Trolls Are The New Spam

Abi Sutherland made a very good point on Twitter a couple of days ago comparing the troll problem with the spam problem.

A few years back, spam threatened to overwhelm the internet. Our email inboxes were getting flooded with fake Viagra and make-money-fast schemes that drowned out legitimate communications. Likewise bot-generated comment spam meant that any blogger that wanted to enable comments either needed to spend vast amounts of time hand-moderating comments or see their comment sections flooded with garbage.

The spammers and their apologists used to say “Just delete it”, and then whined about freedom of speech every time anyone proposed anti-spam solutions.

We didn’t let the spammers win. Instead we built reputation systems like Akismet, and we added Bayesian filtering to our email, and it turned the tide. They weren’t 100% effective, and did generate the occasional false positive, but they have reduced spam to a manageable problem.

Today we’ve got a huge problem with trolls. They reduce the signal-to-noise ratio across so many sites that “don’t read the comments” and “bottom half of the internet” are commonly used phrases. They harass people online to the extent that far too many people with something worthwhile to say end up being hounded off social media.

Trolls can kill productive conversation. “Just ignore them” is equivalent to “Just delete it”.

Dealing with trolls is a hard problem. Trolling is vastly more subjective and context-dependent that spam. Building an equivalent reputation system based upon who’s favourited or blocked blog comments and social media posts won’t be an easy task. Building one that reduces the impact of bad behaviour without creating dangerous echo-chambers may prove even harder. But it can’t be an impossible task either.

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2 Responses to Trolls Are The New Spam

  1. Michael says:

    Blocking trolls is not possible while anonymous posting remains possible.

    Unless it becomes possible to take serious action for libel (and I think it is liable rather than slander as we are talking of recoded text here) against people trolling is safe and easy.

    Do we need a “small libel court” which makes legal action available for smaller amounts at a plausible cost for most people?

  2. Tim Hall says:

    The law is a blunt instrument and is only really applicable in extreme situations such as that of John Nimmo, Isabella Sorley and Peter Nunn who were prosecuted for sending threatening messages.

    Anonymity isn’t a magic bullet either; there are whole classes of people for whom it’s too dangerous to post on sensitive topics under their legal names who would be silenced under a “real names” policy. Persistent psuedonyms which can gather positive reputations can be just as effective.