In the recent past, I posted a link to an interesting article by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times which suggests that the internet may be losing the war against trolls. For those interested in the discussion of the effect trolls are having on internet discussions, two more recent articles worth reading:
1. At Common Dreams, Lance Tapley writes a blockbuster report on how the Common Dreams site tracked down the identity of an "anti-semitic" troll who crafted multiple identities and usernames at this site, to issue ugly anti-semitic taunts that he would then denounce under other screen names. This behavior wreaked havoc with discussions of Israel and Jewish issues at the Common Dreams site for several years, until the site moderators finally determined that a single person was making all of these comments representing different online identities.
The commenter turned out to be a Jewish graduate student at Harvard, whom Common Dreams synonymously calls "Jason Beck," who was irritated at Common Dreams's approach to Jewish issues. "Beck" also posted at other sites, including the white-supremacist site Vanguard, where he adopted the username Deshawn S. Williams (a username he also employed at Common Dreams), and purported to be an anti-semitic African American.
And how can I read this discussion and not wonder whether some of the nasty trolls who hold court at various Catholic blog sites — notably National Catholic Reporter — and who have been the bane of many of us who now no longer feel welcome to contribute to discussions at these sites (notably NCR) are playing similar malicious games?
2. And then there's Sara Scribner's article at Salon this weekend, asking whether it's possible for us who value online discussion spaces to stop the "furious trolls" who are everywhere, and who seem to have more and more destructive influence within such discussion spaces. As Scribner notes, such destructive trolling activity is actually having the effect trolls appear to desire, at some places on the internet: it's resulting in the shutting down of discussion spaces. And it's resulting in the decision of thoughtful, well-informed people simply to abandon many internet discussion sites.
What can we do to combat such online behavior, Scribner asks? She cites Larry Rosenthal, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in the topic of public discourse and civility, and who says that internet sites sponsoring discussion spaces might well need to monitor closely what happens in their discussion spaces, and to rule some kinds of statements off-limits. As Scribner notes,
Members of marginalized groups are vulnerable to "discrimination and also mistreatment — and kind of a mob attack mode, depending upon who they are and what they say. Those people should savor the capacity to practice their trade," says Rosenthal. He says that they should be able to do that "without any of the noise pollution and any of the perceived or actual risks to their persons, and their families and their reputations, and all the things that can come with an unrefereed conversation."
And as she goes on to point out — again citing Rosenthal — online attacks on members of marginalized groups affect everyone and not just those under attack. They do so by cheapening the level of discourse at discussion sites, and curbing the kind of thoughtful, respectful interchange necessary to address complicated social issues in any effective way.
The pen-and-ink drawing of a troll under a bridge is from the Pen & Ink blog.