Tim Adams’ piece discusses something that pretty much everybody with a computer and WiFi connection has encountered: internet trolls. I think this is something that most of us have come to expect to some degree. No matter what websites you frequent–Pinterest, Buzzfeed, CNN, E!–if they have a comments section then they have trolls.
Put simply, they are users who make inflammatory remarks for the purpose of making other people angry. There are obvious trolls who are deliberately off-topic and politically incorrect to the point of being parodies of themselves. Others are more subtle and may actually believe the outlandish things they say. Either way, their words hinder thoughtful discussion. Adams cites the psychological phenomenon called “deindividuation”, which is when people defy cultural norms under the protection of anonymity. It is no surprise that trolls thrive on the internet, since many websites allow users to remain anonymous.
The common response to trolling is what your mother always told you about what to do if someone on the schoolyard was picking on you: just ignore them. Bullies only do what they do to get a rise out of you, so denying them the reaction they crave is also denying them power.You’re bound to fine trolls anywhere you go on the internet and there’s no point getting riled up every single time someone says something ugly. Since most trolls are reduced to basement-dwelling losers with too much free time on their hands, it isn’t too hard to discount what they have to say. This approach works most of the time.
On occasion, the boundary between harmlessness and serious threats to personal safety gets blurred. As mentioned in the article:
Kathy Sierra is a programming instructor based in California; after an online spat on a tech-site she was apparently randomly targeted by an anonymous mob that posted images of her as a sexually mutilated corpse on various websites and issued death threats. She wrote on her own blog: “I’m at home, with the doors locked, terrified. I am afraid to leave my yard, I will never feel the same. I will never be the same.”
Sierra’s situation is complicated for law enforcement since there’s no real way to police the actions of anonymous users on the internet. In a post by blogger Lindy West, she explains how women in particular are “trolled” with rape threats. When they seek help from the police, they are often met with ridicule. Since the threat is anonymous, they are thought to be overreacting.
Is there a solution to the problem at hand? Not really. Unfortunately, people who maintain a public presence on the internet like Sierra and West are likely to be subjected to vitriol simply because there are people out there who disagree with them. That being said, something needs to be done to protect public figures from feeling that their real life safety is threatened.
The rest of us are more privileged because we can avoid trolls by choosing which sites to frequent based on how well their comment sections are moderated. I’m not so sure how I feel about the government taking away internet anonymity, but there’s no denying that trolling can extend beyond ploys for attention.