Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, August 4, 2008 8:13 pm

Hypertrolling

Filed under: Sad — Lex @ 8:13 pm
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Via Nancy, here’s one scary story from the NYT about Internet trolls. But I’m not talking about people who just disrupt online activities. These people are much worse — they steal and post SocSec numbers online, they impersonate other people and engage in activities that make their subjects look bad, and they feel nothing but contempt for their victims, who may or may not have deserved anything approaching such treatment. This goes way beyond free speech, a fact that the article delicately broaches down near the bottom:

Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”? Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Except it’s not just confounding. It’s malice, identity theft and a whole host of other rude and/or illegal behaviors. The contempt they feel bespeaks both (pardon my momentary digression into pop psychology) a world of internal hurt and a dehumanization of their subjects. Empathy? That’s for dweebs.

But what to do about it? Some of what they do, such as identity theft and some forms of online harassment, already is illegal in many, if not most, states. But some behavior, rude, painful and upsetting as it might be, probably is constitutionally protected. There probably are technical ways to prevent or interdict much of what they do, but most people aren’t as tech-savvy as these folks, not least because they haven’t the time to become so — unlike a lot of these guys, they’re too busy getting by in the offline world (a fact that these guys appear to deride as a poor choice rather than, say, economic necessity).

I wish I had an answer, but none comes immediately to mind.

UPDATE: Quasi-relatedly (h/t: Phred)

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