Tag Archives: Trolls

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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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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The Al-Queda of the West?

Apologies to music fans for this political ranting. There will be a review of High Voltage along shortly, a superb weekend, but for me the whole thing took place under the shadow of the terrible events in Norway on Friday.

While on the surface this seems a random and inexplicable event, it’s something many have warned was coming for a long time. The only surprise for me is that it happened in Europe rather than in North America.

Some commentators are still insisting that Anders Brevik was some kind of lone nut who wasn’t part of any wider political movement. They seem to ignore the fact that his rambling “manifesto” isn’t his own words, but is almost entirely cut-and-pasted from a slew of right-wing writers ranging from a number of notorious far-right bloggers to The Daily Mail’s racist columnist Melanie Phillips. This post on the once-infamous Little Green Footballs gives a lot background, and makes it clear why so many people thought Anders Brevik and the anonymous white supremacist blogger “Fjordman” were the same person. Charles Johnson of LGF used to run with that crowd until he realised where it was all heading – so he knows what he’s talking about here.

Since 9/11 we’ve seen a cross-Atlantic alliance of right-libertarians, extreme Christian fundamentalists and white nationalists with an ugly kind of Islamophobia as the ideological glue holding them together. They have become what looks an awful lot like an exact mirror image of Al-Queda, the same abhorrence of the mixing of cultures, and the same violent intolerance to anybody who isn’t exactly like them. And now they have perpetrated something of a 9/11 of their own.

Brevik may be “mad” or “evil”, but his madness has been marinaded for years in a toxic stew of far-right ideas, and at least some of the people whose writings have inspired him now have blood on their hands. Freedom of speech is an essential principle, a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. But those who use their freedom of speech to spread hatred and incite violence need to take responsibility for the consequences when others take their words at face value.

People talk about tolerance, but it has to a two-way street. The vast majority of sects and subcultures are benign and harmless, and deserve tolerance. A small minority are not, and any right to tolerance should instantly stop the moment the bodies start to pile up.

Edit: I had thought of titling this post “The 9/11 of the right”, but thought it too provocative. But I see Charlie Stross has done precisely that:

I’m just horrified by the scale of the event.

This is in Norway, a country of 5 million souls.

92 dead in Norway is … well, multiply by 60 for the equivalent proportion of Americans and you get over 5000 dead. Playing the numbers game with such a horror is distasteful, but it suggests to me that the political impact on Scandinavian and European anti-terror politics in general is going to be non-trivial to say the least.

This is the neo-Nazi 9/11. Breivik had links to the English Defense League and other racist right-wing groups. The folks who police and intel groups all over the west have been treating with kid gloves, compared to the islamicists, due to the explosive and barely-acknowledged fact that there’s wide-scale support for anti-immigrant views all over the west, especially anti-muslim views, and semi-respectable politicians playing these prejudices for personal careerist gain.

It’s a poisoned chalice. And I have no idea what this bodes for the future, other than: nothing good.

And I really can’t disagree with any of that.

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