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.