Home AboutGiveawaysRecipesOur Town SeriesReviewsShop

Unpleasant people are ruining the internet

Sunday, September 02, 2012
Yup, that's about what they look like.
Q. What's the difference between a troll and an ogre?
A. An ogre moves out of his parents' place and becomes a middle manager.

Here in Australia, there's a story circulating right now about a minor celebrity named Charlotte Dawson.

Ms Dawson was the subject of a hate tweet. She was told to go hang herself. She responded by finding out the tweeter's employer (tweeter left a trail), then reporting the tweeter's behaviour to that employer. The tweeter was then put on paid leave from her position.

Ms Dawson then ceased to be the subject. She became a target.

A torrent of abuse suddenly was hurled her way with every possible contortion of the phrase 'go hang yourself' used in hashtags.

Let's have a look at some of the lovely messages sent her way:

The above messages are by a long way the more tame ones. Others I couldn't justify embedding on this blog. I feel like I need to wash my hands.

Ms Dawson, who has a history of depression, was taken to a hospital emergency ward on the morning of August 30th where she received psychiatric care at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney. She is now being looked after by friends.

Now in the interest of presenting all sides of the story, it appears early on she tried to dish back what she got, responding at a less crude level to the sewage being hurled in her direction. This is called feeding the trolls. It is also akin to putting out a fire by pouring cooking oil on it.

You can't reason with these people. You cannot engage them, co-operate with them, discourage them, threaten or insult them. Any attention you give them will encourage their acts of juvenile animosity.

I (Mr Speech) have been the subject of trolling, on a website I had in the late nineties. It was not serious, and it stopped after a couple weeks. For unrelated reasons I have not participated much on the internet; I'm more an observer and likely will stay that way except for this blog. I don't have a Twitter or Facebook account. Mrs Speech has both.

Things were not always this way on the internet. There was once some degree of civility, except of course for the always-present exceptions, there to frustrate the rule:

I've watched it begin as the odd revolting comment in the odd corner of the cybersphere in the late '90s to now, where it's everywhere all the time.

I remember chatting online when I was in my late teens. We didn't get this sort of thing. The terms 'flaming' and 'flame war' were really on the periphery of internet culture, as though most online users themselves were the mainstream with a separate seedy undercurrent to whom such terminology was more familiar. I'd wager most people today who spend any amount of time online are acquainted with the term, in theory if not practice.

The Atlantic ran an interesting article online about the possiblity of software which helps civil discourse on the internet: primarily on comment threads, where the one-eyed man is king too often. It references a Scientific American article entitled "Why Is Everyone On The Internet So Angry?"

The Atlantic's comment boards could do with a little housecleaning:

I'd say someone's so friggin' dumb he thinks a German-sounding login must mean that the user is German. You need to mind your manners, Boy. You go round shouting s*** like that, someone might clout you in the piehole.

You cannot reason with these people.

I don't pretend to know exactly why this phenomenon has taken shape with such virulence and ferocity. But the clues are there if you look hard enough.

The Scientific American touches on the circumstantial factors involved. I agree with them completely.

The power of anonymity is critical when addressing online behaviour. You rarely if ever see someone acting blatantly rude to a complete stranger one-on-one, without provocation in the offline world. I can't recall having once witnessed something like that. You read about assaults and such in the news, but at a petty level, it rarely happens. People without that kind of serious criminal intent just aren't that courageous. Those bloody kids on that bus notwithstanding.

Yup, that's about what they look like.
The other side of that coin is that online communication turns other people into abstract objects; even those with little pictures next to their names do not appear like humans to us. How can they be? They don't exist. The only evidence of the possibility they exist is a few pixels on a screen, stored on a server. With a lovely picture to go with it.

There is no real interaction taking place, no engagement. There is no body language to decipher, and I suspect deep on a neurological level we are programmed to humanise based on body language; a bison does not smile and tilt its head when you compliment its shoes. Humans do human things. Avatars do not.

It is difficult sometimes - it can take conscious imagination - to digest that whoever we are communicating with online has more humanity than the hair dryer.

But this alone does not explain online vitriol. The gentleman with the German sounding name in the above quote is commenting on a political issue. If 'commenting' is the right word to use. He may not even be trolling. (Click the arrow to see the thread).

Politics has become the death knell of civil conversation, in western society. Here in Australia, our Prime Minister recently had to defend herself against allegations dating back to the nineties, when she was a lawyer in private practice. She referenced the alternate reality in which many of her detractors seem to be living, and the casually boorish nature of their obsession:

I paid for my renovations. And, well, in terms of people who continue to circulate these claims, will the misogynists and the nut jobs on the Internet continue to circulate them? Yes, they will, and it wouldn't matter what I said and it wouldn't matter what documents were produced...

...It's to do with this, you know, sort of Americanisation of our politics, this eccentric lunar right Tea Party-style interventions that we are seeing in our politics and there is nothing that a person of reason can do to deal with it.

Our opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has helped this along quite nicely. His soaring oratory, capable of lifting people to the stars base and populist rhetoric, repeated ad nauseum, and then ad hominem just in case you didn't hear the first time, has simultaneously dumbed down Australian politics and aggravated an already blood thirsty conservative bloc.

A year ago he attended a Tea Party-style rally at which protestors held signs calling our Prime Minister 'witch', something that rhymes with 'witch' and other uncouth epithets unworthy of debate on federal issues. He endorsed them by being there.

Americans have their own style and it has played out furiously in the years since Barack Obama became President. I've read comment page after comment page on the Obama presidency, with the same kind of revolted fascination I hold when I see one of those really weird lizards at the zoo.

Obummer, Obomber, Oblamer, Oblameo, Obummy, Obooger. These are some of the names I have heard Americans call their President. I made that last one up, but I'm sure it's out there.

It's a very raw ugliness that speaks more to the person saying it than to the target. Its genesis lies at the level of the political and media elite, who over the years have ascertained that appealing to the abject, most contemptible level of name-calling gets you votes, viewers and hard earned cash.

Rush Limbaugh on 13 year old Chelsea Clinton:

Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?

Mitt Romney:

You know, out-of-touch liberals like Barack Obama say they want a strong economy, but in everything they do, they show they don't like business very much.

Ann Coulter:

So maybe it’s time to start imitating liberals in another way and go after the Obama children.

Newt Gingrich:

What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.

David Letterman on Bristol/Willow Palin (daughters of Sarah and Todd):

During the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.

Glenn Beck on President Obama's intentions towards AmeriCorps:

I mean, this is what Hitler did with the SS. He had his own people. He had the brownshirts and then the SS. This is what Saddam Hussein -- so -- but you are comparing that.

Trent Franks, Congressman, R-Arizona:

(Obama) has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity.

There is an ocean of this rubbish on the internet.

But the problem is that vitriol is its own particular trickle down economic. Citizens see their leaders treating each other like trash, upping the ante with so much hyperbole and cynical rhetoric that they can muster with profound exaggeration par for the course, that they simply elect to use a usually, more debased facsimile.

Why would President Obama dislike business? That doesn't make an ounce of sense. But carry on, regardless.

Politics in America is rarely discussed humanely.

Yup, that's about what they look like. (Click to enlarge.)
Early in his term, I noticed an internet "blame it on Obama" meme, where literally everything was blamed on Barack Obama. It became so ridiculous that it developed into irony and was thus rightly used to mimic the most inane buffoons out there.

Leadership always counts.

But even if it didn't, we'd have one final insurmountable problem which would likely still result in the existence of trolls, flamers, and the just-downright-nasty.

Humans are terrible people. Just naturally.

My initial experience with this theme comes from the Bible, which states that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23) And it's so very true.

I realised this earlier this year when I thought of an interesting way to test the idea. Take a normal person, and strip away normal social conventions. Take away the usual, unwritten requirement of society to be civil and polite, and see what happens.

I came to the conclusion that there are two very compelling situations in which people show their true colours as a matter of routine circumstance, in the absence of much regulation.

At sporting events, people are encouraged to be passionate fans. But there is example after example after example after example of fan behaviour that crosses the line. A culture, probably encouraged by absurd ticket prices, that encourages fans to think that they can do whatever they wish. The insults become incredibly personal. As an NBA fan, I've read about players' mothers, wives, girlfriends and children being targeted by fans.

The major leagues in America have stepped up to combat this kind of ruthless semi-hooliganism, but it seems fair to assume people's natural inclinations are to at the least adopt a passive-aggressive mentality, and at the worst to attack a player without regard, because after all, isn't that your right when you show up to a baseball game?

Or, put another way: why are fans not sweet little prepossessing angels when they attend? When addressing the issue of people without restraint, there will only be one outcome.

That was the one example I could think of regarding human behaviour in the absence of regulation.

The other?

Right here, folks.

And this is the crux of the issue. I know people who will argue until they run out of breath about the needlessness for regulation, but when society is facing harm from people out only to make themselves feel better by destroying others, surely an appropriate legislative response should at least be considered.

How about we start with a government-mandated requirement that people who leave comments on websites and forums must give their name, address and phone number. Make them accountable. Minors must provide a parent's details. No details, no comment.

Most of the tweeters attacking Ms Dawson used accounts with no followers; they were set up with the idea of anonymity so they could, with such typical courage, lay in to her with a digital two by four, without consequence.

Bring them into the light.

Let's start there. Let's bring this thing called the internet back to a place of respectability and dignity. Where debate is conducted between civil people and name-calling, trolling and flaming are left to the kids in the playground.

And then let's deal with that, because like much else in the world, the two inevitably overlap.

(The troll) ended up being a 12-year-old girl in a wheelchair who was horribly abused in her offline life and this was a way of making herself feel better and heal.
Then leave the first comment!