Troll exploits: Critical thinking needed

There are two kinds of troll victims, actually: those who are directly and cruelly tormented by trolls and those who are manipulated into contributing to the attacks. That's one of my takeaways from an insightful New York Times Magazine article about people who use the Internet to attack, in depraved ways, other people who are emotionally vulnerable. Trolls steal identities, torment with 24/7 phone calls, and fictionalize profiles and credit records, for example, putting a "fabricated narrative of [a person's] career alongside her real Social Security number and address" in hacked databases or public blogs.

As an understated photo caption reads, trolls have "a fluid morality and a disdain for pretty much everyone else online," and that disdain is expressed in manipulations of the second kind of victim – emotionally involved observers. Writer Mattathias Schwartz uses the Meghan Meier suicide case as an example.

A troll with whom Schwartz spent time – Jason Fortuny, who was a victim himself as a child – sees his exploits as human-behavior experiments, Schwartz writes. One of his experiments in manipulating the public was the "Megan Had It Coming" blog in which Fortuny posed as Lori Drew (the mother who created the profile of a fictitious boy which reportedly led to Megan's suicide) and wrote cruel posts about the girl after her death. The blog posts drew some 3,600 angry reactions from people throughout the US. That's the other, though much less victimized, kind of victim: unwitting subjects of troll experiments who can became virtual vigilante mobs and do exactly what the instigators would like them to do. Fortuny's blog "was intended, he says, to question the public’s hunger for remorse [revenge, maybe?] and to challenge the enforceability of cyberharassment laws like the one passed by Megan’s town after her death." I'd say this is a sub-moral of the troll story and another reminder of the growing importance of critical thinking in a relatively anonymous medium.

Toward the end of his article, Schwartz asks a good question: "Is the effort to control what’s said [and done online] always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?" [Among other things, don't miss Schwartz's reflection on what's to blame for this behavior and what can or should be done about it – e.g.: "Ultimately, as Fortuny suggests, trolling will stop only when its audience stops taking trolls seriously."] In any case, what we see online, sometimes in the most trusted places, must very often be taken with a grain of salt – so that, at the very least, we (and our children) are not taken in like zombie computers by people motivated to do harm.

Perspective from across the Atlantic

I had an email conversation about this with friend and researcher Daniel Cardoso with EU Kids Online's Portugal research team in Lisbon. Here's some of his critical thinking on the subject:

"In dealing with trolling, we can't forget about the importance of free speech. And trying to erase any input from the trolls is not only dangerous, but counter-productive (since they can always regroup someplace else)…. Maybe one day trolling will wane, but bullying and cyber bullying won't go away magically. People are people on the Internet … and people trying to hurt others will always abound. The Internet is the great 'projector.' It empowers good people and bad people by projecting their actions far beyond the physical barriers, and far beyond any physical constraints. In the end … only the community can decide when it has had enough of trolling….

"So let us look at trolls. Do we find a homogenous group? I doubt it. I think we're more likely to find people with very different agendas collaborating for the sake of their end results…. [The phenomenon] is just too new, and people seem to think that it's too different. Maybe when we start seeing that with great powers come great responsibilities, we'll be more careful…. The most dangerous trolls are those with more power – more technical expertise. But that's just like anywhere else. A robber with a gun will always be more dangerous than a bare-handed one, in theory…. The Internet brings with it the potential to do in different ways the same old things, I think. So there will be an 'Internet way' to deal with the issue, but not an 'Internet way' to make it go away, since the Internet didn't start it."

Related links

* A New Yorker profile of a master manipulator in real life, "The Chameleon" brings new meaning to the term virtual reality (thanks to Andy Carvin for pointing this piece out)
* "Videogames can't be blamed for humanity's problems" at CNET

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