In the Daily Telegraph, Alasdair Palmer laments trolling and the unpleasant tone of online discourse. He recommends a toughening of the libel laws to deal with this problem.
I think Palmer is mistaken on three counts. First, he fails to recognise that trolling, anonymity and defamation are three distinct concepts. It is perfectly possible to be an indentifiable ‘troll’. Many newspaper columnists write weekly articles that are almost indistinguishable from trolling, and I am always surprised at just how much hate and bile people are prepared to post in their own names.
Second, most trolling is not defamatory. It is just insulting. The Defamation Bill is exactly the wrong place to deal with trolls and online bullying.
Third, Palmer allows the trolls to become a synedoche for the Internet. As a journalist and columnist writing for a national broadsheet, I am sure that Palmer’s experience of online discourse is pretty unpleasant. But he mistakes a part for the whole. If one were to fly a rocket to Mercury (or even just take a trip to Death Valley) one might induce that “the Universe is very hot”… when in fact these are just pockets of extreme temperatures in a Universe that is on average very cold.
So it is with the Internet, which feels as infinite as the Universe in its breath and depth. The message boards on national newspaper websites are the equivalent of stars in our galaxy – extremes of heat. But as soon as one visits a specialist, local, niche, hobbyist or personal website, the conversation cools. The tone of comments on this blog, for example, is consistently civil.
If we really want to raise the tone of the debate on the Internet, we need not abolish anonymity. We just need to turn off the comment functionality on the big news media websites! They are too big and unweildy to have a proper conversation on anyway. Personally, though, I would advise against such a manoevre: Like big hot stars, the large news sites have a gravitational pull, and draw all the trolls into their orbit, leaving the rest of the Internet a calmer place to explore.