Vague ramblings

Trolls and tribulation

Posted in Life by Ian Cundell on 31 July, 2013

As one who has been on the internet for a very long time, the current explosion of interest in trolling is a bit odd. Nothing remotely excuses the rape threats and the death threats – of course –  but what is surprising to me is the surprise.

Trolling started as “trolling for newbies” on the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban – regular users would throw out bait for newcomers and see who claimed to have special insight, before gently mocking them. It was part spectator sport, part initiation.

It couldn’t last, of course, and for every playful japester there was – let’s be blunt about this – a sociopath. I’ve seen some pretty vile stuff over the years and in the pre-Web Usenet days of almost total non-regulation, software vendors came up with a variety of ways to help users filter out the crap.

The Web changed things. The unregulated world of Usenet gave way to a wide array of web forums with varying degrees of moderation and rule enforcement, but also shifted filtering control away from the end-user and onto the service provider.

But this technological change – the academic-inspired Usenet giving way to a largely commercialised web – has masked what I think is the real problem.

Usenet was unregulated because it wasn’t owned in any meaningful sense; the web is owned and massively monetised. But – and this is a big but – it is largely owned by the children and younger siblings of the hippies of the 60s and 70s. So they speak the language of “information wants to be free” (as in liberated, not as in no-fee) with alacrity and plaster it with slogans like “Don’t Be Evil” and “join the conversation” around their oh-so-playful offices. What they actually mean is that they want to hoover up you personal information and package it up for sale to advertisers.

This has a very practical implication for trolls: it is playtime.

Twitter, Facebook and Google have absolutely no interest whatsoever protecting you from attack, since to do so would inevitably make it harder from them to gather and horde your data. They hide behind an old slogan: “Don’t feed the trolls”, meaning if you ignore them they will go away. They don’t, of course. I used to buy into this slogan, now I am firmly in the name-and-shame camp.

And it is not just at the huge corporate level: on many message-boards the moderators obsess about free speech, while allowing perfectly innocent users to be harassed, doing nothing (or the minimum they can get away with) in the name of freedom. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

The result is seen in this mainly excellent piece by Emma Barnett: read.

Now, look again at that poll. What is missing? Think for a moment about the major omission.

I would suggest the missing choice is:  “Demand proper anti-troll polices and practices from the service provider”.

In short, make the owners take responsibility. Even the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the Unites States of America, perhaps the most powerful statement in defence of free speech on the planet, does not guarantee a platform. Owners abdicating responsibility gives voice to the trolls.

If campaigners are serious about combating trolling, then they cannot allow the bland hippy-dippy drivel spewed by the PR departments of huge corporations to set the tone of debate. Because allowing that means accepting hate-fuelled trolling as a cost of doing business.

And I cannot see how that will end well.


Incidentally, at the back end of the 90s and the early 00s – my last time using Usenet – the most persistent and irritating troll was a monomaniacal, one-track pest who popped up on every newsgroup I visited with huge regularity and even greater frequency. His pet topic?

“Lance Armstrong is a Drugs Cheat”


10 Responses

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  1. Tony Watts (@tonywattswriter) said, on 31 July, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Much of the US Constitution was inspired by thinkers like Locke who said power came with responsibility. But while the 1st Amendment may have reflected that, it seems to have been forgotten about with the 2nd Amendment… Good piece, Ian. Still assembling my thoughts on this subject, and this has helped.

  2. cybergibbons said, on 2 August, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Do you use the word “troll” to mean what people meant 10 years ago, or what people have come to mean in the last few days (someone threatening to rape or kill someone). I think trying to protect the Internet from the former is a very, very unwise thing to do. It’s incredibly hard to work out if someone is trolling, it can even be used to good effect against corporations. Trying to protect from genuine abuse is hard enough.

    I disagree with this statement:
    “What they actually mean is that they want to hoover up you personal information and package it up for sale to advertisers.”

    Some of us want some platforms to remain as unmoderated as possible – twitter being one of these. We seem to be forgetting the significant part that twitter has played in arranging protests and even warfare in Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Libya. We forget the power it gives us against the government and big corporations. Many of us would say this is one of the central concepts of twitter – they don’t get involved in moderation. It’s what we signed up for, and we are willing to take the rough with the smooth.

  3. Ian Cundell said, on 2 August, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I don’t really draw a distinction, but see it as a sort of bell curve. The kind of thing Caroline Criado-Perez has been faced with are at the far ends, but in the middle is a ton to everyday, low grade abuse and disruption tolerated under the culture of “don’t feed the trolls”. It is pure victim-blaming and no longer remotely fit for purpose.

    It is a matter of fact, not debate, that Twitter’s business model is about selling YOU (and me and everyone else) as a product to large advertisers. Anything that interferes with that will be resisted.

    And I am afraid sucking the Arab Spring into the equation is the kind of slippery-slope fallacy building that makes sensible debate very difficult.

    Twitter is a private and proprietary service run for profit. It has had some spectacular successes (eg this: but these are despite this nature, not because of if it.

    If you want a proper unmoderated platform, then get Usenet working again.

    • cybergibbons said, on 2 August, 2013 at 10:25 am

      I haven’t argued that Twitter’s business model is anything other than monetizing Twitter. It’s clear however from their actions before now that they are also interested in enabling Twitter to be used for more than just a way of harvesting data. They have come under extreme legal pressure before now to release user data and resisted.

      Google facilitates communication and donation gathering when there are large scale disasters. But they’ll data mine you dry the rest of the time.

      People and companies can have more than one goal.

      I disagree with your statement:
      “What they actually mean is that they want to hoover up you personal information and package it up for sale to advertisers.”

      You levy this charge at those own the web, not specifically Twitter. I own part of the web. I will say those things. I don’t want to hoover up anyone’s data.

      Tor, the EFF, Cryptocat – they all own part of the web and they want to protect people from their data being hoovered up. There are a lot of people who passionately believe that information should be free.

      Someone can say “informtion should be free” and also “we want to hoover up your personal information and package it up for sale to advertisers”. It doesn’t that when they say “information should be free” they mean “we want to hoover up your personal information and package it up for sale to advertisers”.

      Simply decrying something as slippery slope doesn’t make it invalid. If you can show it is the beginning of a slippery slope, it’s perfectly valid.

      Look at these web filters – first child porn. Then torrent sites. Then all porn. Now esoteric material. Many people warned of this and their opponents cried “slippery slope” as a way of countering them. The same people are those that say “we must do something to protect the children” and really don’t seem to care that “something” might have detrimental impact to others.

      This started off with rape and death threats – and the campaigners asked to be able to report abuse more easily. Then this developed into a “zero tolerance stance on abuse”. Some are calling for Twitter to actively start implementing the UK harassment laws. You are calling for “anti-troll policies” and admit that trolls are part of a bell curve including “low grade abuse and disruption”. What many have been RTing as abuse and adding the hashtag “#shoutingback” to is quite obviously just someone disagreeing with them.

      You can see why some of us think we are moving down a slippery slope.

      If Twitter bows to political and user pressure from what actually amounts to a very small proportion of users we have started down a road that I don’t want to go down.

      “If you want a proper unmoderated platform, then get Usenet working again.”

      Or keep using a current, working micro-blogging platform that is significantly different to Usenet with a massive audience and don’t change the rules around policing it.

      By the same logic, we could argue that you should start a new moderated micro-blogging service. Why is that not possible?

      • Ian Cundell said, on 2 August, 2013 at 11:55 am

        >> Simply decrying something as slippery slope doesn’t make it invalid.

        Actually, it does. The slippery slope is a logical fallacy.

        I’m not really interested on techno-utopianism. For one thing, Wikipedia taught me that arguments are won by those who simply will not give up, whether they are right or wrong. But for another it has been hi-jacked by a cohort of libertarian numpties overdosed on Ayn Rand’s witless, hypocritical drivel using reasoning that is indistinguishable from that of the US gun lobby at its most offensive. “Oh noes! Calling for responsible regulation means they’re going to take our **insert item** away!”

        >>By the same logic, we could argue that you should start a new moderated micro-blogging service. Why is that not possible?

        Logic does not mean what you appear to think it means.

        I am all for a zero-tolerance stance on abuse, because I can tell the difference between being caustic and being abusive.

        An I am vehemently opposed to the privatisation of discourse: it has brought us a corrupt media, and it is bringing us a corrupt social media.

        None of that detracts one iota from the good work done by individuals and organisation, but it the the landscape that needs changing.

    • cybergibbons said, on 2 August, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      Ian – wait – you are asking for more moderation of twitter, but in linked post, you say:

      On Twitter it is trivially easy to block somebody, so harassment is very hard to sustain (and any would-be harasser would soon have it coming back ten-fold anyway, I suspect).”

      • Ian Cundell said, on 2 August, 2013 at 1:10 pm

        “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” — John Maynard Keynes

        The facts have changed.

        (Your choice, on Twitter, to misquote me and give a wilfully tendentious characterisation of what I said means your other and future posts will not be approved)

  4. Tony Watts (@tonywattswriter) said, on 2 August, 2013 at 10:35 am

    Bringing the Arab Spring into the equation has the merit of introducing the thread of moral relativism into the discussion – what one Government would want to see banned from Twitter might well be different from what another Government would. And there’s a great argument to be had there about keeping SM feeds free from such interference, especially as one person’s paternalistic Government is another person’s dictatorship.

    But the trolls issue is entirely separate.

    This is about the spectrum of confrontation / abuse / frightening threats that starts with “I disagree with what you say, even though my position is totally unsustainable in an intelligent discussion and I’m a coward so I’ll hide behind my anonymity” through to “I hate people like you, so I’m going to threaten/bomb/rape/stalk you”.

    If I want to disagree with giant corporations or the Government, I don’t feel the need to troll. I put up (hopefully) intelligent blogs explaining my thinking and offering alternatives and tweet them out to my contacts – complete with an identifiable handle. Or I’ll tweet or FB my objections to a policy or organisation. You won’t change the world by insulting or abusing people – that’s only achievable by winning arguments and changing hearts and minds.

    In a country where your personal safety might be at risk – fair enough. Be anonymous. But being anti-Government is not the same as threatening to rape someone.

    The forums on news sites where you could once have an intelligent debate have now been taken over by morons – and that is incredibly sad.

    I too was a very early user of the Internet in its idealistic days and I’ve been dismayed by some aspects of its evolution – not least the data collection and monetising that Ian highlights. It started life as a power for good, connecting people and sharing knowledge and ideas…

    • cybergibbons said, on 2 August, 2013 at 10:53 am

      I argue that dealing with a troll (in the sense from 10 years ago) can be perfectly adequately handled by blocking them. There is no need for any intervention by twitter. If you don’t want to see what they say, block them. If others don’t want to see what they say, they block them. Their history remains – if they tweet at someone, there is a clear history of trolling – no need to engage.

      You have the right and power to make twitter look how you want. I don’t want people to have the right or power to change the way twitter looks for me.

      If someone makes a death threat, let the police and law deal with the situation.

      Implementing any policy on twitter, no matter what it is, will come with the most serious punishment of banning an account.

      I’m just not sure what banning someone achieves or why it is significantly better than blocking them. They’ll come back, but with no history and a different name – the process starts again.

      • Ian Cundell said, on 2 August, 2013 at 11:57 am

        >> I don’t want people to have the right or power to change the way twitter looks for me.

        Twitter can already do that – for example it is trying to squeeze out 3rd party client developers (the very people who made Twitter the success it is) because 3rd parties tend to include filters…

Do feel free to chip in...but be courteous when doing so. Ta.

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