A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 30, 2016

Should We Feed the Trolls?

Online behavior is getting worse, spurred by distance, often by anonymity - and almost always by a total absence of consequences. The question is what to do about it. JL

Adrienne LaFrance comments in The Atlantic:

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Internet is the real world.  Reacting to individual trolls, cretins, and bullies may well be an essential part of this larger process, but fighting harassment  in a lasting way will take a much larger and more coordinated effort—one that’s rooted in a shared belief of what the web should be like, which is a reflection of what the world should be like, too.
Let’s get this out of the way first: The Internet is the real world.
What you say online is still you saying something—even if you’re shielded by an anonymous account; even if you’re saying it just to be provocative, or performative, or God only knows why else. You on the web is still you, just like you on the telephone is you. Technology doesn’t magically make a person’s behavior inauthentic, or pretend, or inconsequential.
In an essay last week, the writer Stephen Marche set out to explore a Reddit-hosted community that has a reputation for being one of the most misogynistic swamps on the Internet. Marche’s puzzling conclusion was that the participants in this group are pathetic and afraid, their fear fueled in part by a desire for cultural clarity, not by mere hatred of women. He dismissed them, implying they weren’t threatening in any substantial way, and, in the end, suggested they read more classic literature. All this, it seemed, stemmed from Marche’s central (and misguided) question: “Are we our real selves on the internet, or are we not?”
The answer, of course, is that we are our real selves online as much as we are our real selves anywhere else. The Internet is the real world! This stuff should be easy. But it gets harder from here.
* * *
Harassment has been a serious problem online since the dawn of the web. In 1984, scientists puzzled over the “surprising prevalence of rudeness, profanity, exultation, and other emotional outbursts,” that seemed to characterize computer-based communications, The New York Times reported that year.
Today, the majority of Internet users have witnessed name-calling and attempts at humiliating someone online, according to a 2014 Pew survey—and 40 percent of those surveyed said they’d experienced such treatment (or more severe forms of harassment) themselves. Among those who have been harassed, many episodes went beyond name calling to include physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment, or sustained attacks over time. Men (44 percent) were more likely than women (37 percent) to experience online harassment of any kind, but much of the worst harassment is disproportionately targeted at women—and young women, in particular.
And yet, despite close attention from scholars, and a seemingly endless stream of terrifying anecdotes, it has remained difficult to quantify or otherwise analyze harassment on any given platform. Which means it’s even harder to gauge whether things are getting better or worse.
“At the moment, it’s impossible to know if or when any online platform has actually improved in terms of the harassment people receive or their response to harassment,” said Nathan Matias, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT who studies online harassment. “The Guardian is literally the first platform in history, as far as I can tell—and I’ve looked very, very carefully—to ever do that.”
Matias is referring to a major analysis of The Guardian’s comment section, published by the news organization last week—notable because of its findings, but also because of how rare such an examination is. It found that eight of The Guardian’s 10 regular writers who got the most abuse from commenters online were women (four white and four non-white) and two were black men. (The 10 regular writers who got the least abuse were all men.)
The Guardian also found that, over a five year period, articles written by women consistently
elicited more abusive responses than articles written by men. That was the case across almost all sections of the website—though women received particularly egregious treatment compared with their male peers in sections that were otherwise dominated by men (like sports and technology). Certain topics prompted more abusive responses, too. “Conversations about crosswords, cricket, horse racing and jazz were respectful,” The Guardian wrote. “Articles about feminism attracted very high levels of blocked comments. And so did rape.” The message to women is clear: You’re permitted to speak publicly about word puzzles and saxophone solos, but examine gender politics at your own risk.
This sort of vitriol isn’t just aimed at journalists. Many women report experiencing abuse on dating sites, too. “Men also sometimes call me a whore if I don’t write back,” a friend of mine, Frannie Steinlage, wrote in a recent essay. “They abruptly sexually proposition me. They tell me they’d rape me. They send me unsolicited photographs of their penis.”


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