our sexes were truly that identical. That’s not to say that one gender is superior to the other, but rather that our behavioural cues and adaptations might well be as variant as our upper body strength or body fat distribution.

Science should never be discarded on political grounds. It’s as unsafe as climate change denial or creationism. If evolutionary psychology and sexual dimorphism is to be debunked, let it be with good science, not with bad ideology.

Watch_Dogs_box_artThe New Cyborgs

Ms Penny sketches out a conversation she had with some Pirate Party members in Iceland about feminism and gender politics. It sounds like a good discussion, though with a slightly ‘matronising’ aspect (What they ‘think’ patriarchy means etc) but the meat of it comes when one of the men there questions the validity of claimed experience of gendered violence.

The discussion – as described – has many of the same pitfalls and problems that I’ve had in trying to get to grips with the feminist paradigmal lens. While I accept that I don’t necessarily have all the information and am constantly seeking that information (geek impulse to ‘fix things’) it seems virtually impossible and there’s almost no reciprocal effort from the other ‘side’. The parochial and insular language used by feminism doesn’t help things, nor does the presumption of ignorance that one is constantly labelled with. It seems inconceivable to many that one might examine the information and come to a different conclusion.

Many of the concepts and ideas in feminism – and more broadly in social justice – have the air of dogma. Patriarchy seems patently absurd to claim in the west in anything approaching its broadly understood definitions. ‘Misogyny’ seems to have a very different meaning in feminist circles. ‘Privilege’ is no use whatsoever in the discussion of anything and another abuse of terminology and so it goes on through ‘rape culture’ and all the rest.

The existence of cybervigilantism that Ms Penny underlines here, the likes of Anonymous etc, sharply underlines the points that I have made earlier about the insincerity of trolls. You can bet that those who hunt down animal abusers, child pornographers or those that have bullied the likes of Amanda Todd into suicide also contain amongst their number trolls and the kinds of people that spam Goatse into people’s Twitter timelines. Is that a contradiction? No. They know that one is sincere and the other not and they’re outraged by genuine arseholes, just as they always have been.

Conclusion

While a good summary of ‘where we are now’ the work betrays Ms Penny’s presuppositions about society and the world, or rather feminism’s presuppositions. The interpretation is, therefore, slanted and really only half the story. Well, perhaps 65% of the story as there’s some empathy and understanding here and there of the male experience of cyberspace.

So what’s the answer to the genuine and universal problems underlying all this? I’m not sure, but I have a few ideas.

  • Feminism needs to butt out: Trolling is not a gendered issue, abuse is not a gendered issue, it is just that the male suffering is comparitively invisible. Coming into spaces and trying to destroy or overturn them will only be read as abuse and authoritarianism itself and resisted. The unique history of the internet and the nerdosphere needs to be understood – along with TWELL.
  • Equitable Whining: Either women need to ‘man up’ or men need to ‘girl down’. Taking the problems less seriously seems to be a viable coping/survivial strategy but, as things stand, men’s issues are not known or understood and when they are raised are treated like a laughing stock.
  • Empathy: As a result of the above strands, both ‘sides’ need to make an effort to listen to each other. EG: When women engage in #YesAllWoman they need to listen as to why men reject and object and understand it, not just reject it, especially not as ‘not all men’.
  • Internet Skills: We need to teach people to cope with the internet, from selfies to permanence of commentary to identifying and ignoring trolls and abuse.
  • Cultural Change: Some of us are living in the 21st century and some in the 19th. Shaming culture and holding people accountable for flip comments needs to end. Society needs to be more forgiving and to come to understand the dangers of mutual surveillance.

 

So, you don’t understand trolling?

shrugpony___derpy_hooves___by_moongazeponies-d3cvjx6This is related to this post about the current Twitter-explosion, but this follow up post seemed more suited to the atheism/skepticism blog. There is a hell of a lot of bullshit going around and I’m going to put things a little less delicately than I would in that blog. Maybe being a bit more emotive will get through to some people.

What is trolling?

The older definition of trolling is found in the previous article. The term is in a state of flux though and Wikipedia has what is probably a more modern and current definition.

 

 

In Internet slang, a troll 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 forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

 

 

Of these, the most typical these days is that of someone posting something ghastly in order to try and get an emotional reaction. This might typically include posting horrible things on memorial facebook pages, filling forums with porn images, or making horrifically prejudiced sounding statements based on race, gender, sexual preference.

What isn’t trolling?

There’s a lot of things that get called trolling, that aren’t. Calling something ‘trolling’ (or abusive) is a great excuse for ignoring it, but it isn’t necessarily true.

  • Genuine threats are not trolling.
  • Disagreeing with you isn’t trolling.
  • Insulting you isn’t trolling.
  • Criticism isn’t trolling.

Is trolling misogynistic?

Is shooting people in Halo murder?

No, obviously not.

Trolling is a ‘game’. A horrible game that is played by preying on people’s emotions but it is a game. You win the game by getting the biggest and most outrageous reaction to what you say. This means you tailor your trolling comments to your target. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily hold those beliefs.

If you’ve ever played Cards Against Humanity you may an easier time locking on to this idea.

Women, feminists in particular, are a favourite target of trolls because they can be almost guaranteed to deliver a huge, ‘game winning’ number of points in terms of the volume, length and emotional content of their outrage. The reaction is what the troll is after, if they’re using misogynistic terminology it’s only because it’s a winning move. Like equipping the BFG in a game of DOOM.

Is trolling OK?

No. It’s dickish and it upsets people. So it’s not OK, but it’s also not the end of the world and much as people like to claim it’s evidence for sexism, racism or whatever it isn’t. If anything, that these get such a powerful outrage reaction only goes to show how far we’ve progressed on these issues.

Why should we put up with trolling?

Don’t.

Block the person trolling you, ignore them, go on about your life. You already have the tools to do so (though some could be improved, such as an ‘invisible block’.

We should only ‘put up with it’ in that we shouldn’t allow our emotional reactions to trolling to guide our public or private policies.

Much like DRM and other measures designed to stop various electronic behaviours, attempts to control or stop trolls are unlikely to stop the trolls and very likely to cause issues for legitimate users. Tools supposedly to deal with trolls will cause far more problems for regular users and are likely to be abused themselves.

What about abuse and threats?

Genuine, kosher abuse and threats are not the same thing as trolling. Conflating the two is ‘crying wolf’. Ironically, many of the people complaining and calling trolling abuse are indulging in abuse themselves. If a threat is genuine and believable recourse already exists – go to the police. It seems like it might not be a bad idea to also charge people for wasting police time on spurious threats though.

What’s the difference between trolling and abuse?

  • A troll is seeking to elicit a reaction. They almost certainly do not believe the horrible things they say, they’re just doing it to get that reaction.
  • An abuser genuinely believes what they’re saying and isn’t just trying to get a reaction.

This is a troll being horrible to elicit a reaction:

photo_7

This is someone being abusive (and far from the only one amongst those claiming to be against abuse):

Screenshot from 2013-07-29 18:26:56

How can we deal with trolling?

The absolute best way we have to deal with it is to ignore it. To pay it absolutely no attention.

It is an elementary mistake to pay attention to trolls, to play up to what they say and do. It is a huge mistake to start some kind of public campaign and to make a Cameronesque move to try and turn outrage and ‘something must be done!’ panic into an ill-thought out public campaign which will only attract more trolls, the likes of Anonymous (as you begin to threaten internet freedom), and genuine creeps.

Quietly ban, block and move on.

Nothing else works, at least not without some really serious collateral damage. There are a few improvements to tools that can be made without opening them up to abuse but they need time, space and distance to be properly assessed.

People with various causes also really need to stop taking troll comments as evidence that the problems they’re fighting are particularly bad. Trolls only go after what elicits a reaction.

An amount of spurious abuse is the price we pay for some important and vital internet freedoms and a degree of anonymity.

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. 🙂