Disdain and disinhibition: trolls and Twitter

I don’t remember what was in the tweet exactly. I don’t recall how it was different from the hundreds that preceded it or that followed. I don’t think it was particularly.

But it was the one that got to me. It was the one that sent me collapsing to the floor, quivering with rage and despair, and fear. Fear that it was not going to stop and this is what I would inescapably have to face for the next hours, days and weeks.

And it wasn’t even directed at me.

During the announcement of the carbon price package, vitriol in the Australian political sphere reached fever pitch.  Angry and frightened people vented in every avenue they could find. When they no longer had the means to engage on the subject matter, they unearthed conspiracies and prejudices, and gave those thoughts voice instead.

Anyone that has engaged with correspondence in an MP’s office, or indeed that of any public figure, will tell you that you encounter humanity in all its glory, from the fastidiously obsessed to the passionately devoted. But those that are motivated most to correspond are those who feel aggrieved.

The least enjoyable part of my job is to read the vitriolic comments sent to MPs via Twitter or through website forms. I’ve been playing on the internet long enough to remember IRC; I’ve developed a reasonably thick skin.

On this occasion perhaps it was physical as well as emotional fatigue. Whatever the other reasons, I hit a point where one last reference to the leader as a paedophile faggot who deserved to die in some publicly torturous fashion reduced me to a shaking ruin. One thing I do remember though. The author of this comment unashamedly used his own name. And he was far from the only one who did.

Like almost everyone else, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the online space. I’ve been caught in the heat of the moment in a spirited debate, and overstepped boundaries. My state of mind at the time shaped the nature of my engagement, as it does for everyone I’d suggest.

A mechanism for instantly publishing discourse between outspoken people will make every participant look foolish, insensitive or cruel sooner or later. We’re all laden with a hefty set of assumptions. Jokes are poorly thought out or misunderstood. Colloquialisms and cultural jargon are interpreted differently. What feels like good natured banter to some feels like mendacious spite to others.  Entering into a dispute about an issue we’re passionate about can quickly descend into an unedifying pile-on. Sarcasm traverses through snark into outright hostility, making us feel better for the briefest of moments, yet we assume the individual at the other end of the conversation is able to cope with everything thrown at them. People will play the victim and people will blame the victim.

There is a small minority of people that are different. They don’t occasionally go too far. They’re not sometimes blinded by their emotions.  They’re fuelled by unreconstructed hate, and they have no barrier or filter. They certainly have no empathy for the target of their contempt, or for the person answering the phone or opening the mail – the person whose job may in part be to shield their boss from the worst of it.

Psychologist John Suler first wrote about the Online Disinhibition Effect in 2004, but the behavioural traits he discussed were common in other detached communication mediums, such as CB radio, long before. The factors that can lead to toxic disinhibition centre around this detachment, the absence of immediate consequence for behaviour, and the subsequent ‘freedom’ it provides.

Suler hypothesises that the nastiest ‘trolls’ on the net don’t see you as a person. You’re a projection, an assemblage of traits shaped by their own biases and interpretation of your public persona. You don’t know them and in their mind you never will. Even if you know their name it matters not a jot. You have no standing or status that tempers their behaviour. In their projection you have no attribute that affords you any decency or deference. They’re just one of many and it’s all just a game. Real world consequences do not enter their thinking.

Limiting the damage these people can create is not a simple task. When a public figure like Charlotte Dawson is preyed upon by a concerted and vicious attack, a chorus of voices raise up to demand ‘something should be done’, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this sort of attention and notoriety is giving the trolls exactly the catharsis they were seeking.

Some of these are well intended if ill-informed calls for a ‘real name policy’ on social networks. A cursory Google search will reveal such policies to be ineffective and impossible to enforce. The outspokenly vitriolic will circumvent it or continue unabashed. As danah boyd points out, the people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms or anonymity in online spaces are those who are most marginalised by systems of power, those who most need a voice, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.

Others jumping on the ‘do something’ bandwagon are tabloids and shock jocks lamenting that their monopoly on destructive agitation is being eroded. There’s not a lot to separate Alan Jones calling for the Prime Minister to be put in a chaff bag and thrown out to sea and a Twitterer telling someone to hang themselves. Except that Jones didn’t breach his broadcaster’s license conditions or the radio industry code of conduct, apparently.

A demand for people to dob in anonymous trolls by using an anonymous email submission by News Limited titles was never going to end well. But it probably generated plenty of clicks.

There is no simple solution to addressing trolling. The behaviour, by other names, predates Twitter, it predates the internet. The relentless hounding of public figures and focal points of outrage is as old as broadcasting.

What is different in the online world is the ratio of time spent in a safe space to time not. When controversial figures were confronted with hatred, threats, emotional and physical violence 30 years ago, they could retreat from those situations, immerse themselves in a supporting environment of friends and family, and steel themselves for the next round.

Today it is relentless. If you’re a public figure your workplace is the public sphere, and that means online. And keeping that workplace safe is not something any individual has any real control over.

The best blogs on the web are those that have a discussion and comments culture that authors want to participate in and engage with. In most online environments, active management of the community is the only instrument available to maintain any safety for participants.

What purpose does a comments section on a site serve if the authors broadcast their statements and then flee?  It suggests that the comments culture is toxic, which requires a committed moderating team to correct and maintain. Or it suggests that the writer has no interest in the scrutiny such exchanges facilitate and no interest in contributing to the community. It is incumbent on the curators of these communities to keep working to maintain the sort of environment they want to see.

Twitter is different. It’s unmoderated, instant and available to everyone. Twitter is where you can find the five people in the world that combine the same niche loves that you do, and the 50 people that will ridicule you for it for a cheap laugh. Twitter is perhaps the first medium where long-time internet participants, inoculated against and practitioners of the hostility generated by disinhibition, are colliding en masse with a broader public. And it’s happening in real time for everyone to see.

There’s no way to stop the trolls using Twitter, but you can stop them using you. Public figures could do worse than read Twitter’s own support article on abusive behaviour.

There’s a moment when spirited debate and disagreement reaches an impasse. If you don’t feel like you have anything more to gain and it stopped being fun a while ago there’s little point in persisting. Setting accounts to private and block buttons are readily available.

People often lament how damaging one person’s comments can be, and yet are cynical about how much difference positive comments can be to the community. However small, they do matter. Call out bad behaviour. Let people know they’re supported. It’s something a lot of Twitter users unite around. People I’ve had enormous political disagreements with offered hugely appreciated supportive comments when they witnessed the worst behaviour on their own side. More than once I’ve been embarrassed by the hostility emerging from people I fundamentally agree with (too often I’ve seen that behaviour in myself, in retrospect, as well).

Share a (good) joke. Say something encouraging. Shit, send a good cat gif. Find something you agree on. Give someone a laugh. It’s your community. You can make it a little bit better. But you share it with more than 100 million other people. No matter what you do, you’re not going to like all of them. And not all of them are going to like you.


Image by erikso via Creative Commons Licence

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