NYT on “The Trolls among us” and measures against trollery


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Hi Blog.  Here’s an excerpt of an excellent (if overlong) article from the NYT about Internet trolls, the world they inhabit, and the logical games they employ.  For many, this will be a rude awakening, for if they tried to deal with trolls like this reasonably (when trolls had no intention of ever being reasonable) or (heaven forbid) empathize with them, this is what they got for their trouble.  For the trolls themselves, it’ll be more like, “WTF, it’s your own fault for ever taking us seriously!  What took you so long to figure us out?”  It’s a good read and will convince people who care overmuch about what other people think to stop doing so if the other person is anonymous or pseudonymous.  It’s about time the earnest people on the Internet took some measures against the intellectual gamers and malicious life wasters.  Article courtesy of  Norik.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo

PS:  After I indicated recently that malicious comments will not be approved on Debito.org, they have completely dried up.  It works.  All trolls crave is an audience and a reaction.  Don’t give them one.


New York Times August 3, 2008

The Trolls Among Us

Courtesy of Norik.

One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minn., took a .22-caliber rifle down from a shelf in his parents’ bedroom closet and shot himself in the head. The next morning, Mitchell’s school assembled in the gym to begin mourning. His classmates created a virtual memorial on MySpace and garlanded it with remembrances. One wrote that Mitchell was “an hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back. . . . ” Someone e-mailed a clipping of Mitchell’s newspaper obituary to MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that links to the MySpace pages of the dead. From MyDeathSpace, Mitchell’s page came to the attention of an Internet message board known as /b/ and the “trolls,” as they have come to be called, who dwell there.

/b/ is the designated “random” board of 4chan.org, a group of message boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as “anonymous.” In effect, this makes /b/ a panopticon in reverse — nobody can see anybody, and everybody can claim to speak from the center. The anonymous denizens of 4chan’s other boards — devoted to travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the /b/-dwellers as “/b/tards.”

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand.

Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lostiPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.

Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. “It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.

In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic Usenet groups. The trolls employed what the M.I.T. professor Judith Donath calls a “pseudo-naïve” tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait. The game was to find out who would see through this stereotypical newbie behavior, and who would fall for it. As one guide to trolldom puts it, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”

Today the Internet is much more than esoteric discussion forums. It is a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and to others. Teenagers groom their MySpace profiles as intensely as their hair; escapists clock 50-hour weeks in virtual worlds, accumulating gold for their online avatars. Anyone seeking work or love can expect to be Googled. As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.

“Lulz” is how trolls keep score. A corruption of “LOL” or “laugh out loud,” “lulz” means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium. “Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh,” said one ex-troll who, like many people I contacted, refused to disclose his legal identity.

Another troll explained the lulz as a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel: “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz. Rules would be simple: 1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”

/b/ is not all bad. 4chan has tried (with limited success) to police itself, using moderators to purge child porn and eliminate calls to disrupt other sites. Among /b/’s more interesting spawn is Anonymous, a group of masked pranksters who organized protests at Church of Scientology branches around the world.

But the logic of lulz extends far beyond /b/ to the anonymous message boards that seem to be springing up everywhere. Two female Yale Law School students have filed a suit against pseudonymous users who posted violent fantasies about them on AutoAdmit, a college-admissions message board. In China, anonymous nationalists are posting death threats against pro-Tibet activists, along with their names and home addresses. Technology, apparently, does more than harness the wisdom of the crowd. It can intensify its hatred as well.


Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It’s tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. Cases like An Hero and Megan Meier presumably wouldn’t happen if the perpetrators had to deliver their messages in person. But while technology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.

So far, despite all this discord, the Internet’s system of civil machines has proved more resilient than anyone imagined. As early as 1994, the head of the Internet Society warned that spam “will destroy the network.” The news media continually present the online world as a Wild West infested with villainous hackers, spammers and pedophiles. And yet the Internet is doing very well for a frontier town on the brink of anarchy. Its traffic is expected to quadruple by 2012. To say that trolls pose a threat to the Internet at this point is like saying that crows pose a threat to farming.

That the Internet is now capacious enough to host an entire subculture of users who enjoy undermining its founding values is yet another symptom of its phenomenal success. It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural. But how do we deal with cases like An Hero, epilepsy hacks and the possibility of real harm being inflicted on strangers?

Several state legislators have recently proposed cyberbullying measures. At the federal level, Representative Linda Sánchez, a Democrat from California, has introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a federal crime to send any communications with intent to cause “substantial emotional distress.” In June, Lori Drew pleaded not guilty to charges that she violated federal fraud laws by creating a false identity “to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass” another user, and by violating MySpace’s terms of service. But hardly anyone bothers to read terms of service, and millions create false identities. “While Drew’s conduct is immoral, it is a very big stretch to call it illegal,” wrote the online-privacy expert Prof. Daniel J. Solove on the blog Concurring Opinions.

Many trolling practices, like prank-calling the Hendersons and intimidating Kathy Sierra, violate existing laws against harassment and threats. The difficulty is tracking down the perpetrators. In order to prosecute, investigators must subpoena sites and Internet service providers to learn the original author’s IP address, and from there, his legal identity. Local police departments generally don’t have the means to follow this digital trail, and federal investigators have their hands full with spam, terrorism, fraud and child pornography. But even if we had the resources to aggressively prosecute trolls, would we want to? Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every vituperative blog and backbiting comments section, ready to spring at the first hint of violence? Probably not. All vigorous debates shade into trolling at the perimeter; it is next to impossible to excise the trolling without snuffing out the debate.

CONTINUES AT http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html?_r=3&hp&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

7 comments on “NYT on “The Trolls among us” and measures against trollery

  • I think if one juxtaposes this with say a comedian or a public lecturer/speaker on a stage. A lone heckler shouts out abuse, (or even throws a shoe!)…does this affect the speaker or their intent…and does it really matter?
    The speaker just ignores or laughs it off….that is all one can do is treat with contempt acts that one vehemently disagrees with. Silence as a way to protest just sucks out the life of a heckler, as does a personal patronising quick come-back. After that one just moves on..or should.

    So, why give trolls any more voice than they want??…just ignore them….eventually they leave for another audience eager to take the bait.

    Slight digression. But if a politician is on “his soap box” and is heckled….if the politician cannot answer quickly and effectively to act as an immediate response, the politician will be besieged by more heckling….so begs the question, is the hecklers ‘words or act of intervention’ right?

    In the UK, if a politician or even a comedian cannot navigate their way around hecklers, they are not worthy to be on the stage, ergo the heckler has made their point and won! (regardless whether one agrees with them or not)…..so why give trolls more status than a heckler in the real world?

    — Not quite the same situation as a heckler there in person now, is it?

  • Debito

    I beg to differ.
    As noted above “…Internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities…”

    Intentionally disrupting a live audience is exactly the same as intentionally disrupting an online audience. Both have the same MO, just different medias

    — And one can get a black eye or physically scragged for being a dick from another member of the audience and one can’t. There’s a natural dampener on going too far when you’re there in person, no?

  • Debito

    Agreed. But you’re now talking about consequences. Hecklers etc, especially passionate ones, do not think about consequences of their actions. The action of heckling and raising an issue or disrupting one, is their only motivation. Repercussions do not factor into it, otherwise they wouldn’t take said course of action.
    The journalist who threw the shoe at Bush, did he think about the actions of the security guards…of course not. His primary thoughts, indeed only thoughts, were that of the protest.

    But it comes back to if one disagrees with the heckler/troll, what actions can be taken if one wishes too. In the real world, it is easy, but in cyber world, it is not. Does that makes the heckler/troll more courageous and/or outrageous or not. Only if one responds, just like in real life, unless of course they can be stopped with a one liner.

    But crossing the line from lawful to unlawful is the same for both. The only difference is the troll generally cannot be traced and brought to justice. Give trolls a voice they grow and feel superior, ignore them they go elsewhere. However, so long as their actions are ‘lawful’ a troll/heckler can do or say what they like in real world or cyber….

    — I think you’re overthinking this. There’s an enormous difference between an a heckler at a comedy show and a reporter turned political protester throwing shoes at a president; it’s hardly worth comparing out loud. But anyway, we’re agreed on traceability.

  • Hecklers and shoe-throwers can be removed with little if any chance of returning. Internet trolls can’t be eliminated that easily. Huge difference.

    And I find it very strange to “juxtapose” hecklers of comedians and politicians with people who post vicious stories, death threats, and private information of innocent people.

  • I think your position differs from mine because of our perspectives. I am looking purely at the mechanisms, the procedure, or its raison d’etre as such. The consequences and meaning, that is a different issue and should not be wrapped up into one.

    Otherwise you are saying because ‘trolls’ etc cannot be traced ergo, no one can be traced. Hence blogs etc should not be allowed because everyone is a potential nutjob. You’re looking beyond the simple notion of a person saying what they want. I am not, since that takes an entirely different route.

    Newspapers regularly post vicious stories (depending which way one leans), and private information. This is a mechanism, their ability to do so. Whether their words are right or wrong is irrelevant; the cart does not come before the horse! Unless of course you wish to debase every argument into an emotional polemic pathos.

    — Sorry John, I’m not quite understanding what you’re saying.

  • What I am saying is this:

    You are saying someone may say this or that, it may be malicious, so how can it acceptable for someone to say such things, like death threats etc.

    For said person to speak to saying/write whatever they want, there must be a mechanism in existence for them to say what they want. If no mechanism exists, they cannot speak/write their words.

    You’re saying said person may make death threats, what about the person that does not…how do you know?..UNTIL, said person has said/written something, you do not know. So to allow said person to speak/write their thoughts, a mechanism must exist.

    No mechanisms, then there is nothing from a good or bad person. There is no outlet…nothing good said, nor, nothing bad.

    Your discussing consequences, not the mechanism to allow thoughts to be expressed.

    — Er… anyone else want to try to untangle the spaghetti logic?

  • The thing about trolling is that it seems to be something you grow out of. It is hard to get ages of people you know online, but some people you eventually get to know well and, universally, people I know who troll are between 15-20 years old (though I have read stories about older people). Related, there was a post in /b/ many months ago in which a man, supposedly a middle-aged computer programmer, was complaining about how the recent upsurge in people posting real photos of themselves had ruined his perception of the board because instead of it being that ‘channers “could be anyone – the lady at the supermarket” it was revealed he was hanging out with a bunch of “emo teenagers who live in their parents’ basement” (quotes paraphrased). Also, I apologize for the lack of hard facts.

    My point is not to debase teenagers. My point is that many people do this for a while and then quit, and turn out to be good people. I think there is a parallel to how hideously cruel grade schoolers can be.


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