On Internet Trolls

DON’T FEED THE TROLLS, AND OTHER HIDEOUS LIES” is a great article by “Film Crit Hulk” on our collective failure to respond properly to internet trolling culture.

A Twitter follower reminded me of a line in the famous parable from Bion of Borysthenes: “Boys throw stones at frogs in fun, but the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.” Defenders of trolling insist it’s all just a joke, but if trolling is inherently designed to get a rise out of someone, then that’s what it really is. In many cases, it is designed to look and feel indistinguishable from a genuine attack. Whether you believe what you are saying or not is often immaterial because the impact is the same — and you are responsible for it, regardless of how funny you think it is.

I think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of trolling. It isn’t a joke. It isn’t done for the lulz. “It’s just a joke” is an obvious cover for bad behavior.

It reminds me of an episode from my youth. In high school I had a friend who had a stash of Playboy magazines that he got (I think) from an older brother. Somehow we found out about them, demanded to see them, and teased him about them as we thumbed through them together. “Why do you have these” we would ask, teasingly, knowing full well why he had them. My friend’s face would grow bright red and we would stammer: “because they’re so funny”. When pressed, he would double down on it: he would swear, up and down, that he had them because they were hilarious. Sure they were.

It puzzles me, why we act as if it’s even possible that verbal abuse on the internet is “just a joke”. A decent response to “it was just a joke” is “it doesn’t matter”.

The biggest mistake we ever made with trolls was making the question of abuse about how to placate and fix them instead of how to empower the people they hurt or manage your own well-being in the face of them. Like so many abused people, we thought the solutions involved walking on eggshells and not provoking them back. But instead, we must acknowledge “that we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about who we pretend to be.” And that means acknowledging the awful, terrifying power of jokes and the immunity we seek in “not being serious.” This is exactly why people troll in the first place. Because deep down, they know it’s serious, and that’s exactly why it makes them feel powerful.

In the online world, people who violate community standards should be banned from those communities. Gathering spaces online are not public spaces: almost all of them are owned by private companies or individuals. Freedom of speech is up to the owner of the space; the level of discourse there directly reflect’s the owner as well. By law, they might not be legally responsible for the content of their site, but they are ethically and morally responsible for it, regardless. Owning and running a site where terrible things happen should be a black mark on a company’s or a person’s reputation—and that should matter.

It would be nice if people started to care about reputation again, and if bad reputations led to lower profits and lower stature in the global community. Sadly, we are in a time, right now, where that does not seem to be the case.