Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Time Reports on Internet Harassment

Joel Stein at Time wrote a recent piece on Internet harassment. I'd like to highlight just a few points.

One, the title ("How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet"). I've mentioned this before, but I really hope we eventually move away from calling harassment "trolling." Trolling connotes harmless kids in basements "doing it for the lulz."  It seems to minimize what's actually happening.

Imagine, for instance, some rando walking up to you on the street, then following you around daily, and slinging insults at you all the while. Imagine that being described as "trolling" rather than the more apt: really fucking creepy harassment and stalking.

Two, and related, calling people "trolls" detracts from the reality that, no, this isn't some harmless kid (often) or cartoon doing the harassment, it's actual people - actual grown-ass adults - who are actually engaging in the harassment. From the article:
“'Trolls are portrayed as aberrational and antithetical to how normal people converse with each other. And that could not be further from the truth,'' says Whitney Phillips, a literature professor at Mercer University and the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. 'These are mostly normal people who do things that seem fun at the time that have huge implications. You want to say this is the bad guys, but it’s a problem of us.'”
As for motivation, we get mixed messages. While some claim that they engage in harassment "for the lulz" or just because they can, others seem to see it as both empowering and a vital form of truth-telling. Those who "troll" also seem unhappy in their personal lives. Stein highlights a man named Jeffrey Marty:
"A 40-year-old dad and lawyer who lives outside Tampa, [Marty] says he has become addicted to the attention. 'I was totally ruined when I started this. My ex-wife and I had just separated. She decided to start a new, more exciting life without me,' he says. Then his best friend, who he used to do pranks with as a kid, killed himself. Now he’s got an illness that’s keeping him home. 
Marty says his trolling has been empowering. 'Let’s say I wrote a letter to the New York Times saying I didn’t like your article about Trump. They throw it in the shredder. On Twitter I communicate directly with the writers. It’s a breakdown of all the institutions.'"
It is said that "hurt people hurt people." I'm not going to go too deep into the psychology of this behavior, but it does seem like harassers often work out their shit (unfairly) on other people online.
Internet harassment is extremely dysfunctional and anti-social, yet we (users, harassers, platform companies, law enforcement, pundits) widely treat it as just a "cost" people have to "pay" if they want to use the Internet. Trolls gonna troll, if you can't handle it, don't use the Internet!

Anyway, Stein proposes no solutions to the problem, just mostly adds to the growing discourse of people diagnosing a problem.  Although, he does briefly mention the new-ish (response) of flooding harassment targets with positive messaging (as folks did with respect to Leslie Jones).

(In case you're wondering, Time didn't host a comment section following the article, which seems to be standard for the publication).

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