Trolls, bullies and fake names
The internet has changed how we treat our fellow beings, sometimes with negative consequences. But making it a more pleasant environment may be impossible
‘It’s a bit addictive. If someone puts something bogus up you can go on and prove him wrong and get into a debate. If you win, you think, I’ve got one over on him. Most days I get my point across but if they throw personal stuff it does hit you. Vibrant discussion is great, where someone is losing an argument, but they can resort to personal attacks and all sorts of other things that aren’t relevant. And they do it deliberately. It can be a minefield of mind-games and that’s the bit I hate.”
Gerald Horgan from Dingle, in Co Kerry, is a regular commenter on websites, including the New York Times , the Guardian , the Huffington Post and The Irish Times . He posts a lot, but he is no “internet troll”; indeed his comments tend towards sympathy and level-headedness.
He is also in the minority in using his own name in his many postings. “I prefer to be honest and use my own identity. If you’re open, people will trust you more and will believe what you say.
"I was messing around communicating with people [online] in 1992-3. There were fewer people involved then . . . If I had been introduced to the internet in the past five or six years I’d think, 'Nutters'. I’m out of here.”
The internet isn’t “full” of nutters. But it is full of challenges and loud voices and never-ending discussion. And it’s not a fad. It’s our present and our future. In lieu of robot butlers we got interconnected computers and a rash of existential panics.
This week there was an Oireachtas debate about social media and its regulation. There’s an ongoing and important discussion about cyberbullying and a pettier one about what constitutes a “troll”; in the latter discussion, pranksters are wilfully confused with criminals.
There are also recurring worries about how our constant connectivity is eroding the private sphere and compromising our ability to keep cool heads and maintain attention. Even if we just read and don’t even “talk” online, we’re being affected. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicated that nasty comments under an article significantly altered readers’ interpretation of that article.
“There is a phenomenon called negativity bias, which assumes people pay more attention to and respond more strongly to negative information than to positive information. And it appears that uncivil comments resonate with people and they are likely to remember them and respond to them.”
Online is not real
Other studies suggest that online communications are not reflective of real-world opinion. “We do know that the people who are discussing issues online don’t necessarily reflect the general population,” says Anderson. “[The Pew Research Centre in Washington, DC] just came out with a study showing that opinion reflected in tweets is at odds with overall public opinion. They also found that, overall, negativity is very common on Twitter. ”
One of the recurrent controversies is internet anonymity, whereby people adopt inscrutable pseudonyms on the internet, and sometimes criticise others from behind this anonymous cloak.
There are reasons to allow for anonymity. The weak can tackle the strong without fear of reprisal. People can whistle-blow about bad behaviour. David Cochrane, the communities editor at The Irish Times , notes that it can also allow more timid people to discuss topics they might otherwise hesitate to bring up.
However, “anonymity breeds incivility,” according to Anderson. “When people don’t have to see that person face to face or make their identity known, they feel they have a lot more freedom to say whatever they want.”