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Humans

Beware of the trolls

December 24th, 2014
in:Humans
by:Gurmeet Singh
located in:United Kingdom
tags:anonymity, Digital sphere, internet, responsibility, Trolls, values

As commenting has become an integral element of publishing and posting in the internet, it also reveals something about the writers' personality. Comment writers, mostly anonymously acting, enjoy a different world - a social space, which seems to be free of responsibility. Does the digital sphere change our values and our behavior? And what could be the consequences for us?

You’ve logged on. You read an engaging article or watch a fantastic video- you scroll down to offer your well-considered view, and expect to find other people offering their analyses. Instead, you find a list of comments that aren’t about the article or video at all. Instead, the author is being told they’re not the right age/ ethnicity/ gender/ sexuality/ religion, other commenters are being threatened or bullied or harassed. Indeed, instead of finding comments about what you’ve just read, there is another debate raging- about race or gender, sexuality, whether God exists, Islam, Richard Dawkins, aliens, Nostradamus, the illuminati- and how the author/ director and all other commenters are on the wrong side of all of them.

Unfortunately, there’s no agreed definition of trolling, but like art, you know it when you see it. The troll’s comments or behaviours may be subtle, and are often more nuanced than the caricature I’ve drawn above. Indeed, even a somewhat snide remark or a faintly sarcastic response may be characterised as trolling. And although these examples might be instructive for this discussion, it’s not really what I’m concerned with. I’m more concerned with some possible reasons why trolling occurs and what can be done about it.

Research shows that trolls are mainly young adult males; mainly, they see trolling as form of quick and simple amusement. We can all see how someone could get a cheap thrill from anonymously annoying someone else, calling them a name, or childishly mocking their debate. But putting aside the jokey-element to trolling for the moment:

A troll could be anyone, not necessarily a young adult male- anyone who feels that anonymity offers them protection from censure. Anonymity is a problem unto itself, offering protection for criminals and criminal behaviours, but here I’d like to consider how it allows us to reconstitute our personalities in the form of simplistic avatars or user profiles. By allowing us to be anonymous, choose who we want to be- we are notionally allowed to strip away our contingent being- our ethnicity, sexuality and gender, for example- and project ourselves how we want to be- a value-free identity- a user of pure opinion and intellect.

How we behave online is a kind of personal-wish-fulfilment; making ourselves look the way we want, or saying what society deems to be inappropriate or wrong. People abuse sometimes because they wish they could be racist or sexist in public and are simply trying to get away with it. There’s a paradox therefore when it comes to who the troll is and what the troll does- the troll is stripped of contingent identities and concerns themselves solely with contingent identities- making racist jokes, sexist threats, or hating someone for being gay, for example.

This creates a divide between the user and their actions. The internet becomes a value-free space for comment; different from real world perception. In the real-world, some people would never dream of being offensive, if only for fear of reprisal, but their offensive behaviours are accommodated by the perception of the internet as a value-free space; it’s not as though the internet forum makes the real-world context available. This means the troll literally feels no responsibility for their actions; being distinct from their body or their contingent being in anyway, the troll doesn’t see the real-world consequences and real-world connection between who they are and what they say. I must here reiterate that I’m not discussing the jokier, more sarcastic forms of trolling- I’m discussing the ways in which a troll interacts with the world when they are afforded anonymity.

This has some serious consequences for our understanding of the internet- and to remember at all times, that the troll is exploiting a gap between our perception of who we’re interacting with and who we’re actually interacting with- the assumption that the same kinds of social identity and social bonds exist online is simply not true.

The problem here may be that in providing everyone with a value-free identity, the underlying assumption may be that everyone will play by the rules- but the real problem is that people who are forming relationships in debate with others may be subject to abuse or criticism from those they consider their equal or better. Indeed, when children are bullied in real life, when they know who the bully is, it’s difficult to deal with- imagine what it’s like being incredibly young, and bullied anonymously- your perception of safety and how the world perceives you would be totally shattered. Which is why we sometimes hear about stories such as Megan Meier’s- a 13 year old girl who committed suicide after being bullied online by a neighbour.

The solution to trolling may therefore lie in reconnecting the real-world to the value-free area of the internet. An outright ban on a person may be tempting, but first I would suggest engaging with the troll, just as you might do with someone in real life, against your intuition. If a person was deeply upset and spouting abuse on public transport against an obvious minority figure, there might be an urge to say nothing. But in these situations, courageous people have tended to do two things: protect and reassure the person being abused, and engage the abuser- not aggressively, but just to calm them down and remind them that they are being inappropriate. Perhaps a similar set of tactics could be applied to trolling- reassuring victims, encouraging trolls to be less troll-like.

There may even be a need to educate young people not only how to behave online but how to be emotionally robust when using the internet. Indeed, maybe there’s a need for a kind of internet-citizenship programme to be taught in schools.

So given these problems, how can trolling ever be considered positive? The same way a fascist protest can considered positive; not for voicing concerns which we must take seriously, but for highlighting a set of problems which we may be forced to reconsider. A fascist protest may highlight poverty in a specific region or a lack of commitment from civil society in that region; and indeed, the presence of trolls might show us that we need to rethink the way we interact with the internet. We take for granted our social profiles and social anonymity, but barring intrusions from the NSA, it might be time to address and engage with trolls in the way we engage with right-wing groups.

The inverse problem may be true; if the troll exhibits naturally negative viewpoints, then there is such a thing as excessive positivity on the internet- most likely in the form of positive-and-inspiring messages you read online. These we know to be insipid- despite the positive message, we know life isn't "all great", or whatever; these messages help us become more sharp and critical in our viewpoints. Conversely, the troll may help us become more caring for our online peers- trolls included- and watching out for negative behaviours, and not tolerating abuse of anyone, anywhere.

Article written by:
Gurmeet Singh
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
This sarcastic laughing face became the icon for trolling.
This sarcastic laughing face became the icon for trolling.
A small explanation on trolling.

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