Advice to media & Muslims: Don’t feed the trolls

The jerk who made that video, the one that supposedly incited rioting and murder in Egypt and Libya, is the very definition of a troll: He made it to elicit the reaction he was sure he’d cause. That is what trolls do.

Those who reacted are trolls, too, but of course worse: murderers. They exploited just any excuse — an obviously cheesy, fake movie seen by no one — to stir up their band of fanatics into visible outrage and violence.

The media who cover these trolls — the trolls who make the bait and the trolls who look for bait — are dupes themselves, just continuing a cycle that will only rev faster and faster until someone says: Stop. Stop feeding the trolls.

We’ve learned that online, haven’t we all? Oh, I sometimes have to relearn the lesson when one of my trolls dangles some shiny object in front of me and I snap. I just pulled the food bowl away from one troll: no reaction for you. I was just delighted to see another troll get his comeuppance and said so. But as a rule, a good rule, one should never, never feed the trolls. They only spit it up on you. Starving them of the attention they crave and the upset they hunger for and feed on is the only answer.

But still, there’s no controlling the trolls. Some still think the trolls can be stopped. An Australian newspaper just started a #stopthetrolls campaign to bring the ride miscreants to justice and silence. Good luck with that. In a sense, the rioters and murderers in Libya and Egypt and now elsewhere are demanding that someone stop the trolls they are choosing to get heated up about.

But, of course, there is no stopping them. Neither do I want to stop them. I believe in protecting free speech, which must include protecting even bad, even noxious speech.

Zeynep Tufecki, a brilliant observer of matters media, digital, and social, cautioned on Twitter that we must understand a key difference in attitudes toward speech here and elsewhere in the world: “Forget Middle East, in most of Europe you could not convince most people that *all* speech should be protected. That is uniquely American,” she tweeted yesterday. “In most places, including Europe, ‘hate-speech’ –however defined — is regulated, prosecuted. Hence, folks assume not prosecuted=promoted…. US free speech absolutism already hard to comprehend for many. Add citizen media to mix, it gets messy. Then, killers exploit this vagueness.” Excellent points and important perspective for the current situation.

But the internet is built to American specifications of speech: anyone can speak and it is difficult unto impossible to stop them as bits and the messages they carry are designed to go around blocks and detours. The internet *is* the First Amendment. We can argue about whether that is the right architecture — as an American free-speech absolutist, I think it is — but that wouldn’t change the fact that we are going to hear more and more speech, including brilliance and including bile. There’s no stopping it. Indeed, I want to protect it.

So we’d best understand how to adapt society to that new reality. We’ve done it before. This from Public Parts about the introduction of the printing press:

“This cultural outlook of openness in printing’s early days could just as easily have gone the other way. The explosion of the printed word — and the lack of control over it — disturbed the elite, including Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus. ‘To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?’ he complained. ‘[T]he very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.’ He feared, according to [Elizabeth] Eisenstein, that the minds of men ‘flighty and curious of anything new’ would be distracted from ‘the study of old authors.’ After the English Civil War, Richard Atkyns, an early writer on printing, longed for the days of royal control over presses. Printers, he lamented, had ‘filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.’ In the early modern period a few ‘humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed,’ Ann Blair writes in Agent of Change. Often today I hear publishers, editors, and academics long for a way to ensure standards of quality on the internet, as if it were a medium like theirs rather than a public space for open conversation.”

There is a desire to *control* conversation, to *civilize* it, to *cleanse* it. God help us, I don’t want anyone cleaning my mouth out. I don’t want anyone telling me what I cannot say. I don’t want a society that silences anything that could offend anyone.

I understand why Google decided to take down That Video from YouTube in Libya and Egypt, given how it is being used, while also arguing that it meets YouTube’s standards and will stay up elsewhere. But YouTube thus gives itself a dangerous precedent as some will expect it to cleanse other bad speech from its platform. YouTube is in a better position in Afghanistan, where the government blocked all of YouTube but then it’s the government that is acting as the censor and it’s the government that must be answerable to its people.

But in any case, blocking this video is no more the answer than rioting and murdering over it. All this will only egg on the trolls to make more bad speech and in turn egg on trolls on the other side to exploit it.

The only answer is to learn how to deal with speech and to value it sufficiently to acknowledge that good speech will come with bad. What we have to learn is how to ignore the bad. We have to learn that every sane and civilized human knows that bad speech is bad. We don’t need nannies to tell us that. We don’t need censors to protect it from us. We certainly don’t need fanatics to fight us for it. We need the respect of our fellow man to believe that we as civilized men and women know the difference. We need to grow up.

  • Well said as usual Jeff.

  • Is this really the video?
    We need to grow up is probably the only sensible comment to be made about any conversation happening online. But we also know this will take few more years – growing up always does.
    We have to wait.

  • I’m having a difficult time following this. “Ignore the bad.” The first mention of the film I saw in “the media” was after the embassy in Egypt issued its statement. And so in a practical sense, in this case, how does “ignoring the bad” and “ignoring the trolls” play out. Are you suggesting the media should have somehow not mentioned the film? How do we do that and still meet our mission to answer the one question everyone has on a story like this? “Why?”

    • Anonymous

      I couldn’t agree more with you.

  • Egyptian Muslim

    It was shown on tv was by a guy who claims that he is a “sheikh” Khaled Abduallah but does more harm than good.He did this to prove how Muslims are always being targeted and to gain sympathy for the likes of him and the Muslim Brotherhood.He is more of a troll than the guy who made the video. If he knew that the video was offensive why would he show it on television? If the video would have just stayed on youtube without media exposure I highly doubt it would have recieved such a strong reaction. People put bullshit online all the time. Im Egyptian and Egyptians need to grow the fuck up their reaction was stupid and barbaric beacuse it wasn’t the United States that made the movie, but a stupid troll.And we now have to go back to the cycle where Muslims have to be apologetic for being Muslim and say “not all Muslims are like that”.

  • davidm777

    As I almost ALWAYS like what Jeff says, I do think that “civilized’ (which I hold to be quite similar to ‘democracy’ as an idea/ideal) will always be able to be hijacked by the malevolent or greedy… the uncivilized. I’d rather believe in the good/civility of others, but I cannot as is demonstrated by this situation.
    Trolls, uncivilized, etc. are not a result of openness, or so I believe. They just take advantage of it. Thus, ignoring them isn’t quite enough. The framers of the U.S version of democracy/civility were pretty clear that a shared morality is necessary.

    I believe the question we now face is: What do we do when the uncivilized hijack the civility created by the self-sacrifice (self-restraint?) of others? Especially when civility is not of value to them.

    I don’t believe the issue should be top-down defining of good/bad – on that I agree with Mr. Jarvis. Where I disagree is in thinking that ‘know[ing] the difference’ is enough. Using this same line-of-thinking, the trolls, etc. also know the difference. They choose to use the opennes created by others for selfish gain. Now we’re stuck with how does one stop selfishness without simply repeating the same selfishness. Not binary, I predict.

    Thank you, as always Mr. Jarvis, for not letting all media devolve — for keeping _ideas_ as the stage for discussions!

  • PorterSprings

    Sorry, Jeff, but Muslims just plain don’t see things this way. You should bone up more on the Muslim religion and culture. There are many good sources out there.

    • Brice Gilbert

      lol perfectly oblivious comment. Instead of being a troll though he’s probably quiet serious. Yeah Islam has of late had an alarmingly violent and fundamentalist faction with in it, and there is a real danger there, but so have Christians (and various other religions). Those factions within Christianity have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but don’t for a second assume that the majority of adherents think this way. Just walk down your local street to see the different Gods that even self identified Christians worship. The people who probably have the exact same politics, ethics as you belong to these religions. Muslims are no different. I’m not interested in having a “true Christian” or true Muslim” debate either as some in here seem to be hinting at. Both religion’s holy books have some awful things in them, but this ethnocentric borderline racism has got to stop. Ideas and the effect they have on you and others are what is important. Generalizing an entire people because you see some of them behaving abhorrently or you read about some terrible thing in the Quran doesn’t make you civilized. It makes you an ignorant bigot.

      • PorterSprings

        well christianity moved forward from the old testament to jesus and the new testament. jesus advocated love and forgivness and compassion. then christianity had to contend with he enlightenment, the reformation, and capitalism and post-modernism. the muslim religion is an old testament religion and never had to deal with any of these. unfortunately the muslim god put our oil under their land. had this not have happened we could probably have continued to ignore the muslims forever.

        • Brice Gilbert

          Don’t get me wrong. I think religion and beliefs in general have a real effect on people, but I think you are overplaying it here. Christianity still has a very large portion of people who advocate for selfishness, homophobia, sexism, racism, murder all in the name of their religion. I just find the idea of “continuing to ignore the Muslims” problematic. Maybe you don’t mean it, but ignoring the basic humanity of people solves nothing. I’ll leave it at that.

        • Frank, in the end what will finally cause the video to be pulled is if the protests start spreading to the well-off Islamic countries like the Persian Gulf oil producers (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). That’s when things will get _really_ dicey diplomatically, and the political and economic consequences could be ugly….

      • PorterSprings

        are personal attacks really necessary. attack the ideas with better ideas and leave the person out of it.

  • Leonard

    My first post, added a while ago and since deleted, was neither a troll nor in any way a “personal attack.” It merely expressed an opinion that your argument here—which, reduced to its simplest form, suggests that Muslims “need to grow up”—is naive, and heartbreakingly so given your thoughtfulness on other topics.

    My second post, also deleted, pointed out the irony of your resorting to censorship in a discussion thread about a post that champions free speech.

    What is it about disagreement that frightens you so?

  • Aaron Linder

    When the media or online videos cause riots, and murders. Then the media needs to be controlled slightly. Boyz in the Hood, Machete, the pastor burning the koran, Westboro Baptist Church, and this video are all good examples of why a little bit more censorship is neccesary to prevent public violence.

  • Marco Rohner

    I agree with Jeff on every point. But Nobody of those trolls and murderers is any rightous man or muslim. That offences all muslims in the Rest of the world. Please, Jeff, don’t play the troll game too. You dont need it.

  • From the articles and comments I’ve seen, it seems we need to be more critical of the gobbly the media pumps out at us, and stop buying the “clash of civilisations” mythology used to promote the perpetual War of Terror.

    There were lots of protests. One went bad. There was also an overwhelming number of reasons any protest could turn violent. The Yemen gov murdered lots of Arab Spring protesters. (I watched it on YouTube.) The US is bombing civilians in Yemen, assassinating people who fit a profile in a database, using remote-control flying robots. Before Wikileaks revealed this, the people of Yemen were told they were being bombed by their own government fighting terrorists. Many feel their country invaded, as many of us would feel invaded if China were bombing us. They are ravaged by neoliberal economic policies that result in most people struggling for the essentials – no jobs, unaffordable food and housing – the money isn’t ‘trickling down’ like Reagan said it would.

    So imagine the American people, four times as pissed off at the corruption, crime, poverty and inequality, being randomly bombed by flying Chinese robots – which then show up again at the funeral to bomb the rest of your family – and then seeing really offensive anti-American videos (that weren’t even true!). It’s a wonder there is any kind of peaceful protest in Yemen at all.

    The video was probably posted by CIA/Mossad as part of the cyberwar on Iran et al. As so many point out: the outcome was predictable. Israel are experts at churning out really good fake ‘bad’ digital propaganda – a perfect complement to the hacking side of the war: Stuxnet, Flame et al. I suggest this for consideration because the US news media on the whole is a reflection of the US gov’s best intentions and knee jerk reactions. Look, it’s pure confirmation bias! Wow, surprise! So it’s probably not that. (I believe in absolute free speech and internet.)

  • prollyteriat

    trolls brings out the worst in us so dare to bring out the best. easier said that done

  • Brice Gilbert

    The only issue I have here is (and maybe it’s a big one) the whole point of ignoring the trolls. There has been a deep rift in the gaming and skeptic communities lately involving sexism, feminism, and social justice issues. io9 has a good story on it. Long story short well-known people within these “clubs” have gotten death threats, rape threats etc. from people within the community for supporting these issues. Part of this community thinks they shouldn’t take these threats seriously or even recognize them since they are from “trolls”. These people tend to disagree with them about even what constitutes sexual harassment etc. but maybe that’s my personal bias showing… It’s a lot more complicated than this and maybe I misconstrued your point, but I think there is something to be said about feeling welcome in a group when you constantly are getting threats of being raped even if they are being defined as “trolish”.

    Here is an example of the shit this woman gets.

  • Jeff, I think in the end the video will be pulled for one reason: Muslims take offense to Islam _extremely_ seriously, and the threat of Middle Eastern countries cutting off diplomatic relations with the USA over the video’s continued existence on YouTube is WAY more serious than any free speech issue!

  • Haj Melek

    Calling the movie and the murderous reaction to it instances of trolling is reductive and lazy. It might work as the sort of sound bite that Wolf Blitzer swallowed the other night as insight into “what’s happening right now,” but that doesn’t make it even marginally valid as cultural or political commentary.

    Even worse, though, is the implication here that Muslim fanatics (and, indeed, Muslims in general) just need to hone their media-processing skills and “grow up.”

  • Vasco

    Please, stop saying free speech is only “American”.
    I live in America, only South America.
    Also, and much much more important. Ask many, for instance Tracy Jordan about that.
    I’m not fighting your troll point. But you need to revise if ‘free speech” actually exists.
    I’m with you, it needs to be protected. But there’s going to be always someone to draw lines and boundaries to it. Perhaps even you and me.
    Little trolls, small rangers. We all got some within.

  • mark harry

    That stupid “Movie” had nothing to do with what’s going on.

  • Anonymous

    For your information, not all bad things can be ignored. What if there are bad things that have to be stopped immediately?

    Think about it.

  • I agree and see that our internet actually IS being censored. When words like “lying” and “cut” (as in pay cut) are blanked-out, we’ve got a problem in this country and in Yahoo! and any number of other internet presences.