Tag Archives: Trolls

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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The Trouble With Twitter

Fail WhaleI am getting sick of #GamerGate on Twitter, especially when I have online acquaintances on both “sides”.  There way too much toxicity swilling aroud the whole thing, to which people on both sides are contributing. It’s yet another example of the failure mode of “Hashtag activism”, and I know I’m not the only person who wonders if all this negativity is sucking out all the positive aspects of Twitter.

I’m not the only one who thinks this:

Dave Rickey writing in Zen of Design

Twitter is a breeding ground for social dysfunction, where you are lulled into a sense of community and comradery because everyone you follow and everyone that follows you are basically in agreement. The only things that can penetrate the bubble are “Outrage Porn” being retweeted into it, and attacks responding to outrage porn that is being passed around other bubbles.

There’s no room for nuance or in-depth discussion, and anyone who makes the mistake of trying will see their lengthy and thoughtful think-piece distilled down to a barely-true (if that) 140 character sound bite that will be used as a new piece of outrage porn.

David Auerbach writing in Slate:

People are accustomed to being irreverent in conversations with friends, but on Twitter, anyone who might take offense is likely to overhear (unless your tweets are protected, but why be on Twitter in that case?). At least you can go on Reddit without having the repugnant Philosophy of Rape subreddit being shoved in your face; Twitter drags everyone down to the bottom. No matter whom you unfollow, mute, or block, someone you do follow will sooner or later draw your attention to an outrage and encourage you to join the condemnation. On Twitter, negativity is viral.

Twitter didn’t used to be like this. I can remember the times when it was the virtual equivalent of the friendly local pub where all your mates hung out and you swapped joles and stories. I remember reading Robert Scoble’s blog post from five years ago claiming Twitter didn’t suffer from the “forum/chatroom problem” because your feed showed only people you’d invited to join the conversation.

We’ve lost that somewhere along the line.

Maybe it was when Twitter gave greater prominence to the notifications tab. Maybe it all went pear-shaped when they introduced the retweet, something Robert Scoble raised as a concern. Or maybe it was just that, like so many other places, Twitter was better in the early days before the rabble arrived, when most people were enthusiastic early adopters.

Twitter at it’s best can still be great fun; I love the rapid-fire exchanges between one particular group of friends who managed a mashup of The Shipping Forecast and Bruce Forsythe’s Generation Game (“…set of matching luggage 4, becoming 5 later…“)

But I can’t help feeling that either we all need to be smarter in our use of Twitter, with a little less “outrage porn”, ot Twitter needs to rethink some aspects of how the service works, so it amplifies the loudest voices a little less.

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Trust Fund Trolls

It probably ought not to be a surprise that some of the most annoying people on the interweb, from all-round bigot Vox Day to book-burning culture warrior Alex Lifschitz turn out to be trust fund brats. These are people who have either never needed to hold down a proper job in order to lead a comfortable lifestyle, or owe whatever positions they do hold to money and family connections rather than needing to demonstrate any actual ability. They don’t inhabit the same moral or financial universe as the rest of us, and never need to deal with the negative consequences of acting like assholes.

This is what “privilege” means.

The terrible thing is that this isn’t restricted to internet blowhards. Our government is made up of people like this. As the gap between the rich and everyone else grows ever larger in English-speaking world, we can only expect this to get worse.

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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.

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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.

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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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