Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Internet Trolls are Like Terrorists

How is that for a clickbait kind of title?  My point is not that internet trolls kill people or cause lots of damage.  No, the point is that both are highly asymmetrical.

The Guardian studied its own blocked comments and determined many things, including the possibility that most of the most obnoxious stuff was posted by a small number of people.  The toxicity that is on the internet is not representative of the broader public, but of smaller groups of people who post a lot and are obnoxious a lot.  They can do a lot of damage, quickly and cheaply, and can create an environment which makes it seem like there is a very large community of awful people.

To be sure, there are more awful people than we'd like to have out there. And I am not trying to write a #notallmen kind of post.  But the point is that if these people who are doing the damage are actually rather small, it makes it both easier and harder to deal with.

Easier?  Because if this is true, we can realize that it is a few people causing the problems, and then we don't have to develop broad approaches aimed at entire publics.  Although, yes, trying to get rid of rape culture and other broadly problematic dynamics are worthy in and of themselves. 

Harder?  Because if this is true, we cannot aim policies at entire publics but have to figure out who the potential folks are and aim policies at them.  Discrimination in the sense of hitting the target is hard.  It requires intelligence (identifying the problematic people) and developing targeted policies.  Not easy.

The parallel to terrorism is instructive in this sense.  The aim of terrorists is to terrorize.  If we don't overreact, we can limit the gains the terrorists make when they successfully launch an attack.  The aim of internet trolls is to piss people off and, for some, to indeed terrorize.  Perhaps we can support the folks who are attacked but not in ways that reward the the trolls.  For the latest example, see the helicopter parent hoaxer who turned out to be an internet troll of the worst kind.

Of course, there are internet trolls and then there are internet trolls.  Some do more than just troll but dox, swat and in other ways endanger people.  And we do need law enforcement to take that stuff far more seriously.  So, maybe my metaphor is breaking down, but I guess the point is that we need to figure out how to live in a world where some people have outsized effects.

I don't have any answers, and this post is just part of thinking through this stuff.  I also realize that this is all easy for me to say as a white man.  I have gotten some threats, but the internet is far less abusive to me than it is to people of color and to women, as the Guardian piece makes abundantly clear.

So, any thought would be most appreciated.

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