Posts about trolls

What society are we building here?

There is no single solution to the plague of trolls, abusers, harassers, lunatics, imposters, and assholes online any more than there is on earth: no one algorithm, no one company rule, no one regulation will do it all, though they can help. The most powerful weapon in any case is our own norms as a society.

What exactly are our norms online? And what are we — you, yes you, and I — doing to establish and enforce our standards as an online society? Anything? Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms bear responsibility. But so do we all.

I cannot imagine any civilized being who is not appalled at the treatment of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda at the hands of disgusting trolls after the death of her father. This forced her to leave Twitter and that, in turn, forced Twitter to decide that it should “improve our policies.” The Washington Post, in its report, pointed to other egregious cases of abuse. It’s worth pointing out that this week also brought us Jezebel bringing its own corporate parent, Gawker, to public shame for not dealing with trolls’ abhorrent rape GIFs.

I want to make this crystal clear: I in no way will compare my own situation, which I’ll now recount, to any of those horrid crimes against decency. But I had a moment this week that gave me some insight to the difficulty of controls. I don’t want to give my minor tormentor, my idiot imposter, my personal troll any further attention but you probably already know who this is. This week, with shocking nastiness, he went after a prominent person I’ve met and I respect and with whom I share a number of friends. That person reacted appropriately — angrily — thinking I was the shithead going after him. I don’t follow my troll so I would not have seen this had it not reached some Twitter notoriety. That at least gave me the opportunity to tell the prominent person that his tormentor was my tormentor, not me.

What bothers me even more is the reaction of others who egg on the imposter trolls. One was a prominent columnist for a famous financial newspaper with funny colored paper who endorsed out loud the idea of trolling an important person whom he covers. That’s not what they taught me in journalism school. It’s sure as hell not what I teach there. Is this net we want to build? For that matter, is this the journalism we want to have? Is this our society?

Now I tried to talk to my imposter-troll earlier in his two-and-a-half-year and 17,500-tweet campaign against me. He didn’t have the balls. After he affected my reputation with someone I’ve met, I sent him another message, saying he’d crossed the line. He still doesn’t have sufficient balls or the decency or the mere maturity and civility to talk to me. Hasn’t he had his fun already? But there’s no reasoning with trolls; indeed, that’s the definition of a troll.

I contacted an executive at Twitter. I was invited to file a formal complaint. They might kill my troll-imposter’s account. But then I know what would happen: I’d be accused of being a humorless party-pooper because I don’t like being mocked every day or finding people thinking I’m a horrid shithead. And if I oppose Europe’s idiotic Right to be Forgotten fiasco, I could not stand for muting someone else. No win there. It’s obvious that a prominent person mistook my imposter for a real person because the user name gives no clue. But Twitter’s policy is that imposter accounts are OK. Now I don’t assume that anyone who’s being attacked should have to spend a damned second researching his tormentor. But that is Twitter’s policy.

So what should Twitter’s policy be with the much, much worse cases recounted above? On This Week in Google, my esteemed cohost, Gina Trapani, has suggested that Twitter could enable users to share their own blacklists of harrassers to give them less of the commodity that fuels them: attention. On this week’s show, Mathew Ingram mentioned Blockbot and the Washington Post pointed to Danilo Campos’ suggestions on signals to block bad users.

In the end, Twitter — like Facebook and all social and content-creation services — must decide their own standards. I learned that when I ran local sites: The days of anything-goes ended in our forums once we realized that we bore a responsibility to police the communities we offered. Then I had no problem killing mean, abusive, and just off-topic bullshit in our discussions. Does Twitter have standards?

Do we? I will repeat that when you egg on a troll, you are an accessory to the crime: You are a troll. Shouldn’t you scold and shun those who behave badly online? If you don’t, what are you saying about the society we are building?

I hate the ABC show What Would You Do? but I will say that we are living a version of it online. When you see a troll or abuser online, what do you do about it? Do you egg on or ignore the miscreant? Do you shame the fool? Do you support the troll’s victims? Or do you laugh at them?

You — yes, you and I — are creating the norms of our new society. What are those norms? What is our new society? Is it something we are proud to pass on to our children? Does it improve society for them? Or is it easier to snark and snigger at some stranger’s expense?

Defining trolls



Here is a post I wrote for, reposted here.

In his book Assholes: A Theory, Aaron James proposes a definition and a taxonomy for the species, but he omits a key and particularly toxic genus, a breed with which we are all too familiar online: the troll.

Before I attempt to define the troll, let me use as a guide James’ definition of the asshole. “The asshole,” he writes,

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. So, for example, the asshole is the person who habitually cuts in line. Or who frequently interrupts in a conversation. Or who weaves in and out of lanes in traffic…. An insensitive person—a mere “jerk”—might allow himself to so enjoy “special advantages” in such interpersonal relations. What distinguishes the asshole is the way he acts, the reasons that motivate him to act in an abusive and arrogant way.

That last criterion—the reasons that motivate—is what leads me to believe that the troll is a subset of the asshole rather than the product of a separate line of DNA: the jerk, the boor, the cad, the schmuck, the douche bag, or the ass, to borrow James’ hierarchy of the hard-to-take .

What distinguishes the troll from the mere asshole is, I believe, that he* (1) has a target; (2) seeks to get a response—a rise—out of that target; and (3) believes he is acting out of some ordained moral purpose to destroy, to bring down his target. By contrast, the asshole seeks only to enjoy privilege. He demands personal convenience—and may cause collateral damage in the form of inconvenience to others in getting it—while the troll seeks destruction. He hunts for the kill. The troll believes he has a right and even a responsibility to waste his nemeses.

James gives specific examples of public figures as assholes—and may their lawyers and flacks complain to him, not me: Douglas MacArthur, Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chavez, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson, Donald Trump. Though I could name trolls, as I’m sure you could, I won’t, for that would give them precisely what they want: recognition and the confirmation that they got a rise out of me. We all know the cardinal rule in troll management: Don’t feed them. Ever. Give them a morsel, they’ll take a leg.

Trolls also feed on irony as a side dish. If I were to label someone a troll, he no doubt would complain that I was just trying to dismiss him through name-calling when, of course, ridiculing and thus dismissing his victim through personal insult is the primary weapon of the troll. Trolls don’t argue ideas. They attack people.

I recently heard of a troll who went after a respected writer for being gay though married. The barrage of baiting was so relentless the writer revealed himself publicly simply to end it. At least he succeeded in silencing his unnamed assailant. I have seen other trolls who will pop up like a recurring infection to harangue their victims on the same complaint in comments or tweets, over and over and over again. They can be monomaniacal. I have seen trolls issue lengthy broadsides against a foe: the bomb vs. the gatling-gun approach.

Let me be clear that trolls are not an invention of the net. One can do a fine job of trolling in a magazine article or a cable TV show or, for that matter, from the floor of Congress. But in the net, trolls have found their dark, dank, underbridge paradise.

Let us also note that trolls, like assholes, need not be anonymous. Whenever I hear editors, legislators, and other wishful thinkers argue that we could eliminate animus from online if only sites required verified identity to speak, I point out that we can all identify assholes by name. Yes, anonymity is not only a vital tool for the speech of the vulnerable and oppressed as well as whistleblowers, it is also the cloak of cowards. But identity is no cure for the common asshole or troll.

So what are we to do about trolls? Though they existed before the net, they do flourish here, attacking victims from under rocks on Twitter, in blogs, and especially in comments and too often setting the tone of online discourse. As I said, the worst thing a troll’s victim can do is to respond in defense, explanation, attempted discussion, or counterattack. That only feeds the beast. I have had to relearn that lesson all too often.

So are we to concede the net to the trolls, to accept their rule over this new domain? No. We cannot. I will argue that it is the responsibility—the moral duty—of bystanders to call trolls on their trolling. This is a corollary to a plea I made here:

The next time you see someone on Twitter point to an argument and gleefully announce, “Fight! Fight!” and you retweet that, think about the net you are encouraging and creating. You’re breeding only more of the same.

The next time you see a troll rubbing claws and cackling at his attack on someone you know and respect and you do not call him on it, then you must ask yourself what kind of net you are fostering. I’ve tried to come to the defense of the trolled a few times recently. When I’ve seen cries of “fight! fight!” I’ve sent the criers links to that paragraph above. When I saw someone I know attack someone else I know over daring to criticize Apple—red meat wrapped in a red cape for many a troll—I asked: “Did you have to launch off with an insult? Is that really the kind of conversation we want to have?”

OK, one risks coming off like the schoolmarm at the rave. But I ask: What choice do we have? Do we let the trolls destroy every sprout of optimism with their curmudgeonly naysaying and ad hominem spite? Do we really want to encourage their mean-spirited destruction? Do we want to give them the last word?


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* Note that I, like James, use the male pronoun on the assumptions that most assholes and trolls happen to be—or are born to be—male and that few women would object to being excluded.

The perils of publicness

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the benefits of publicness and transparency. This week also reminded me of the perils.

This was hardly the first time I’ve suffered a personal attack, nor will it be the last. Although I will say that it made for a particularly awful day – bad taste in the mouth, unsettled feeling at the pit of the stomach, vulnerability, disappointment – I’m certainly in no position to seek sympathy. I’m a blogger who has done my share of snarking. I spent years as a critic and got poison-pen responses from fans and actors. I know I’m being blunt with my opinions about journalism because I think that’s both necessary and working, but I also know it rubs some people wrong. So be it.

I was gratified at the support of friends. But I was more bothered than anything that I got email from my parents wondering who this Ron Rosenbaum was (and why was he attacking their son). Even bloggers have mothers.

This isn’t about my publicness. It’s about the next person who hasn’t experienced this before and comes online to create or share and gets stabbed. What happens to her willingness to open up in public? If she reverts to her shell, what do we lose? What impact does this have on the quality of the conversation? What impact does that have on the reputation and value of the medium?

My stock answers to these questions – coming always from my optimistic defense of online conversation – have been: Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff, pay attention to the good stuff. And: We all can tell who the assholes are. And: Don’t judge the medium by its worst. And that’s all fine and true until you are reminded what it feels like to get that dull blade from behind.

I happened to see PR man Richard Edelman yesterday and so I asked for his high-priced advice on what to do in these circumstances, which he gave. No surprise, he advised not to stoop to the level of the sniper, which is exactly what I did, responding in kind, because I felt like it. Edelman said to respond with the facts and to return to the principles, which, of course, is just what I should have done (and will do with another post later). “You must stay in character,” he said. “You must not rise to the bait. You have more to lose.” Actually, I didn’t need to go to a PR expert for that. It’s what my father always advised.

Edelman acknowledged differences in media and time. On Fox and MSNBC, one does respond in kind; the one who’s loudest wins. In years past, PR people might have advised clients to ignore and hide. But that doesn’t suit the blogosphere, he said.

There’s an old social norm at work here that is, I think, an extension of old media, which says: You put yourself out there, so you put yourself at risk for getting attacked. This implies it is almost your fault for getting attacked. This is a basis of the public-figure defense in libel, the presumed right to go after people in the public eye. Once you become public, you give up the cloak and protection of privacy.

But now we are all public. Does that norm still hold online, when 180 million people have started blogs and countless more put videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr? Are they all, should they all be targets for the snipers and snarkers? Well, they all could be. But what’s our attitude about that? Is there a new norm emerging?

Online has developed one system to deal with attacks, and it came into play this week: Someone will remind the participants not to feed the trolls. Feeding the trolls not only encourages them but degrades the conversation and, again, devalues the medium. The trolls and their followers hurt the internet. So don’t feed them. Another system, also in play this week, kicks in when someone tries to get the discussion back on track to talk about the issues and ideas that are being ignored. One norm that has developed is that it’s proper etiquette to link to responses to an attack (note that Rosenbaum has not granted even that simple courtesy). Finally, there is humor.

Other systems don’t work. Sites are forever looking at automated means of getting rid of the dross. Where is the troll algorithm? And I hope we don’t revert to suing for libel, for that will put a chill on conversation and, as Susan Crawford has pointed out, libel law becomes irrelevant as we all have the means of response (which I took).

I wonder whether more new systems will emerge. I’ve argued that violating one’s own privacy with beer-party pictures will become less important thanks to the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation. That will become more and more the case under Zuckerberg’s Law, which decrees that “…next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.” We’ll all be vulnerable. In the company of nudists, no one’s naked.

The conversation is well worth the trouble. I am the obnoxious optimist. I do trust the wisdom of the crowd, the market, the public and I believe that we will all benefit the more that we are all public and the more our institutions are all transparent. But I fear losing the conversation and wisdom and contributions to it from people who get the shiv in the back once too often (which for some will be once). It’s one matter to read stupid attacks and gather around them as entertainment. It’s another to be on the wrong end of them and I need to be reminded of that as I was this week.

Maybe that’s what happens: We all get attacked once and become wiser for it. Or we all get attacked and become nastier for it; that’s the fear. There were always be trolls, fools, idiots, and assholes; there are in life and so they will be here on the internet. That doesn’t ruin the internet any more than it ruins New York. The question is whether and how we can see and protect the value of the internet. Optimist that I am, I believe we will.

: LATER: By the way, I see I’m being baited by another person who only attacks people and only to get attention and links. I’m not even watching what he says; I stopped watching him two years ago. Just a note: This is why I love Twitter. I blocked him. And now my world is free of this troll. It feels good. And, no, I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of a link, either.