Monday, December 11, 2017

Trolls damage the Internet

Trolls are everywhere on the Internet. They ruin otherwise good conversations, they attack, demean, or even threaten people, and they upset people for fun. There seems to be no good way to stop trolling behaviour and that fact is damaging the entire Internet.

We all run into trolls at some point or other, people who “post an off-topic or inflammatory comment to disrupt an online conversation”, as defined (well defined, I think) in a video from SciShow that I shared the middle of last year. Most of the time most of us back out of interaction when a troll shows up, but I know that I (and others I know) avoid making any comment in the first place simply to avoid being trolled. This makes perfectly logical sense: No matter how strong we may be most of the time, a troll can bring down any of us, at least sometimes. Sometimes self-defence is the best offence.

Two times recently I encountered a troll. The first was engaging in trolling behaviour without being, as far as I could tell, an actual troll. The second was sort of a classic troll: Someone who set up an entire fake identity in order to engage in disruption of inline conversation.

I encountered the first troll last month in the midst of a spirited political discussion I was having with a staunch conservative I’ve sparred with many times. He’s a friend of a friend, not someone I know personally, but no matter how strident our rhetoric (which is part of the game we play), we don’t take it personally nor do we attack each other personally. Their are rules of engagement, even in heated battle over strongly held views.

Then suddenly a different staunch conservative jumped into the discussion and posted the meme at right (heh!). I don’t know the guy (again, a friend of a friend), and as far as I know he’s never said anything racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., but from what I’ve seen in other comments, it’s fair to say that unlike me and the guy I was “discussing” politics with, I probably have no common ground with the intruder. Fair enough, it’s neither possible nor desirable to agree with everyone all the time. But that meme? It’s a dickish thing to post that meme and an example of trolling behaviour by someone who may not actually be a troll ordinarily.

This should be obvious, but the fact that we disagree with a person does not, without some evidence aside from the disagreement, make our adversary evil. Yet the intruder, who agreed with the guy I was sparring with, dismissed everything I said—and me personally—by posting an offensive meme to attack me and all people on the left of centre as people—not our ideas, views, opinions, etc. That’s what a troll does. Sure, the guy may have been a dickhead rather than an actual troll, but does the distinction actually matter? I don’t think so. I immediately deleted all my comments, and deleting the first one deleted almost the entire comment thread. This is a tactic I first hit on last year, and it served me well in the 2016 US Presidential election campaign.

The second troll did say offensive racist things, though borrowed from a well-known elderly New Zealand ex-politician and current professional far-right whinger. For a lot of reasons, it was obvious to me his Facebook profile was phoney, but what made him so obvious as a troll was that he’d used his online accounts to attack both Labour Party supporters AND National Party supporters. It looked to me like he was the type who gets their jollies out of upsetting people, and he didn’t really care who or about what. The funniest thing, I thought, was that he started attacking me for having a cat (Bella is with me in my current Facebook profile photo), attacking cats in general, and when that got no rise from me, he tried calling me a hypocritical Labour supporter because I had a cat (at least, I think that’s what he was trying to say—by then his spelling and grammar had dramatically deteriorated, probably because a friend and I started sharing how we knew his profile was phoney). This was in a discussion about protecting endangered native trees, so having a cat or not was clearly not relevant, demonstrating it was trolling rather than any attempt to engage on the actual issue. Again, I deleted all my comments in the thread, then went one step further: I blocked him on all social media. Trolls may be merely pathetic most of the time, but some are also dangerous; I have no idea which he was.

From these two very different experiences I learned that anyone is capable of engaging in trolling behaviour, though most of us never will, of course. The second thing I learned is that a normal well-adjusted person cannot begin to understand a genuine troll, or why they troll. We keep looking for what they have to gain when, in fact, there’s nothing. The third thing I learned is that ignoring trolls/trolling behaviour ends up destroying online interaction and conversation. There has to be another way, but I sure don’t know what it is.

Real trolls deserve our contempt, and blocking them is a sensible thing to do. In fact, when I see obvious trolls in the comments of news or political pages I follow on Facebook, I sometimes pre-emptively block them so that I don’t see their male-bovine-excrement when I visit the page. But what if someone is just having a really bad day and saying really stupid things, when on other days they’re perfectly okay?

I have no solutions, so I block sparingly, and always with cause. But neither do I engage with trolls most of the time, and far too often that extends to not participating in comments in the first place. Trolls are damaging the entire Internet, and maybe that’s what they want most.

Until we have a way to end trolling behaviour, we all have to come up with our own strategies—what works for us. Being on the Internet makes this a necessity: Trolls are everywhere on the Internet.

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