Trolls, cyberbullying, Dan

This week’s New York Times magazine has a fascinating article about online trolls and cyberbullying, which includes a quote from Dan. The article itself is well worth reading. An excerpt:

That the Internet is now capacious enough to host an entire subculture of users who enjoy undermining its founding values is yet another symptom of its phenomenal success. It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural. But how do we deal with cases like An Hero, epilepsy hacks and the possibility of real harm being inflicted on strangers?

Several state legislators have recently proposed cyberbullying measures. At the federal level, Representative Linda Sánchez, a Democrat from California, has introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a federal crime to send any communications with intent to cause “substantial emotional distress.” In June, Lori Drew pleaded not guilty to charges that she violated federal fraud laws by creating a false identity “to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass” another user, and by violating MySpace’s terms of service. But hardly anyone bothers to read terms of service, and millions create false identities. “While Drew’s conduct is immoral, it is a very big stretch to call it illegal,” wrote the online-privacy expert Prof. Daniel J. Solove on the blog Concurring Opinions.

To steal a line from Glenn Reynolds — go read the whole thing.

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8 Responses

  1. I thought I’d see some more academics in the article, but, as I discovered recently, the literature on trolling is rather slim. So this is a welcome addition to the corpus. (See also the trolling resources from CFP ’08, which was mostly assembled by Jon Pincus).

    That said, it covers only a narrow spectrum of harmful speech online, and it’s fairly weak on suggesting solutions. Dan Gillmor’s suggestion that people should just ignore anonymous comments is pie-in-the-sky ludicrous.

    (No doubt Dan G. spoke to the reporter fMattathias Schwartz for 30 minutes, and this was what was quoted, but still, as a former journalist, Dan should know better. And I’ve invited him to comment here to explain himself further.)

    Anyhoo, it’s too bad Schwartz didn’t ask Danielle Citron for her opinion, since she’s been working on a paper on this recently.

  2. Belle Lettre says:

    Really interesting and rather frightening article. Thanks for the tip. I blogged about it here, and hopefully the good sociologists will have something to say about the internet norms and the idea of civility. Of course, they’re all at the ASA meeting now. I wonder if there’s more literature on norm violation that may be applicable to internet trolling in other disciplines. Time to hit JSTOR!

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    Trolling is in part a boundary definition issue — it’s a subset of a general Internet issue that includes (of all things) jurisdictional questions. That is, the current state of the Internet makes policing certain forms of boundaries more difficult. In this case it’s group or conversational boundaries rather than sovereign boundaries. The problem is that it’s much more difficult to exclude or shame someone for group-norm-violating behavior given the current structure of most Internet discussion forums. That’s why IRL “trolling” is much less prevalent. One possible technological solution would be to eliminate effective anonymity, at least in some venues.

  4. jon says:

    A good article, although focusing only on the extremely destructive version of trolling that certain people focus overlooks the damage of the far more pervasive trolling in the classic sense of the word. As well as discussions about Danielle’s work, and the gender issues related to trolling (recently covered in a Freakonomics blog post in the NY Times), it also would have bee nice to see something about community moderation and other defense techniques as an antidote.

    Moot, quoted in the article, co-moderated the CFP workshop session with me.

  5. Dan Gillmor says:

    Jon, of course there’s more to it than that. But your characterization of that small quote in the article is incorrect.

    I don’t think ignoring anonymous quotes is enough. I think we have to actively disbelieve them — assume falsehood when no evidence is provide.

  6. Dan– You missed the crucial distinction between defamation and harassment. In defamation there are facts up for debate, and it’s possible in the theoretical marketplace of ideas for a listener to side with the known speaker over the anonymous speaker.

    But in harassment, somebody is harming you by community with you directly, or by causing you to believe you are in imminent danger.

    A more philosophical distinction is that in defamation, the *past* is made uncertain (what happened), whereas in harassment, the *future* is made uncertain (as an anonymous threat is made to you).

    Harassment is what the article is about. As I said, I suppose you spoke for a long while with the reporter, and he chose to quote this, but, unfortunately, it’s not a solution to the problem at hand.

  7. Slightly-Mad says:

    It’s clear that we’re facing a troubling epidemic, and that these poor cursed individuals need our help more than ever.

  8. Slightly-Mad says:

    You’re all Trollist.

    Clearly we’re facing an epidemic, and these poor cursed individuals need our help more than ever.