The World of Web Trolling

The New York Times goes inside the world of online trolls, who “use the Internet to harass, humiliate and torment strangers”.

[…] Even if we had the resources to aggressively prosecute trolls, would we want to? Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every vituperative blog and backbiting comments section, ready to spring at the first hint of violence? Probably not. All vigorous debates shade into trolling at the perimeter; it is next to impossible to excise the trolling without snuffing out the debate.

If we can’t prosecute the trolling out of online anonymity, might there be some way to mitigate it with technology? [One possible] answer is persistent pseudonymity, a system of nicknames that stay the same across multiple sites. This could reduce anonymity’s excesses while preserving its benefits for whistle-blowers and overseas dissenters. Ultimately, as Fortuny suggests, trolling will stop only when its audience stops taking trolls seriously. “People know to be deeply skeptical of what they read on the front of a supermarket tabloid,” says Dan Gillmor, who directs the Center for Citizen Media. “It should be even more so with anonymous comments. They shouldn’t start off with a credibility rating of, say, 0. It should be more like negative-30.”

Of course, none of these methods will be fail-safe as long as individuals like Fortuny construe human welfare the way they do. As we discussed the epilepsy hack, I asked Fortuny whether a person is obliged to give food to a starving stranger. No, Fortuny argued; no one is entitled to our sympathy or empathy. We can choose to give or withhold them as we see fit. “I can’t push you into the fire,” he explained, “but I can look at you while you’re burning in the fire and not be required to help.” Weeks later, after talking to his friend Zach, Fortuny began considering the deeper emotional forces that drove him to troll. The theory of the green hair, he said, “allows me to find people who do stupid things and turn them around. Zach asked if I thought I could turn my parents around. I almost broke down. The idea of them learning from their mistakes and becoming people that I could actually be proud of… it was overwhelming.” He continued: “It’s not that I do this because I hate them. I do this because I’m trying to save them.”

via Mind Hacks