Tag Archives: Trolls

Operation Lollipop demonstrates Poe’s Law in action

Last week large numbers of supposed feminists on Twitter were exposed as trolls associated with the notorious troll citadel 4chan, and at least two of the most dubious Twitter hashtags, including #EndFathersDay turned out to be their work, part of an orchestrated mass trolling called “Operation Lollipop”.

Everyone writing about the subject naturally concludes that it confirms their existing point of view. Lola Okolosie and Laurie Penny, writing in The Guardian, saw the whole thing as an extinction burst.

The reason sexist trolls fretting alone in their bedrooms are frightened of political women online, particularly women of colour, is the same reason they won’t win. Despite our differences, and even because of our differences, we are powerful, and we are many, and this is our time, not theirs.

Meanwhile the former Communists turned right-libertarians of Spiked Online consider the whole thing to be a useful parody.

There is something pretty pompous about the rigid etiquette of the Twitter activists’ call-out culture that begs to be mocked.

If hashtag activism is easily parodied, then that shows what is wrong with it. By drawing out the excessiveness of hashtags like #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen or #KillAllMen, the 4channers were doing everyone a favour. The wisest point about Twitter was made by playwright Steven Berkoff: if you jump in a dustbin you cannot complain that you are covered in rubbish.

The whole thing does seem like a very good practical demonsration of Poe’s Law, which states:

Without a blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

And that’s true about this. By no means everyone who picked up and ran with their fake hashtags were 4chan’s adolescent racists and sexists.  And quite a few right-wing anti-feminist types, including the arch misogynist Paul Elam fell for it too.

What it has done is exposed the weaknesses of “Hashtag activism”. Twitter’s 140-character limit means activist soundbites are stripped of all context and nuance, and Twitter always tends to magnify the loudest voices at the expense of the wisest. Even well-intentioned hashtags frequently become toxic as more people jump on, and nobody can control or moderate them.

Whether it will lead to any self-reflection remains to be seen. I’m not holding my breath.

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Woman becomes first person to be jailed for ‘trolling herself is today’s bizarre headline. The actual story isn’t quite as bizarre as the headline, but is more evidence that many persistent trolls aren’t rational people with unpleasant agendas, but troubled individuals with mental health problems or substance abuse issues.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

Two Links Worth Reading

A couple of links that are well worth reading

First, How to Improve Feminism in 2014 in Vice (Warning! Do not read the comments unless you want to gawp at sexist idiots). Second, and far more important, this very well-written piece On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism, talking about online anger, and why the whole social-justice call-out culture has turned toxic.

It’s long, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. A central point is when the zealots coming from within the social justice movement start to look like the trolls from places like 4chan, something has gone horribly wrong.

I’ve always believed that tribalism is a Very Bad Thing, and one aspect of tribalism is when you turn a blind eye to behaviour from within your own “tribe” that’s just as bad as anything from the “enemy camp”. Sadly, good causes sometimes attract horrible people, you only have to look at all the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion to recognise that.

Posted in Religion & Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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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Does The Internet Turn People Into Dicks?

Martin Robbins asks what is it about the internet that turns people into massive dicks?, and highlights one of the issues with Twitter I’ve mentioned in an earlier post.

Think of playground bullying, for example – there’s a massive difference between a child calling another child a dick and a hundred children standing around one child shouting, “You’re a dick!”

To be blunt, Twitter doesn’t scale. It wasn’t designed for people to make tens of thousands of connections, and I’m not entirely convinced that the humans using it were either – not without some strategy to cope with it all.

There isn’t an easy solution, and I hope that Twitter will find away to prevent harassment of individuals without removing the ability of ordinary people to speak truth to power. We should not allow trolls to be used as a stalking horse for much broader restrictions on political dissent. This is especially pertinent once David Cameron and the UK tabloid press jump on the bandwagon. That’s the point where we need to be extra vigilant about the direction in which the bandwagon starts heading.

There are wider social issues as well.

It also runs afoul of the completely ****ed up relationship our society has with celebrity. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it argued that people with a decent follower account should be expected to “take it”, as a sort of penalty for being popular.

Which also make me wonder how much reality TV such as The Apprentice or X-Factor, or the cruelty-based nature of some so-called “comedy” (I’m thinking of that Russell Brand prank phone call incident a while ago) feeds the idea that it’s acceptable to be abusive to complete strangers.

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Twitter Trolls – Preventing the Pile-ons.

Now it’s making the national news, a few more thoughts on the Twitter troll issue.

Twitter’s problem isn’t individual trolls; they can be blocked easily enough. From what I can tell, the big problem is the large-scale pile-ons that overwhelm their target’s “Connect” tab. There is evidence to suggest these pile-ons are co-ordinated on other sites such as Reddit. It’s not just misogynist troglodytes attacking outspoken feminists, although that’s what’s getting the headlines; from recent evidence feral One Direction fans can be just as bad.

Which makes wonder if one possible solution would be to give users more control over what’s is and isn’t seen in their Connect tab. The default of seeing everything bar accounts you’ve actually blocked works for us ordinary folks; it lets people you’re not actually following join conversations and can be a way of discovering interesting new people. It’s easy enough to plonk the odd drive-by abuser because they turn up relatively infrequently, usually only when you’ve said something provocative or controversial.

But if you’re an outspoken public figure, the dynamic is completely different. It’s been said that “on a bad troll day” you can get 50 abusive messages an hour. That prevents you from using the Connect tab to connect with the sort of people you actually want to connect to.

Perhaps Twitter need to implement a variable setting which controls who you see or don’t see in the tab. The existing default will work for most people most of the time. A more restricted setting might limit this to your extended network, for example, those you’re following plus everyone they’re following.

If widely adopted, this might change the dynamic between Twitter celebrities and us normal people, limiting who can @message them, but maybe the existing dynamic is broken for at least some of the people, some of the time.

And the trolls will still troll, except their targets will no longer see them.

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Dealing With Twitter Trolls

Another day, another twitter storm, this time directed at Caroline Criado-Perez for expressing an option a bunch of sexist trolls didn’t like. No matter how much you disagree with someone’s opinion, rape threats are never, ever acceptable, and it really shouldn’t need explaining why.

I’ve seen one or two people, notably James Desborough, defending the right to troll in the name of freedom of speech. But that ignores the fact that the trolls’ threats are themselves a silencing tactic. If you cannot voice controversial opinions without getting flooded with more threatening posts than you can cope with, then you’re effectively being censored.

But it’s very wrong to claim that there’s any one simple solution. Moderation of any online space (including Twitter) is very, very hard to get right, and far too easy to get horribly wrong. Even successful moderation policies in smaller communities don’t scale to something the size of Twitter. Unfettered freedom of speech can result in a playground for sociopaths where bad speech drives out good, but who gets to decide what’s good and bad?

Twitter’s big problem is flash mobs, when grown adults start acting like playground bullies. Many different groups are guilty of this. There are a lot of parallels on Twitter between the behaviour of clumps of misogynist trogodytes. and what happens when social justice types grab the torches and pitchforks in self-righteous fury. It doesn’t make much difference to the victim whether the mob is motivated by self-righteousness or sexist douchbaggery.

We should be very, very cautious about trying to use a quick technical quick fix for what’s essentially a social problem. It’s next to impossible to construct an automated abuse handling or crowd-based karma system that isn’t going to be gamed by the trolls and used as a weapon against their victims. And human moderation will involve subjective judgement calls which would have to take context into account.

I’m not saying that the status quo is the least bad option, just that we need to treat proposed solutions with caution, and be very wary of unintended consequences or unspoken agendas. I don’t want to live in an online world where people can be harassed and intimidated online, but neither to I want to see a situation where politicians and high profile media figures can shut down any criticism of their policies and views. What do we gain if we cannot call out a bigot for being a bigot?

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Dear media. I’m really fed up with having to keep repeating this. Stop giving that attention-seeking troll Anjem Choudary the oxygen of publicity. He represents nobody other than himself and a handful of dim-witted hangers-on. You don’t keep wheeling out the equally odious Nick Griffin as a “representative of white people”.

Posted on by Tim Hall | Comments Off

Freedom of Speech?

There seems to have been an awful lot of outbreaks of really hardcore misogyny in the tech/geek world of late. There have been too many incidents of women in the games scene in particular suffering enormous levels on online abuse by anonymous trolls purely for expressing an opinion not everyone agrees with. Some people have suggested that this sort of behaviour can be found in all walks of life, it does seem to be worse in certain subcultures. Maybe it because the frequently overlapping games and IT worlds tend to attract a disproportionate number of people with very poor social skills?

The latest firestorm concerns a deeply unpleasant individual by the name of Aris Bakhtanians, who justifies some deeply unpleasant and disturbingly creepy behaviour with the following words, here quoted by comic writer and blogger Chris Sims:

Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?

Bakhtanians: You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community

I had never heard of this so-called “fighting games” community before, and if this Aris Bakhtanians is in any way representative of it, it’s not a community which deserves any respect in the wider world. His insincere non-apology doesn’t really change that.

Chris Sims doesn’t mince his words.

“If your community can’t introduce a baseline of respect for another human being without being destroyed, then your community should probably be burned to the ground and have salt spread on the ashes so that it’ll never come back.”

Bakhtanians had ranted about “This is not North Korea” when challenged. It’s exactly the same behaviour you hear from violent knuckle-dragging white nationalists, who claim that they and only they stand between “white culture” and oblivion. For situations where the arrogant, hate-filled jerk tries to play the victim card, China Miéville says it far better than I can.

Indeed, an astoundingly small proportion of arguments ‘for free speech’ & ‘against censorship’ or ‘banning’ are, in fact, about free speech, censorship or banning. It is depressing to have to point out, yet again, that there is a distinction between having the legal right to say something & having the moral right not to be held accountable for what you say. Being asked to apologise for saying something unconscionable is not the same as being stripped of the legal right to say it. It’s really not very [expletive deleted] complicated. Cry Free Speech in such contexts, you are demanding the right to speak any bilge you wish without apology or fear of comeback. You are demanding not legal rights but an end to debate about & criticism of what you say. When did bigotry get so needy?


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Does Blogging Still Have A Future?

Has blogging had it’s day, or does it still have a place in the world of social networking?

Yesterday was not a typical day for this blog. I posted an opinionated and provocative rant that aimed a broadside at the cynicism of the record industry and the conservatism of some so-called progressive rock fans. It got picked up by a couple of very high-profile people on Facebook and Twitter, and my hit counter went through the roof.

But normally, when I’ve spent hours writing something like a detailed album review, the sort of readership I get is a fraction the number of people who’d read a pithy one-line status update on Facebook. Given my annual hosting bill for this site, sometimes I wonder if it’s an effective use of my time and money any more.

Social networking has already killed off all but the highest traffic web forums just as web forums killed most internet mailing lists before them. Is it now killing blogging as well?

Twitter has certainly killed off link blogging. There is no point maintaining a real-time stream of topical links using a blogging platform any more; Twitter just does that so much better. But for longer opinion pieces?

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m often getting little in the way of discussion in the comments section, although I often get a lot of intelligent and civilised discussion on my Facebook page when I link to a blog post here. That might be down to my curating of an intelligent and civilised friends list, when I only accept requests from people I know and trust, and am not shy of defriending someone who turns out to be disruptive or offensive on a regular basis. Meanwhile my blog gets a disproportionate number of drive-by trolls like the “You are a moron” guy on my Wishbone Ash review. Maybe my Facebook friends are unwilling to expose their opinions outside Facebook’s walled garden. Maybe they find the drive-by trolls make the atmosphere too unpleasant. I don’t know.

The big weakness of blog comments is a lack of identity management, which is one thing social networks do well. I’ve often heard it said that anonymity is one of the causes of bad behaviour on the internet, and trolls will go away if only you force everyone to use their real names all the time. This is only half right; what’s actually needed is some form of trusted identity, for which your public posts across multiple sites are searchable. On high-traffic sites which allow that sort of thing it’s surprising how few of someone’s posts you need to read before you get quite a good picture of where they’re coming from. You can usually tell if they’re drive-by troublemakers, or people with a passion who occasionally let their enthusiasm get the better of them. Whether you use a real name or not, a strong online reputation does take a lot of effort to built.

I wonder if it’s possible to create some sort of decentralised equivalent of social network built around the RSS feeds of existing blogs with some kind of trusted identity management for commenters? Or is the march of the social networks unstoppable, and blogs need to find a way to exist in the cracks between then?

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