Trolls vs. Gatekeepers

Tim Dunlop writing in The Guardian suggests that the word ‘troll’ has been redefined by the powerful:

What particularly disturbs me is the way in which sections of the mainstream media and others in positions of power use the worst of what happens online to condemn all that happens online. One manifestation of this is the way in which the word “troll” has been appropriated by sections of the mainstream and redefined.

The word once had quite a specialised meaning limited to a particular sort of disruptive behaviour, but it has now become a catch-all term to describe any behaviour that some journalists and editors deem inappropriate. Their responses to what they call “trolling” often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t. It is what US academic Susan Herbst calls “the strategic use of civility”.

I think he makes some good points here. On the one hand, when game designers get death threats for making minor changes to weapon statistics in a game, something is very, very wrong. But that’s  a completely different thing from someone like Suzanne Moore not being able to express rather bigoted comments in a newspaper column without being called out on it.

You only have to mention names like “Jan Moir”, “Brendan O’Neill”, “James Delingpole” or “Julie Birchill” to recognise that some scribblers in the mainstream media are trolls in the original sense of the word, writing link-bait that deliberately pushes people’s buttons in order to get more pageviews for advertisers.

The power of the internet is that it gives the voice to those who don’t have big media soapboxes, and allows the expression of ideas and opinions that are marginalised by those who control the media. The fact that some of those ideas and opinions are bad ones doesn’t change this. We should not let what amounts to an old-fashioned moral panic let those in power take that away.

Commenter EpistocracyNow makes another very good point about the way the word “troll” gets misused to mean “Anyone not on my side”.

… there are also ideologically biased people who viciously pursue “trolls” who forcefully express competing views, but give a pass to genuine trolls or abusers on their own side. It’s a form of dissonance avoidance – if someone is a “troll”, you don’t have to acknowledge the uncomfortable, dissonance-inducing things he or she might be saying.

I’ve seen a lot of that of late, especially in the Great Geek Culture Sexism Wars. I guess it’s inevitable when opposing camps get so entrenched that “Then and Us” trumps “Right and Wrong”.

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