“When Internet Trolls Attack” – Karyne Levy on Internet Trolls and Refusing to Refuse to Feed Similar

September 26, 2013 § 5 Comments

A while back I wrote an article on the Daily Dot critiquing the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” due to its implicit victim-blaming (the idea being that if you hadn’t fed the trolls they wouldn’t have attacked you, making their actions ultimately your fault — bullshit I say). This morning Karyne Levy published a nice piece on CNET discussing trolls, platform moderation, and the value of online comment sections. After addressing Popular Science’s decision to shut off its comments section due to too many assholes, Levy discusses her own experiences with online antagonists. As she writes:

And I’m over the online bullying. Mostly. But some of the comments break my heart. They make me want to pack up my things, get off the stage, and go back to being a behind-the-scenes editor. I want to quit the entire thing, stop producing the show that I love, and give up.

She then mentions that my Daily Dot article changed how she looked at trolls, particularly the imperative not to feed them, which is really — I mean just nice, what a nice thing to read.

I’ve since then changed my tactics. Now, whenever the comments on my YouTube page are accidentally left on, I pop in there, comment back, and sometimes tweet the responses. It makes me feel better. Kind of.

Extrapolating out, she continues:

If comments can’t be moderated, should there be comments at all? If the whole purpose of reader comments is to engage the readers, and all I get is personal attacks, am I the one doing something wrong? The Internet can be a place that fosters free speech. And while yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion about my looks, does that mean they should let those opinions be known when it’s irrelevant to the work I’ve produced? I don’t think so. Maybe there shouldn’t be comments at all. Maybe this is why we can’t have nice things.

Years ago, when I first started my trolling research, I aligned myself with the “don’t feed the trolls” logic. But as I continued researching, and more importantly, grew the fuck up and started seeing more examples of the offline impact of online shit-stirring, I began to question how we should deal with online antagonism (note that I’m not using the word “troll” here and instead am focusing on the full range of bad behavior online, a category which includes subcultural trolling but also includes straight-up unambiguous bigotry).

My position these days veers somewhere between “SHUT IT DOWN,” putting me in the comment section-closing camp, and “LET ME AT ‘EM,” putting me in the “if you can’t beat them, then shame them straight to hell” camp. Context matters, of course, so I have a slightly different perspective depending on the specific forum and topic and community. But overall, I’m tired of how much airtime the assholes are getting, and support efforts to push back against those who feel entitled to do what they want, when they want, with little fear of impunity. And don’t even get me started on discussions of “free speech.”


“Are Internet Trolls the Modern Incarnation of Witch Hunters?” -My Interview with the Atlantic Wire

August 8, 2013 § 3 Comments


One of the things that’s a little strange and at times pretty frustrating about doing media interviews is that, more often than not, an entire 45 minute conversation or 8,000 paragraph email exchange is distilled to one money-quote sentence. Sometimes this is the best sentence you said, and sometimes it is the one sentence that appears to undermine your entire argument and makes absolutely no sense and why did you ever say that, you idiot. Either way, the context is often lost, which makes reading the articles you appear in somewhat surreal.  Plus, that is a lot of (unpaid) labor for a one-sentence payoff.

Which is why I’ve decided to start posting my full responses to the questions I’m asked, along with the articles my quotes appear in. Few of the arguments I’m making can be summarized in one sentence, so this way I can say my full peace.

Most recently I was interviewed by Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic Wire, who was interested in writing about troll attacks against feminist activists. She wanted to know what the precedent was for these sorts of behaviors, the specific question being “where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet?” and to which I replied:

This is a very interesting question, though maybe not for the obvious reasons. Specifically, the phrase “this kind of stuff” suggests that there exists some basic coherence to the attacks against Caroline Criado-Perez and others — in turn suggesting that someone could make an overarching claim about the attacks. And I’m not sure that’s possible, or even all that helpful. Because what KIND of stuff is this, really? Some of the misogynist, violent responses were likely sent by people who meant every word they said. Some were likely sent by people who self-identify as trolls and would claim to care less (if at all) about the issue itself, but rather the outraged reactions their behaviors might elicit, or by people who don’t necessarily identify as trolls, but who enjoy a good internet fight, or perhaps by people, whether self-identifying troll or not, who wanted to see if they could be quoted by a news outlet, for laughs. And those are just a few possibilities — there are an untold number of reasons why someone might engage in these sorts of behaviors.

And, ultimately, none of those reasons matter. What matters is that the rape threats and harassment did occur, regardless of the why or the who. In fact, focusing exclusively on why and who tends to divert focus away from institutionalized outposts of sexism and towards those who are condemned as aberrational, but who in fact merely represent the grotesque extreme of more commonly held prejudices against women (something as simple as “men are better writers than women”).

This of course makes it extremely difficult to establish behavioral or technological precedent for the behaviors described in this NYT article. It really depends on what you mean by the phrase “this stuff.” If by stuff you mean violent misogyny generally understood, the answer is yes, there is ample precedent, more precedent than can even be enumerated, precedent beyond any attempt at hyperbole. If you mean people being horrible online, sure, there’s plenty of precedent for that as well — for decades now the internet has been a breeding ground for antagonism, mischief and so-called acts of fuckery. If you mean trolling, particularly if it you’re using the term as a synonym for being horrible online, well pull up a chair, because that’s an entirely separate rabbit hole to fall down, as I explain in this post.

So, again, the answer becomes muddied by the question itself. One thing this conversation does precipitate is an examination of the ways in which these behaviors –whatever their precedent(s)– are are built into, and in some cases are directly impacted by, the technological systems out of which they emerge. Just as significant as “Where did this kind of stuff take place before the Internet, if at all?” is the question “What do our current cultural and technological circumstances have to do with this kind of stuff?” The answer to which would go something like, while the sort of violently sexist bile directed at Criado-Perez definitely has precedent (and not just precedent but precedents), it also has context. It may not be new, in other words, but it is unique to this specific media landscape. Not only does Twitter allow for anonymous or pseudonymous communication, not only does it provide a forum for users to directly interface with public figures, its social functionality encourages the breakneck spread of information. Compounding this point is the fact that the majority of journalists and I would venture to say all mainstream media outlets have a Twitter presence, and with a simple retweeet are able to amplify –and lend legitimacy to– stories that might have otherwise remained local or limited in scope. More users can then engage with a story — and not just engage, but engage in ways that never would have been possible 20 years ago.*

In short, the fact that the Jane Austen Twitter troll controversy unfolded the way that it did has as much to do with where were are NOW as whatever might have come before–for better and for worse, in this case mostly worse.

Greenfield responded by asking me to clarify whether or not trolling can be considered “new” behavior. I replied:

I’ve written a bunch about the ways in which trolling behaviors echo more established cultural tropes and behaviors, which I discuss here and again here. That said, the internet is its own space with its own contours — the underlying ethos/politics of many of these behaviors may have ample cultural precedent, but the specific expressions of these behaviors are impacted by the technological affordancees not just of whatever specific platform but the internet as a whole. Put most pithily, trolling (and when I say trolling I mean subcultural trolling) is old behavior expressed in a new medium.

To see how these quotes got used, check out Greenfield’s article here. It’s a fun new game, this!

*I should have added something about how the media then reports on the resulting audience engagement (particularly when the audience engagement is antagonistic and/or abusive), locking the audience and members of the media into a frenzied feedback loop.

Twitter Under Fire

July 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the last few days I’ve received several press requests regarding the recent attacks against Caroline Craido-Perez, a journalist and activist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen’s portrait to be featured on British banknotes. Unhappy that a woman would be featured on official tender (THE HORROR!!!), a bunch of dumbasses on Twitter threw a temper tantrum and started hurling rape threats at Craido-Perez as well as MPs Stella Creasy and Claire Perry, who supported Craido-Perez’ efforts. The British government demanded that Twitter intervene, and called for Twitter representatives to appear before a Commons committee focused on online abuse. Twitter has since agreed to include a “report abuse” button on/for individual tweets, which in theory will streamline the reporting process and allow will Twitter to respond more effectively to abusive on-site behavior.

A few quick points: first, as usual, the number one question I’m getting is “what motivates these trolls??” –to which I can only say slow down buddy, what do you mean by troll? As I’ve written before, how you define the term directly impacts how the question can and should be answered. Given how little we can know about the people responsible –maybe they’re trolling for lulz, maybe they’re just misogynist assholes, maybe they’re hoping to make the front page of the Daily Mail, maybe some combination of all three, maybe something else entirely– it’s better not to focus on motivations. The question is moot, for one thing, and more importantly diverts attention away from the underlying issue of pervasive cultural sexism — which is only reinforced by the subsequent and similarly poorly-defined imperative “don’t feed the trolls.”

For me, then, the issue has less to do with trolls per se and more to do with best moderation practices. In fact I would argue that the troll question follows and is directly contingent upon the moderation question. Kate Miltner and I considered this point in our last Awl post, which although focused specifically on Reddit, could also be applied to Twitter’s current situation. And no, “free speech” has nothing to do with it, dear god.

My Interview with CNN on Trolling

July 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

stop trolling jesus

Today Nick Thompson of CNN published a long article on trolling, including quite a few quotes from yours truly. Here’s some from that article:

While Whitney Phillips agrees that anonymity plays a role in someone’s propensity to spew bile down Facebook walls, Twitter pages and news website comment boards, she says the bile was there first, just waiting to be hurled out at unsuspecting passers-by in cyberspace.

“The problem with blaming anonymity is that it assumes people are only horrible anonymously. Search a racial slur plus Obama on the internet and you’ll see more people than is reasonable who are perfectly happy being disgusting bigots under their own name.”

Is it possible to separate your online behavior from who you really are? Many trolls reject any relation between their profiles on the Web and their real life personas, according to Phillips, and say they are merely performing in order torment their targets “for the lulz,” or to teach people a lesson.

“Some trolls think that spending your time posting condolence messages on Facebook to someone you’ve never met is weird, and grounds for being trolled. They think they’re teaching people a lesson, teaching people how to behave online.”

Ultimately, Phillips says, it’s impossible to definitively say what makes trolls tick when you don’t have any demographic details about them. “We can’t very easily or in any kind of verifiable fashion sit a troll down and ask him what is in his heart, and if you could he would lie. They would tell you some bulls**t about what’s in their heart.”

I like the part about how CNN quotes me as saying “bullshit.” The full article is worth a read, and can be found here!

Let Me Explain

April 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

wait what

NBC.com’s Nidhi Subbaraman just posted an article discussing the public’s role in the Boston Bombing case. I am quoted at the end of the piece, and wanted to clarify my position, because what it says I said is not entirely what I meant (word limits!).

…Shirky and others, such as Whitney Phillips, an Internet scholar and lecturer at NYU who has studied the trolling behavior of 4chan, think caution is necessary at times like this.

“Strong moderation is just what you need to keep this kind of ridiculous gossip at bay,” said Phillips, but strong moderation is not the kind of thing usually seen on Reddit.

“I think crowdsourcing is a terrible idea during criminal investigations,” Phillips told NBC News.

I do think that crowdsourcing is a terrible idea during criminal investigations, under certain circumstances — namely when the crowdsourcers are making up the rules as they go along, without any consideration for the serious personal and legal repercussions of their actions. Vigilante crowdsourcing, in other words. Once law enforcement has actual confirmed information and are looking for public feedback, great! I’m with Shirky; if you see something, say something. But until then, stop trying to solve the crime using MS Paint. As the Sulahaddin Barhoum and Sunil Tripathi cases highlight, this sort of approach has the potential to do far more harm than good. In fact nothing good has come of Reddit’s involvement in the story. (Friday night update: see this detailed thread criticizing participating Redditors’ haphazard sleuthing)

As for the issue of moderation — my full quote explained that platform moderators have and should exercise the ability to quash falsely incriminating details and/or surreptitiously acquired personal information before whatever information gets snatched up by lazy journalists and splashed across the front page of The New York Post. This is not a violation of “free speech,” as many Redditors might argue. Rather this is a preemptive protective measure. As Shirky explains in the NBC article, the cost of failure is very high — and above and beyond being the responsible thing to do, it is (at least, seems like it should be) in the platform moderators’ best interest to prevent, for example, being sued for libel.

Troll is the Word, is the Word, is the Word

April 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

The other day (how did I miss this?) Eric Benson at NY Mag posted a rundown of the increasingly elastic definition of the word “troll.” He interviewed me for the piece, which is always odd because these kinds of interviews are usually 30-45 minutes long but only  yield one or two sentences. Media!

Quoth the me:

As with other robust Internet terms, trolling lends itself to more general meanings far removed from its origins. “To hear people talk about trolls in April 2013 is so different than people talked about it even in 2011,” says Whitney Phillips, an NYU lecturer in media studies who wrote her dissertation on Internet trolls. “You now encounter the word all day long.”

It’s a brave new world, kids!

Are Trolls Killing the Internet? Talking Trolls on Al Jazeera English

January 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream program alongside Aaron James of UC Irvine. The subject of the show –overview here— was TROLLS, and the degree to which they are killing the internet. As always, the term “troll” was contested, to the point of near-empty signification; throughout the broadcast it referred in turn to subcultural trolling, name-calling, racist online abuse, harassment, and identity theft. In almost every case, these behaviors were decried as antagonistic, destructive, and wholly deserving of immediate government or corporate intervention (so, the difference between passing laws and implementing on-site policies like upvoting systems, as more than one Google hangout guest suggested). Anonymity was cited by many as the ultimate root of the problem, because people are never hateful towards each other under their real names, and no one is ever violent or racist in real life.

One thing that was not discussed –and something I wish I had the chance to talk about; the conversation was primarily focused on the DARK SIDE of trolling, or perhaps more accurately, what many racists and assholes have taken to calling trolling (in other words, OH! My real life identity was linked to the hateful shit I’ve been spewing on Twitter under a pseudonym??? Just kidding everyone, I was only trolling!!!)– is the complicating fact that trolling is, or at least can be, an extremely effective tool against precisely the assbaggery to which this program was devoted. I know several trolls –and one troll in particular— whose greatest joy is to out or otherwise torment racists, homophobes and sexists who deserve to have their dumb asses handed to them, placing them directly in line (well, perhaps a bit uncomfortably in line) with the anti-troll crusaders who claim that the best response to trolling is to punish trolls. The funny thing is that many trolls wholeheartedly agree (though they might take issue with the definition of the term “troll,” as many reject the idea that being a bigot on the internet qualifies as trolling), and are more than happy to take up what many would regard as a righteous, anti-douchebag cause. This is where conversations of trolling (and more specifically, conversations about what to do about trolling) brush up against conversations about vigilante justice, immediately thickening the plot.

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