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Thursday, October 15, 2015

How to Tame an Internet Troll by Frank Pasquale

Photo: Frank Pasquale
Frank Pasquale, professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law writes, "What would it take to bring civility to the web?"

In James Thurber’s 1942 short story "The Catbird Seat," the boisterous Ulgine Barrows shatters the peaceful diligence of Erwin Martin, head of the filing department at his firm. Barrows, as special adviser to the president of the firm, brays at Martin, using slang he barely understands. Apparently a Dodgers fan, she mimics Red Barber’s ball-field patter, shouting, "Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?" Martin eventually hatches a plan to turn Barrows’s ebullience against her, using words alone. He tells her he’s plotting to kill the president of the firm — suspecting their boss will find the very idea of homicidal impulses in a veteran employee outlandish if Barrows relates it to him. Generations of high schoolers have delighted in her unraveling, the climax of a revenge plot most beleaguered office workers can merely dream of.

Photo:
Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

The fantasy of using words alone to right a perceived injustice — or trigger a meltdown — has renewed relevance today. On Reddit, 4chan, Yik Yak, and Tumblr, whole Internet subcultures are devoted to mocking and shocking. Enraging an exploitable target is many Internet trolls’ raison d’être. In staider settings, moderators aspire to some digital equivalent of the Marquess of Queensberry rules, carefully policing the commenters for relevance and civility. Ranking and rating is simultaneously a personal passion and big business. Five-star tributes to books on Amazon express appreciation for hard work and refine the company’s algorithms, adding a few pennies to Jeff Bezos’ fortune.

If we could easily escape commenting culture, we might accept its pathologies as one more cost of free speech. But we cannot, and its ubiquity demands a more active response. Trolls and commenters can harm their victims, crossing the line between speech and conduct. Just ask Kathy Sierra, whose promising career as a technologist came to an abrupt end after she faced waves of online abuse. When anonymous death threats proliferated in 2007, Sierra withdrew almost entirely from public venues. Gender and race matter too: As my colleague Danielle Keats Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace recounts, women and people of color are routinely targeted by hatred online. Such biases are also evident in student evaluations, an old and familiar form of comment culture. But those reviews still have the potential to make or break faculty appointments and promotions.

Boosters of Internet culture tend to characterize the growing power of the "crowd in the cloud" as simultaneously meritocratic and egalitarian. They Whiggishly embrace the rise of a networked commentariat. From Yelp to Uber to TripAdvisor, fortunes are made via crowdsourced contributions that supposedly reflect the "wisdom of crowds." But any massive platform also hosts some cleverly manipulated commentary planted by competitors, troll factories, or miscreants. The sweet business strategy of hosting free, user-generated content is always accompanied by bitter, oft-stealthy battles for reputational capital.

Reading the Comments
Two just-published books offer important insights into these problems of Internet culture — and its potential for redemption. In Reading the Comments (MIT Press), Joseph M. Reagle Jr., an assistant professor of communications at Northeastern, offers a rollicking-yet-thoughtful tour through comment threads across the web — from book reviews to Facebook spats and from commercial contexts to intimate spaces of self-expression. Amply spiced with jokes and comics, and anchored with just enough theory to structure the discussion, Reagle’s book should be read by anyone with an interest in "the bottom half of the web."

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
In This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (MIT Press), Whitney Phillips, a lecturer in the department of communications at Humboldt State, observes a narrower slice of the Internet: the trolls who mock, harass, or menace online. But she is after larger academic game: a generalizable method for studying protean networks online. Trolls’ anonymity may seem to make them an impossible object of analysis — who really knows if BigJerk34, lulzhead3, and MOONWALKinyourFACE are distinct persons, bots, or "sock puppets" of one master troll? Phillips takes those dilemmas seriously, opening lines of communication to trolls, but also intentionally focusing on the cultural effects (rather than psychological roots) of trollish behavior. She embeds her description and evaluation of trolls’ disruptive antics in a larger cultural critique.
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Source: Chronicle of Higher Education


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