In the fight against online trolls, all swords are double-edged

A recent article has explored the causes, consequences and prescriptions against online trolling. The authors contend that online trolling has become totally pervasive, infecting every discussion from the largest circulation and most venerable news outlets to the tiniest personal blogs. They cite as evidence a recent Pew Research survey that suggests the problem may actually be getting worse. However, the authors note that the attempted cures often beget even more problems of their own.



Fingers in a rapidly collapsing dyke


One of the main problems with trolling is how to identify it without causing undue collateral damage. While some strident comments may be devoid of content, others may be put in harsh terms but contain valuable ideas. Many large news outlets, such as The Nation, have already dealt with the problem of trolling by eliminating or severely restricting who is able to comment. This may seem like a suitable solution, but it can have serious adverse consequences for the publication itself. One of those consequences is an immediate reduction in viewers. In the case of outlets like the Nation, which rely on a strong base of volunteer donors, that model may work well. For profit-driven outlets, losing a third or half of their readership to avoid hurt feelings doesn’t work at all.


In fact, quite the opposite is often the case. Many outlets and online opinion sites have found that actually fomenting rugged discourse has the effect of driving traffic to their site. This bodes poorly for those who consider the internet already to be an intellectual minefield. If less scrupulous websites are being lavishly rewarded for egging on the most vulgar firebrands among their comment sections, what chance is there of ever reducing potentially hateful and hurtful online speech? The incentive structures are all wrong.


But trying to explicitly reduce the threat in other ways has unintended consequences. One of the latest trends is to force commenters to use their real name, usually by logging in through Facebook. However, this is no problem for experienced trolls, who often have tens of throwaway Facebook accounts, to skirt. At the same time, it can discourage those leery of privacy violations from even logging in.




New Study Questions What Can Be Done About Online Trolling

Over the last decade, online trolling has become an endemic feature of the internet. In some cases, entire publications have taken extreme measures, such as completely removing comment sections, to rid themselves of its scourge. But others have embraced the contentious and often personal style of commentary typical of online trolling. This raises questions concerning what if anything can be done. As always, it seems one man’s troll is another’s articulate advocate.



Who benefits?


One of the inherent problems facing those who would do away with contentious commenting sections is a difficult reality that showmen the world over have known for centuries: Fights sell seats. As one website, such as the Nation, gets rid of its comment section or severely restricts who can and can’t leave comments, another site, like Buzzfeed, will pick up the slack.


As detailed in this article, many sites actually encourage these types of contentious comments because anger is one of the most potent drivers of traffic. But this kind of rage-fueled audience formation has serious drawbacks.


One overriding problem with mainstream media axing reader comments is that those readers then tend to gravitate toward sites that are less focused on providing fair and balanced coverage and more focused on racking up view counts. This has led to an increasingly factionalized citizenry, where people get caught in echo chambers, hearing and reading only those stories that reinforce the basic notions they already hold. This can lead to a breakdown in civil discourse and a collapse of healthy debate.


One of the ways in which the authors of a recent Pew Research study say that society may choose to deal with increasingly personal and uncivil discourse is by simply limiting speech. This has already been seen in some disturbing recent trends on college campuses where speakers were denied platforms. Other ways in which the authors of the study say that society may react is for government to increase its surveillance efforts on common citizens. None of these options are particularly desirable in a free society.


But the authors also warn that the alternative will be to let the trolls win, controlling all discourse and making the internet an intellectual mine field.