Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why do trolls exist?

"Morality, Plato argues, comes from full disclosure; without accountability for our actions we would all behave unjustly."
- Julie Zhuo, "Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt"-

Why do "trolls" exist online?

We have all seen it. Read the comments of your favorite blog, take a look at the comments on a news story online, or even check out You Tube. Anonymous users post whatever they feel for the world to see, whether it's good or bad.

There are some advantages to trolling. You can give your opinion on any topic that you may choose, because the Internet has a wide range of topics and along with that, a broad audience of varying opinions to go along with it. In addition, you can ask questions to others and remain anonymous, such as asking about something personal like relationships or health matters.

There are also disadvantages.

There's at least one troll out there who is posting something negative. I find that some trolling comments are easily dismissible, because they are silly. Sometimes, you can read a troll's comment and forget about it quickly, because you know it is a bitter person who has nothing better to do than insult someone else.

In some instances, trolling crosses the line and becomes online bullying or harassment. These comments leave a much harsher impact on those it is affecting.

Why would anyone want to thrive off of negativity or poking fun at someone else? In more extreme cases of trolling, as described in "The Trolls Among Us" by Mattathias Schwartz, trolls posted comments that made fun of tragic deaths. Schwartz details one case in particular, where a teen committed suicide and online trolls claimed it was due to him losing his Ipod. The trolls posted edited pictures showing the teen holding an Ipod, dancing with an Ipod, etc. Some even called his parents' home and pretended to be the young man calling from the cemetery.

It is hard to understand why anyone would take the time and effort to any kind of material that would attempt to make light of this kind of situation, or even to mock it. When reading about that case in particular, I began thinking of what that must have been like for that young man's parents to go through. No one should have to experience a tragedy like that, and then, in addition to dealing with the loss of loved one, have to feel the pain of online bullying by trolls.

"Where Annoymity Breeds Contempt" (Julie Zhuo) describes what is called the "online disinhibition effect". In simpler terms, the idea of being anonymous increases unethical behavior on the Internet. Trolls feel that they can say what they want online and will not have to face the consequences of their actions because it is difficult to trace and track down the person behind the keyboard. Many people do not like confrontation in person, however, by posting comments anonymously online these users feel empowered by posting whatever they'd like, without having to say it in person - or even with their real name attached to the statement. Many people engage themselves "socially" online more than they do in real life (face-to-face interactions). I think that this ability to be free and open with opinions, good or bad, has contributed to the phenomenon of "trolling".

Zhuo's soltuion? "Let's start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability". She suggests that content providers put an end to anonymous comments, and forums should be moderated and checked routinely for inappropriate comments. She offers up the idea of using a comment service. She also suggests encouraging other users to report trolls.

While I agree with Zhuo that something needs to be done to put an end to the trolls that engage in online harassing, I do not know if it is as easy as it looks. For example, it would be almost near to impossible for some content providers to moderate the quantity of comments they receive. Also, some sites do not allow you to post comments unless you are logged into an account - however, this does not necessarily mean you will provide accurate information when you set up this said account. You could use a fake name, email, etc. and this also makes it hard to hold someone accountable. Even if other users report your comments as inappropriate and your account is shut down, what is going to stop your from creating a new fake account? It could very well be a continuous cycle.

In one of my other classes, we briefed the Supreme Court case Zeran v. AOL - in which Zeran is defamed by false comments posted by an anonymous user and although he reports these comments, the damage was already done. Zeran's home telephone number was posted online, and he received a call about every minute and a half - which in turn, affected his business because he could not conduct business properly when he was constantly receiving phone calls based on a false online post. Once the number was out, even removing the post does not reverse the damage. The Court found that the provider (AOL) cannot be responsible for the third party postings.

I think that the most effective way to put a halt to this behavior would be through stalking, bullying, and harassment laws. Some trolling comments, like I said before, are easy to dismiss. You can choose to ignore some of the comments. For example, my team has had routines on YouTube and some people will comment and say "this is stupid" or "you guys shouldn't have placed". It is easy for me to take the high road and ignore those kind of comments. I have learned to accept criticism, and that's one thing. But when people are being bullied or harassed online, such as in the case Schwartz described when a young man committed suicide and trolls posted comments and material online to mock him - this should not be ignored.

If stalking, bullying, and harassment laws were present everywhere and held people accountable, I believe this would reduce these kinds of posts because people would fear that it could be tracked back to them. The law would be able to hold them accountable.

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