Sunday, June 09, 2013

On the Absurdity of Internet Trolls

Every now and then, I run across Internet trolls.  I always see a lot of justification for why troll behaviour is OK, and it always breaks down to either:
1.  They're jerks and will never change, so stop being such a victim.
2.  Everyone has an online version and offline version of their personality, so they're not "really" like that in real life.

I've thought long and hard about this logic and have concluded that it is not sound. I posit three reasons why these lines of thinking make no sense.

Reason #1: Separation of Personalities Is Not Tenable

The online personality and offline personality are both housed in the same mind from the same person. Whatever decisions and statements are made online or offline, those decisions and statements are made consciously. It is not like the person has a split personality that switches on and off when going online and offline. If such split personalities existed in such people, then those people would have major psychological problems that do indeed need help, and their behaviour can be at least excused, though probably not found acceptable. Most people would find it offensive to be labeled as having such psychological problems, so we can likely conclude that they are making their decisions and statements consciously.

Other possible defenses like constant drunkenness are also possible, but not probable. People who are drunk 18 hours a day have major problems that also need fixing, and most of these people would again find it offensive to be labeled as such social misfits. Yet another possible excuse is that the online persona is simply a fake persona made for entertainment's sake, like Borat, Stephen Colbert, etc. This excuse is also not probable because I have never seen anyone make such online attacks for the entertainment of a widespread audience; their purposes are almost always much more self-serving, and certainly not a career in the entertainment industry. Therefore, it's much more tenable to conclude that they are making their decisions and statements consciously as an expression of themselves wholly, and the argument that one is doing it "for the lulz" or for one's own entertainment is the epitome of selfish behaviour that offers no benefit to others (and can rather actually cause unnecessary pain).

If those decisions and statements are made consciously, the person is then responsible for those decisions and statements. The best test here would be what a a court of law would think. And a court of law would say that if one is in possession of sound mind and judgement, that person is indeed responsible for whatever decisions and statements they make. This is why it is tenable to sue for libel for what is said online, even if a statement was made only in jest. Therefore these people cannot then say they made those decisions and statements unknowingly. And if they cannot say they made those decisions and statements unknowingly, they also then cannot say, "No, this isn't me in the real world, actually, I'm really nice." The inevitable logical end is that these people must own their statements as being part of themselves wholly and are a reflection of their character. If I have malice in me, I have malice in me, I cannot pretend that it only exists online. Whether that malice reflects all of me is not the subject of discussion. Whether that malice exists at all is the subject at hand. And we have plentiful extreme examples that demonstrate why we cannot and should not separate interactions in the online world and offline world.

In the above cited examples, there are three things to consider. Firstly, real people are attacked by trolls. Particularly vicious attacks can be done from behind a screen of anonymity, but non-anonymous attacks can also be vicious. The consequences are that real people get hurt, resulting in at best a loss of quality of life, and at worst, death. For school children, it can be particularly hurtful because the people who bully them online also often bully them at school (in a study on cyberbulling, cyberbulling was found to be a possible contributor to suicide, but certainly could not be labeled as the sole or main cause; it is unfortunately a complicated issue). Secondly, the attackers could not fathom the extent of damage their actions would have; in many cyberbullying cases, attackers would note that they didn't truly mean for someone to go die, and yet they contributed to a suicide. Thirdly, the fallout extends beyond simply the victims, and can even hurt the attackers and their family and friends, especially if their identities are revealed publicly.

As such, despite the appearance of separation between the online and offline world (many of these people looked like normal happy people offline), the fact is that decisions and statements are still made by the same person and the consequences can be very real. It is true that online, it may seem less real because you're not face to face with someone, but real-life consequences we have seen in the above cited examples and others demonstrate that life is not actually any less real online. The consequences force the two worlds to merge, no matter what the online world thinks is true.

Reason #2: Apparent Incapability of Discussion

A very enlightening article was written by Paul Graham, who runs one of the more civil and intelligent online forums I've ever seen. Quoting from his article:

The third cause of trolling is incompetence. If you disagree with something, it's easier to say "you suck" than to figure out and explain exactly what you disagree with. You're also safe that way from refutation. In this respect trolling is a lot like graffiti. Graffiti happens at the intersection of ambition and incompetence: people want to make their mark on the world, but have no other way to do it than literally making a mark on the world. 

The final contributing factor is the culture of the forum. Trolls are like children (many are children) in that they're capable of a wide range of behavior depending on what they think will be tolerated. In a place where rudeness isn't tolerated, most can be polite. But vice versa as well. 

There's a sort of Gresham's Law of trolls: trolls are willing to use a forum with a lot of thoughtful people in it, but thoughtful people aren't willing to use a forum with a lot of trolls in it. Which means that once trolling takes hold, it tends to become the dominant culture. That had already happened to Slashdot and Digg by the time I paid attention to comment threads there, but I watched it happen to Reddit.

I have also noticed that most online trolls, bullies, and attackers in general are not capable of or not interested in carrying a high level of discussion. Rather, they will resort to insults instead of breaking down another person's points, understanding what is being said, and then responding to those points. This may be partly due to lack of interest or attention for the subject at hand (i.e. they are more interested in making people angry than in actual discussion) or in fact due to lack of intelligence. I think Paul Graham is correct on all counts. In fact, the very last paragraph I quote above seems to be exactly what happens at many online forums I have observed. People interested in having intelligent discussions get run off the website if they're not willing to accept the reality of the website.

If Paul Graham is right (and again, he seems to have solved the issue in his own online forum), then the issue has nothing to do with having online and offline personalities. Rather, the issue is that some people are malicious and some people are not, and the malicious people tend to group together and bully the non-malicious, especially if weakness is sensed. So it's not a separation of online and offline personality that is the issue, but rather the identification and grouping of certain types of people. And it is easier for me to think this way because of what I have explained in Reason #1: Separation of Personalities Is Not Tenable. The fact that many counterexample personalities exist who are not different online and offline seems to indicate that the idea of separation of online and offline personalities cannot be a universal rule, or even an overly common rule.

Reason #3: The Question of Justification

I have alluded to this in my discussion of Reason #1, but I will expand on this here. Two questions must be answered.
1. Can such behaviour be justified online even if it cannot be justified offline? That seems to be the implication of the logic to separate the online and offline personalities.
2. If the answer to the above is no, and the behaviour cannot be justified online, then why is it considered acceptable (or at least inevitable)?

Question 1 is obviously the more important question, because if the answer is yes, then there is no point to discuss Question 2. And I honestly cannot think of any way to justify rude behaviour, especially trolling, cyberbullying, and the like. Let's be clear: being rude is not the same as being honest. If bad news needs to be broken, you can do it gently, or you can do it bluntly, but you can do it still honestly without any use of insults. So I'm talking about pure rudeness, and worse, pure malicious attacks. If defendants of trolls have a way to justify such online behaviour, they can explain that justification. If they cannot justify it, then my point on Reason #3 as to why I can't agree with traditional troll defenses is hopefully self-explanatory; one would be trying to justify something that is not justifiable.

If the answer to Question 1 is no, one might give the excuse that it's at least acceptable or inevitable. Again, there are counterexamples in this world that demonstrate that this type of behaviour is not inevitable (most major forums where I stick around can be presented as counterexamples, though not all). So there can be no debating the point of inevitability, as one would not be able to claim that my counterexamples are not real. Then continuing with this logic, if this type of behaviour is not inevitable and also not justifiable, then I cannot think of any reason why it's acceptable. Troll defendants are welcome to try to explain this to me. If they cannot, then hopefully my exposition on Reason #3 as to why I cannot agree with troll defendants is complete. If this could be explained to me, it would literally be changing the way I see everything about the Internet. I would find that very enlightening, but do not have any reason to believe that would come to pass.

In conclusion, troll defendants seem to make cheap excuses to explain the Internet in a way that doesn't seem to hold up under scrutiny, and I think people in general would benefit if they didn't make cheap excuses for other people. If other people are malicious for whatever reason, either accept it and move on (eg. leave that online community or find ways to ignore the trolls), or don't accept it and fight them. But don't try to make excuses for them and say that it's OK. Myself, I've chosen to accept it and move on.