Here Be Trolls

The Free Word Centre asked me to write about Internet Trolls.

It’s always a little disorientating to hear politicians debating pop culture and the Internet in parliament. The jargon-rich language of the twenty-first century does not yet seem to fit with the panelled acoustics and formalspeak of the Commons or the Lords.It does not help that many politicians have a weak grasp on the concepts that emerge from the new technologies, and even those who do understand them seem uncomfortable with the new idioms.

The recent discussion in the commons about Internet ‘trolling’ is the perfect example of this. MPs took time during the Second Reading of the Defamation Bill to complain at length about the phenomenon, despite libel and trolling being two different things (one is the harming of a reputation, the other is a form of disruption and harassment). For those of us who have campaigned to reform the libel law for the past three years, it was frustrating to have to listen to so much off-topic debate, when crucial amendments are still required. One could even label these tangential points about trolling as a form of trolling itself – a provocative distraction.

Although libel, harassment and trolling are three different things, the problem of undesirable Internet comments is a real one, and free speech advocates should not avoid the issue. What is to be done? It is unfortunate that the knee-jerk reaction of politicians is to seek some kind of ban, because that would grant the attention seekers the status of martyr and victimhood, which they do not deserve. Meanwhile, legal sanctions on online discourse would ultimately neuter the social platforms. The genuine dissidents and radical voices who depend on Twitter and blogs to be heard would find themselves ensnared by whatever censorship filters would be put in place. So we need a better response.

Some people (politicians again, mainly) like to blame the Internet for inspiring the callous new culture where people throw distasteful comments at complete strangers. This is to mistake cause and effect. In fact, the Internet has merely cast a light into a previously darkened corner of human society. Misogyny, racism, and politically incorrect humour have always existed. Previously such views were lost in the noise of a crowded pub. Now they appear in typed form, and therefore carry an air of permanence and credibility they do not deserve.

Since the creation of website comment forms, the undercurrent of resentment and frustration, which polite discourse usually conceals, is revealed for all to see. Writers such as Laurie Penny (@pennyred),Cath Elliot (@cathelliot) and Louise Mensch MP (@louisemensch) have taken to re-tweeting the vilest of the comments they receive. We should be grateful for this public service. It gives those of us who are not on the receiving end of such hatred an insight into what many people have to negotiate on a daily basis. The depth to which some people can sink is enlightening. Let us hope that this exposure prompts more people to challenge the underlying attitudes wherever they find them.

Could we one go a step further, and say that trolling is to be encouraged, because it provides an outlet for angry men to vent their frustration? We would rather they be trolling, than happy-slapping, surely? What harm can a few words and a few pixels actually do?

Unfortunately, the idea that trolling provides a ‘safe’ outlet is untrue. On a recent English PEN school visit I attended, the workshop participants were adamant in their belief that words can hurt as much as sticks and stones. Nasty online comments are a form of bullying, and we cannot punt on the challenge of discouraging and reducing it. How to do this without legislation?

The good news is that the amount of unpleasant comments a site receives is inversely proportional to its prominence. The largeopinion sites like Comment is Free are full of trolls. My blog? Not so much (because I suspect both my readers are actually related to me). However, this is of no help to someone who aspires to run a popular website and build an online community.

Twitter users and website editors can do themselves a favour by distinguishing bad and angry writing from outright trolling. Many people post vitriolic or just plain impolite criticism, and recipients of such feedback need not consider this a bad thing. They should instead recall that old adage that if you haven’t offended someone, you’re probably not saying anything of consequence. Rude and negative comments are irritating, but at least such contributions have content… and that content can be grist-to-the-mill in the demanding online world. The prominent British-born, Washington-based blogger Andrew Sullivan posts a regular ‘Dissent of the Day‘ on his site. Sometimes these make genuine points, but at other times they just serve to illustrate the paucity of the opposing argument.

Sullivan actually has a very clever way of handling feedback to his blog, which is to dispense with the comment feature altogether. Instead, he curates the best and the worst of the e-mail he receives (hundreds a day, apparently) and publishes them in the body of his blog. Over half his posts begin with the words “A reader writes”. This method builds credibility with the readers, who can see other viewpoints are being aired. It also builds a sense of community. And crucially, it also denies the troll their public moment. For organisations handling sensitive or incendiary issues, the Andrew Sullivan model should be considered. The main drawback is the amount of editorial effort that goes into reviewing all the e-mail.

Social sanctions can work to. The concept of ‘political correctness’ is often used as an insult, but a social reprimand for those who say bigoted and insensitive things is far superior to a legal sanction. It is hard to shame a troll, however, because part of their motivation is the breaking of taboos. Instead, it is possible to use humour to mock those who write distasteful comments. Isabel Fay’s ‘Thank You Hater‘ music video does this brilliantly, and I hope it comes to be used as a shorthand response to stupid and spiteful comments. If the only response a troll ever receives to his bait is a link to Fay’s song, there is a chance that he may choose some other pastime.

Finally, we are beginning to see the emergence of technological solutions. ‘Disemvowellng’ tools have existed for a few years, allowing moderators to send inciting comments to the background, without actually deleting the post. Features that allow the ‘voting up’ or ‘voting down’ of particular comments also depress the Return On Investment for Internet trolls. The Reddit platform is built around this idea, and the Comment Is Free has implemented something similar. Tools like DISQUS and OpenID allow a person to use a common pseudonym over different websites, and these could be further developed so that users are given a rating based on the substance of their comments, which in turn leads to prominence (or lack thereof) on a given web page.

It would be great to have more research about the phenomenon of trolling. Sociologists have been studying the rise and fall of online communities for several decades now, and there must be quantitative insights as to when trolling is likely to start occurring on a particular site. Campaigners (such as myself) spend a fair amount of time testing different e-mail subject lines and calls to action, to see what precise wording generates the most participation. The lessons of behavioural economics and psychology could be similarly applied to comments, too. What graphic design and textual tweaks reduce aggressive, nihilistic comments? I would also be delighted if a documentary maker was able to track down and interview a few Internet trolls, asking them why they do what they do. I would bet that poor literacy and education play a role, along with loneliness and dysfunctional social units…. but we need to find out for sure.

We need a more sophisticated approach to the Internet in general. This may not come until there are more ‘digital natives’ in Parliament, who know more about this new, virtual landscape. The more savvy approach begins by understanding the difference between moderated and un-moderated content, and to recognise when to use each type of platform. In the real world (or ‘meatspace’) we do not arrange political panels or literary events without a chairperson to advance the subject under discussion. Why would we expect thoughtful discussion and deep insights from an open, un-moderated free-for-all online? We are not surprised when the debates at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park become heated and personal. Why do we expect more of Twitter?

As more people spend more time communicating online, I think our sophistication in dealing with trolls and abuse in the comments can only improve. There will always be idiots with nothing to contribute who seek to spoil the discussion, but we will develop new techniques, technologies and social cues that will minimise their impact. The online world is a new terrain, which needs to be explored. If we encounter trolls and other monsters on our journey, we can beat a new path and sidestep their lairs. We need not retreat into a legally enforced comfort zone.

2 thoughts on “Here Be Trolls”

  1. Really enjoyed this piece. I think, as you say, it would be interesting to find out why internet trolls do what they do. Clearly they do not know how to disagree in a civilised manner and probably feel they are not “heard” in the world. Bit sorry to read the word idiot in your last paragraph though.

    Laughed out loud at your presumed reason for the lack of unpleasant comments on your blog !
    And I think grasp on is an improvement on the more usual grasp of.
    Keep blogging.

  2. Bit sorry to read the word idiot in your last paragraph though.

    Meh. I think some comments are so ridiculous that branding the writers ‘idiots’ is fair. But I acknowledge that such a word is perjorative and, in this case, subjective. Am I using it incorrectly? Does ‘idiot’ have a clinical meaning I am misappropriating?

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