Wednesday 10 July 2013

Looking Skeptically at Trolls

They see me trolling: What can we do about online abuse’ was a lively Soho Skeptics event which took a semi-serious look at the ‘trolling’ phenomenon. The speaker Helen Lewis provided a definition of ‘trolling’, followed by an overview of the different types of trolls and examples of each. She then gave a whistle stop tour of why anyone would troll, the state of the law and what can be done about them and ended on a positive note.

She relied heavily on academic Claire Hardaker for this talk. The term ‘troll’ is slightly contentious simply because it is a media and increasingly academic construct. In my view there are as many types of troll as there are people interacting the internet at any one time; every one of them is an individual with different motivations. However wiki has a relatively wide definition; ‘a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’. [Wikipedia] She included the alternative definition; ‘the lesser known of two people in a twitter argument’.

She outlined the four types of troll (adding another type in questions later on);

Grief trolls: These are a problem on Facebook where open/public memorial pages are set up for those who have died in accidents etc, usually tragically young. This is clearly a sensitive time for family and friends and so deliberately hurtful remarks can be devastating. One so-called ‘grief troll’, Sean Duffy was found guilty under malicious communications legislation and jailed for 18 weeks. Magistrates also gave him an Asbo and banned him from using social networking sites for five years.

She noted the difference between ‘disturbed’ people and ‘professional’ grief trolls. The latter type are people satirising ‘drive-by grief’ or ‘pseudo-grief’, outraged by the  media focus on tragic young white middle class deaths. However they are careless of the fact it still causes families grief when they leave comments. Just recently Reece Elliott received a jail sentence for two years four months for extreme behaviour on the RIP Caitlin Talley facebook page and other abuse.

Abuse trolls: This is the most usual type of troll, most often talked about in the press, after grief trolls. She began with various examples; Reece Messer who was given a formal warning for the trolling of Tom Daley last year; Linford House was punished by restorative justice and met war widows to apologise for his picture of poppy burning. She said that most police forces attitudes towards this level of trolling was maturing and becoming more proportional. However in her overview of the serious and thoroughly disturbing co-ordinated group abuse of feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian, she stated that no one has yet been arrested, charged or outed as co-ordinated. She emphasised here that though the anonymity is an issue, in this case, ‘the abusers have effectively "gamified" trolling’ which is a worrying development.

Sub cultural trolls: These self-identify as ‘trolls’ and make a career out of it. She suggests that they are as ‘weird’ in real life as they are online. One extended example was taken from Gawker research concerning the outing of Reddit troll, Michael Brutsch. Reddit is a user generated content site that drives much of the internet and is a useful tool to keep abreast of many legitimate subjects. However there are elements of it that are distasteful and Brutsch, as Violentacrez, was so popular in his ‘moderation’ of certain subreddits that Reddit honoured him with a special ‘pimp’s hat’ user icon. Any outrage about such forums leads to users complaining about having their freedom of speech removed – she suggested that a balance should be struck between free speech and a need to stop online abuse. Astonishingly Reddit is owned by the same company that owns Condé Nast.

Professional trolls: Liz Jones given as an example, her and other columnists in the mainstream press use the same methods as trolls but for career purposes rather than amusement. Rod Liddle, Jeremy Clarkson etc have said things they don’t believe, but said it for effect because it gets newspaper websites a lot of hits. It's hard to make Internet journalism pay, therefore professional trolls are the revenue drivers of news sites. When are they going to go too far?

Covert trolls: this category is an interesting one. They are not bad but appear to waste time, they are polite yet distract from or derail main arguments on a thread or supply an endless bombardment of tweets. Are they merely bored?

Why do people troll?

The first reason she gave I am euphemistically going to call an ‘online disinhibition effect’. This is ‘a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet’.

The second is ‘showing off’. Alice Marwick has done a lot of work on social media attention seeking where people use the internet to air views that they know are socially unacceptable; people do not get upset about negative attention because they know the views they are expressing aren’t theirs, merely presenting a character.

The final reason she mentioned was this ‘gamification’. As Terry Pratchett said ‘the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters’, individuals in a group can be encouraged and affirmed with ‘internet points’ amongst their like-minded peers on sites like Reddit and 4chan.

The Law

DPP have decided that there far too many prosecutions on spurious grounds so they will now only prosecute for public order offences such as threats and violence, or harassment. If what the troll is saying is merely offensive, obscene or false then they will be less concerned. However despite the recent guidelines, this has yet to filter down to individual forces; cases against trolls in the aftermath of the Woolwich attack were commenced then stopped.

How do we deal with trolls

People have called for the ending of anonymity on the net but she said this wasn’t the main problem. It’s the lack of consequences; you do it once, get away with it and then carry on, for whatever reason. As for the ‘press to block’ button, this doesn’t always work because of ongoing abuse across different social media.

Rather interesting is the difference from trolling and online abuse. Trolling seems to be more like fishing in some cases; they will be offensive to people in the public eye and when they respond, they become a target. Here she gave the example of Mary Beard, who reversed the trolling and outed the owner of Don’t Start Me Off.

Another contentious area has been Facebook and ‘trolling’ pages. Faced with pressure from women’s groups and advertisers, they recently updated their policies so that pages can be taken down.

When dealing with public website comment/discussion boards, as an editor, she suggests very clear social media policies are required. She now thinks of it like a pub and simply bars/blocks people who persistently break the rules.

Good News

Lewis ended on a positive note saying this was a transitional time and the number of trolls that you hear about in the press are decreasing. People are increasingly living their lives online and therefore people are testing the limits. Technology is making it easier for people to be caught. Her final point suggested that we never hear about heavy breathing phone calls any more, therefore trolls will perhaps also disappear – people are getting bored of them.

My Thoughts

I would add that the number of troll types is unlimited – what about ‘Vexatious/Critical Trolls’ – people who constantly ask their local council/police/local authority for FOI requests in the interests of transparency. Or are they ‘Citizen Trolls’ that criticise or question authorities? Or those people that are simply bored? The article, also quoting Claire Hardaker which probably inspired this talk is here.

The newspaper angle is also interesting. Internet journalism doesn’t pay and so sites are being subsidised by the paper versions (currently) and advertising. Do advertisers care about the quality of journalism? Are they only interested in website hits?

She didn’t really differentiate between trolling and online abuse – this remains woolly in my opinion. It seems that an irritating exchange on twitter is not abusive; however a sustained threatening attack on an individual over many platforms is undoubtedly online abuse.  

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