There’s been – yet another – blow up about trolling on Twitter but the context provided by the UK porn filter discussion makes this a slightly different debate.
It is my bitter experience that while I hate to condescend to people, assuming too much reading comprehension skill on the part of the internet as a whole is to invite misinterpretation and problems further down the line. So if this post comes across as a little patronising it’s not because I intend to be, it’s because I don’t want to be misunderstood.
Let’s get a few things said up front to provide some context:
Misogyny is bad
The word gets overused a bit, but in its original meaning ‘irrational hatred of women’ yes, it’s absolutely a terrible thing. Anyone promoting or engaging in misogyny deserves little or no sympathy and like any other irrational prejudice or hatred it’s unacceptable. I am against misogyny and everyone should be in my humble opinion.
Trolling is bad
Like misogyny, the term ‘trolling’ gets overused to include anyone who vehemently and passionately disagrees or gets into a heated argument. Still, genuine trolling does still exist and it is destructive, problematic for debates and more and more of a problem because people don’t seem to understand that they’re being trolled.
As defined in: “Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication,” by University of Central Lancashire lecturer Claire Hardaker, a Troll is:
…an individual “who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question, including professing or conveying pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.”
How do you deal with it?:
“Trolling can (1) be frustrated if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but are not provoked into responding, (2) be thwarted if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but counter in such a way as to curtail or neutralise the success of the troller, (3) fail if users do not correctly interpret an intent to troll and are not provoked by the troller, or, (4) succeed if users are deceived into believing the troller’s pseudo-intention(s), and are provoked into responding sincerely. Finally, users can mock troll. That is, they may undertake what appears to be trolling with the aim of enhancing or increasing effect, or group cohesion.”
Women bloggers, columnists, article writers etc who keep bringing up the trolling they get as a serious issue are giving the trolls what they want by virtue of ‘4’.
Again, nobody – I know of – is arguing that trolling it a good thing.
Let’s also be clear that this isn’t a uniquely female problem. Express a political, social, religious or even an artistic/critical opinion and you’re likely to attract trolling. The major difference seems to only be that – for some reason – women take it more seriously than men.
Trying to control the internet is also bad
Internet sites that allow users to post their own content – such as Twitter – are more akin to paper manufacturers than they are to TV channels. Given the sheer amount of content and the problems with automated processes expecting Twitter or Facebook or even a website host to control or monitor the content ‘written on their paper’ is a mug’s game. It should not be their responsibility but rather the responsibility of the person using their ‘paper’. The ISP or host can help once abuse is correctly identified but doing this is frustratingly slow – so long as we provide decent protection against false reporting.
Kafkatraps & False Dilemmas
Whether it’s the proposed porn filter or asking Twitter to police ‘harassment’ this is presented as a kafkatrap. Any response at all is interpreted in the worst possible way and as support for the proposed stricture.
- Oppose the porn filter? You must be a creepy paedophile or an abuser.
- Oppose pointless efforts to control or censor Twitter? You must be a misogynist.
It’s an emotional appeal on an emotional issue from an emotional reaction.
It is perfectly possible to both oppose child porn, or abusive harassment and to oppose proposed tools or controls to deal with it.
The cost of control & abuse of control systems
The internet routes around censorship and control as though it were damage. Like DRM or the porn filter trying to control abuse/harassment/trolling will have virtually no effect on the trolls and will have a big effect on normal users. Indeed trolls are likely to use and abuse any such system to silence people themselves.
This already happens.
As part of the #atheist community on Twitter I regularly see people who are merely strident or effective debaters getting their accounts suspended due to organised abuse of the spam report button that already exists. The process seems to be somewhat automated (volume of communication is too big to expect people to go over it all). Enough spam reports and your account is suspended. It takes some time to get it back. As a case in point I present @RosaRubicondior, an active Twitter atheist currently knocked offline due to abuse of the report system by a Catholic apologist with multiple accounts. There are even whole groups that coordinate spam reports to knock people offline.
Adding an abuse button – as is being proposed – will just provide another means for legitimate users to get knocked offline and it’s likely to be used against the very people asking for these controls and tools.
Will it stop a determined troll?
No. They’ll make multiple accounts, they’ll use proxies etc to get past any protections that are put down. To be even moderately effective any tool will have to identify the user (which presents its own problems). Remove anonymity and you don’t particularly stop a determined troll. Anonymity has a cost in terms of cyberbullies but it also has a big positive side that lessening anonymity would hurt:
- Political dissidents use twitter and other online media because of their anonymity.
- Homosexuals – still criminalised in many countries – are able to get a sense of community and support only because of anonymity.
- Battered spouses and victims of real life abuse can seek help through anonymity and safety.
That’s a tiny few examples of many. You threaten to destroy that by changing things.
You already have options
‘Don’t feed the trolls’ is getting a bad rap for some reason, but it remains the best way to deal with it. The payoff for a troll is getting a big reaction a twitterstorm, newspaper articles, people wringing their hands and even making blog posts like this!
We play into their hands by doing so. Block the person, ignore them and they get no payoff from you.
I don’t see any other way to deal with it that doesn’t have a massive cost in terms of free expression, abuse of the system and loss of the upside of anonymity. We don’t seem to be able to change the trolls so we need to change ourselves (or at least some of us do).
- Block ’em.
- Don’t take ’em seriously – after all, how many online ‘threats’ actually come to fruition?
- Understand what trolling is and change your reaction to it.
1. Almost every social media platform has a block function. Even outside of social media there are plugins for browsers that will block forum trolls and even cut off whole websites. You can set your email spam filters too and most newspaper and other, similar hosts are much more heavily moderated.
2. Come on. Really. How many internet threats go flying around every day? I’ve been trolled, harassed and threatened by a combination of trolls, true believers, social justice warriors and militant Islamists. I’ve been threatened with burning, stabbing, beheading, ruination, maiming etc etc. Here I still am. Why should I take these threats seriously and why should you? Why do you? The only people that have come close to following through are the supposed progressives!
3. A troll is a parasite who gets an emotional high (and a salve to their boredom) from provoking you and making you react. If your reaction is to take them seriously and demand changes and censorship you’re doing what they want. ‘Ur doin it rong’. You simply cannot control or stop trolling in a way that allows us to preserve the upsides of the internet. The only thing you can change is your reaction. I think it’s somewhat telling that men don’t seem to react in the same way. Perhaps due to a culture of ‘joshing’ and ‘friendly insults’. This does seem a healthier way to react though.
These kinds of kneejerk reactions to what absolutely is reprehensible behaviour threaten to cause more harm, not less.
Take a breath, think about it as a whole.
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