Trolling, from what I understand, is the practice of using online platforms to harass a person or group of people. This harassment can take the form threatening/hateful/explicit messages or images as well as stalking and “doxxing”, the practice of releasing the personal details of a person online without their consent. Trolling is, in my opinion, a nuisance at best and deeply dangerous at its worst. A couple of the articles from this week’s reading refer to people who have had to leave their homes after having had their addresses shared in online communities and having received death threats against both themselves and their families. It is just as dangerous when the harassment is more local. The NY Times article on Yik Yak emphasizes how high school and even middle school students have to deal with this behavior, also known as cyberbullying on an alarmingly regular basis.
I believe that the companies that operate online platforms do not do enough to combat the spread of this type of content on their networks. Last week, I wrote a bit about how I think both the developers and users of these platforms would benefit from a better policing of threatening and hateful content. I stand by this. It is unethical for platform holders to facilitate dangerous behavior online in the name of free speech or giving voice to “the disenfranchised” as the creators of Yik Yak say. Developers have neither the power nor responsibility to hold these abusers accountable for their actions, but they do have the power and responsibility to prevent these abuses from happening on their platforms.
Gamergate is a somewhat recent example of mass trolling/cyberbullying that has received public attention. From my understanding, it was a campaign of targeted harassment against female members of the gaming industry led by a few thousand online users on sites such as 4Chan and Reddit. This was obviously a deplorable movement that these sites should have made a greater effort to curtail. The problem is not, I think, the anonymity of the users but their ability to congregate and share their toxic ideas without interference.
Like I mentioned above, I do believe that trolling/cyberbullying is a huge problem on the internet, especially for young people and children. In my opinion, children are better off not being on the internet at all and especially not on social media platforms. Maybe this is just because this was my experience, but I cannot imagine how children could benefit from being exposed to social media and especially the abuse that takes place there. I do not think children need any special protected space or protected features online – they need responsible parent who make sure their children are not participating in these online communities that are explicitly not for them.
My personal approach to online trolling is to ignore it. I have recently installed plug-ins on all of my browsers that automatically hide all comments, and they have improved my online experience immensely. I also make an effort to avoid using social media regularly. In my opinion trolling has ruined the internet and the best solution for me was to simply avoid seeing it. It is obviously not a perfect solution and only helps myself, but I do not feel I am missing out on anything and would recommend anyone else tired of toxic internet culture take similar steps.
Finally, I do not believe anonymity on the internet is the problem. As the Slate article on Google Plus’s real-name policy explains, there are legitimate reasons to stay anonymous online (hiding one’s identity from an oppressive government, for example) and when people use their real name online they do not necessarily become any nicer. In fact, real-name policies could make the internet a more dangerous place for the people who are the target of online abuse. Our online pseudonyms offer us protection from overreaching government entities and each other. The biggest problem is the fact that we need this protection. I think online dialogue in its current state may be fundamentally broken. Our brains and algorithms prioritize the production and spread of negative content, and real people are paying the price. Good can come out of online dialogue but it does not, in my opinion, justify or outweigh the evil it enables.