Dumb, Poorly-Researched Article is Dumb and Poorly-Researched, and Why This Matters for the Internet

November 12, 2011 § 3 Comments


There is nothing unusual about this article, which discusses the latest in 4chan fuckery — some sensitive photos were leaked, allegedly by a female NYPD officer, and consequences will never be the same. Same shit, different day. Not to dismiss the particulars of this case, since this is very serious business for the officer accused of posting the photos, and the family of the woman whose photos were leaked. Real-world connections wholly acknowledged. It’s the tone and general ignorance of the article that bothers me, which is the same tone and same general ignorance you see in most articles about trolling (and certainly articles about trolling in the Daily Mail, a troll unto itself):

4chan has been one of the main websites blamed for Internet ‘trolling’, where users abuse each other on-line.

Those who post on the website’s message boards are known for their dark ideas and for egging each other on to break the law but win the respect of their fellow hackers.

According to the Washington Post 4chan users have also ‘managed to pull off some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the Internet’.

Really, this is boiler-plate language — you might as well cut and paste quotes from Fox 11’s news report on Anonymous. Of course –and as a nice young man pointed out in an incensed email– Anonymous is never mentioned in the article, probably because the person writing the article doesn’t know, and wasn’t expected to know, what the hell he’s talking about, but also –and this is where shit gets endemic– because trolls and 4chan and Anonymous are almost always (at least in mainstream media circles) treated as interchangeable categories. From a research perspective, this is annoying because it is sloppy; a 30-second journey into the magical land of Wikipedia would clear up much of this confusion.

But it’s not just that the framing is annoying, the framing is dangerous. Not only does it collapse the nominal categories into an undifferentiated mass of darksidedness, it implies that these very discrete behavioral categories –trolling, hacking, abuse– are actually one in the same, which again, is very annoying from a research perspective but is HUGELY problematic from a policy perspective, and is precisely the sort of rhetoric that encourages politicians and those at various levels of power to do stupid, short-sided shit “for the children,” or whoever they’re pretending to care about. Because if all they ever read are free-association polemics about how trolling is hacking and hacking is a threat to national security, you know just like all that cyberbullying they’ve been hearing so much about on the teevee, then why WOULDN’T they do everything to contain the (perceived) threat, even if –especially because– they don’t know the first thing about the alleged enemy.

In short, these sorts of articles are so dumb and so off the mark that they don’t, or at least shouldn’t, justify a response, other than maybe a quick eye-roll. The problem is, this is the only information that normal, otherwise reasonable people have about these sorts of spaces. So when it comes time to decide how best to deal with problematic online speech and behavior –and yes, I readily concede that there should be some protective measures in place, FOR HARASSMENT, which is not the same thing as trolling or hacking– people are more likely to accept measures that might sound reasonable (who would come out in support of abuse?) but actually run the risk of criminalizing half the internet. Which would set all kinds of myopic legal and institutional precedents, and trust me, will only send the truly problematic behaviors deeper underground (and we all know how well the war on file sharing has gone)…


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