Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Whatever They Offer You, Don't Feed the Trolls

You may have noticed that I talk a lot about the media on this blog. The media is one of my main research interests - one that I've retained despite respecializing as part of my post-doc. I find it fascinating. Media information is everywhere and, as people become more and more connected through the Internet and mobile devices, its influence is only likely to grow. Though media research has been conducted since the early 20th century, one area that has really taken off is research on Internet media. This is not only because the Internet is becoming people's main sources for information, but also because the Internet is inherently different from other forms of media as well as constantly in flux.

Even with reality television taking off like it has, it's not easy to get onto television. Movies, music, and similar forms of media are not as easy to get into either. You need things like talent, good looks, and connections (unless you're Shia LaBeouf - in that case, your celebrity is inexplicable). The Internet, however, is one big free-for-all. Anyone can get online and create a webpage, post a music video on YouTube, start a blog ;). Thanks to the Web 2.0 movement, the tools are available to allow anyone, regardless of technical know-how, to get his or her message out there. Because of the ease with which individuals can add content to the ever-growing World Wide Web, the Internet is constantly changing. New information is becoming available, and new tools are being created to allow individuals even more control over content.

Obviously, there are many aspects of the Internet that are worthy of further exploration, but today, I'd like to write about an Internet phenomenon that has been around probably as long as the Internet itself, and is only becoming worse thanks to Web 2.0: trolling.

They may look cute and cuddly, but it's best to ignore them.
Last month, BBC news featured a story about trolling and a few cases in which people were arrested and jailed for trolling. In these cases, the trolling was really over-the-top bad: for example, a young man posting really thoughtless remarks on a memorial website for a young woman who was killed. Still, websites are cracking down on trolling in a variety of ways, such as by requiring comments to be approved before appearing on the site. Some argue that simply requiring people to register should be sufficient, because people are no longer anonymous.

The argument is that people troll because they are "deindividuated" in a place like the Internet: they can shed their usual identity and adopt a new persona, which research suggests can lead to bullying and outbursts of violence. This is the phenomenon behind "mob mentality", where people in a large crowd can begin engaging in antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, physical assault, etc. So take away the opportunity to hide one's identity, and problem solved, right?

Yes, I tend to ask questions right before I'm about to argue the opposite. I'm totally predictable. :)

Let's be honest, other than my friends who read this blog (and perhaps my entire readership is made up of my friends, but hey, that makes you guys great friends :D), do you honestly know me? I'm not anonymous here; you can find out my name, my general location, my education and background. I drop autobiographical statements here and there. Still, your entire experience with me is online. I could be totally different here than I am in real life.

So what's to stop me from adopting a new personality entirely for my online interactions, that differs markedly from the "real" me? And what's to stop me from adopting the persona of a thoughtless jerk who trolls message boards trying to get a rise out of people? (This is just hypothetical, BTW; I have never, say, inferred a singer sucked on a comment board of their YouTube video… or anything like that.)  Honestly, even on a site like Facebook, where it's super-easy to figure out who I am (and getting easier each day), I'm more apt to call someone out on something I would never utter in person.

I suppose if someone says something truly awful, requiring registration would make it easy to track them down for disciplinary (and even legal) action. But just like other forms of bullying and harassment, there is always a gray area where the behavior, though repugnant, is not punishable. Even online behavior that has led to a person's death went unpunished for fear that it would lead to a precedent that could make creating false online identities illegal. And as this case showed us, even requiring a person to register doesn't guarantee they are who they say they are. And requiring comments to be approved before appearing leaves too much room for bias; can't the moderator simply choose to accept the comments with which he/she agrees and reject the rest?

Perhaps the issue, then, is not deindividuation, but distance from the target.  Stanley Milgram, who conducted one of the most unethical (aka: most awesome) social psychology experiments ever, found that people were more likely to follow the experimenter's instructions to shock another participant when they were farther away from the person getting shocked.  On the other hand, if people were in the same room as the participant being shocked, they were much less likely to follow the experimenter's orders.

If the issue really is distance from the target, then we'll always have this issue in Internet-mediated communication.  In fact, as people spend more and more time communicating with people via the Internet, the problem is only likely to worsen.  Can we ever get away from the trolls? Other than "not feeding them" - and seriously, DON'T FEED THE TROLLS - what can we do to prevent trolling?

Thoughtfully yours,

1 comment:

  1. They may offer you fortune and fame, love or money or instant acclaim
    But whatever they offer you don't feed the trolls.