The trouble with trolls (and how to beat them)
- 16 August, 2014 21:22
Twitter exploded in activity in response to the news about the tragic suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. The vast majority of the commentary was in the form of loving tributes and remembrances of a widely beloved entertainer.
But two days later, William's daughter Zelda said this on Twitter: "I'm sorry. I should've risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye."
Zelda Williams was driven off of Twitter by a troll or trolls using the names PimpStory and MrGoosebuster. The accounts sent her messages and pictures that are too horrible to relate here. She tweeted to her followers: "Please report @PimpStory @MrGoosebuster. I'm shaking. I can't. Please."
This event is the trolling crisis in a nutshell. A vulnerable person. A sociopath or two on social media tormenting that person without consequence, totally beyond the reach of everyone (in fact, the pain caused and the attention grabbed rewarded them). Even millions of well-wishers and supporters can't overcome the pain caused by the heartless trolling of a tiny number of people.
The Telegraph newspaper this week published an article with a headline that proclaimed, " Online Trolls Are Forcing Women "Offline."
Anyone can be hurt by trolls. But some people are especially targeted -- women, youth, members of LGTB community, minorities and those suffering from personal crises. Trolls silence, shame, harass, horrify and stress people, sometimes to a life-threatening degree.
Can anything be done about it?
The answer is yes. But first let's understand the new world of online trolling.
Trends in trolling
Online trolling has been around since the BBS days. There are many different kinds of trolls. Those in the biggest group don't even know they're trolls. They deliberately make statements in online conversations that are just wrong enough or just offensive enough to set others off on emotional rants. These accidental trolls leave the conversation feeling like they've affected people and have been heard. (If they offered constructive, respectful comments, they might be ignored -- and that would leave them feeling worthless and invisible).
At the other extreme are people who make violent threats against those they perceive as adversaries, perhaps even talking of rape or murder. And, of course, there's everything in between.
Like everything else in technology, trolling evolves and adapts to new technologies, new communications services and new awareness. Here's a look at some of the new forms of trolling.
Imposter posing. There are several trends in trolling that are clearly on the upswing. One involves a form of identity theft, in which a troll creates an account using a name that's the same as, or similar to, the name of a famous person and then pretends to be that person while interacting with others.
The friends and family plan. In a related trend, some trolls try to harass famous people indirectly, by targeting their friends, relatives and followers; they may ignore the celebrities themselves but say horrible things to their children or spouses.
Astroturfing. This ploy is designed to make others believe that a certain opinion is widely held when in fact it's being disseminated by just one troll. The trick is to create many accounts and then post as multiple fake people.
Fake self-righteousness. Some especially crafty trolls harass their victims while convincing others that their cause is just. Someone who can do this skillfully might, for example, accuse his target of racism and cultivate an anti-racist mob of duped nontrolls who also attack the target.
The problem of online trolling is bad and getting worse. What can be done about it?
The trouble with Twitter
Most of the biggest, worst or highest-profile trolling incidents -- as well as cases of harassment, threats and abuse -- occur on Twitter these days.
(Twitter knows it has a problem, and in the wake of the Zelda Williams case that company said that it is "evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one.")
What even the smartest people weighing in on the issue repeatedly fail to understand is the relationship between trolling and the very structure of Twitter.
In my experience, among users of the big social sites, people on Twitter are the most vulnerable to trolling and Google+ users are the least vulnerable. So I'm going to illustrate the Twitter problem by comparing Twitter and Google+.
On Twitter, every tweet is equal. Any reply or retweet essentially references another tweet. But a so-called comment on a tweet is not really attached to or subordinate to the tweet that it refers to.
That means blocking someone -- say, a troll -- doesn't do very much. The troll can still easily see anything you post and can still participate in the conversations you start and, in turn, influence other participants and even hijack those conversations.
Twitter has a nuclear option -- making your account private -- but that means every single follower needs your permission in advance in order to follow you.
Google+, on the other hand, is completely different. Conversations exist in comments, which are different from and subordinate to -- the initial posts. Most important, comments to a post are completely under the control of the poster.
For example, you can "flag" a commenter. The comment then becomes invisible to everyone except the troll, who still sees it there in the comments thread. Trolls just think they're being ignored.
When you block someone on Google+, the blocked commenter can't see your posts and can't comment no matter what.
This system ends trolling because trolls want to get an emotional reaction out of people. But both flagging and blocking removes them from conversations. That means you can start conversations and maintain them without any trolls or harassers. Zero. Not one.
And I proved it.
Back in November, Google added a rule requiring YouTube users to log in with Google+ before they could comment on YouTube. The troll-plagued YouTube community freaked out and slammed the move.
I got into some arguments with YouTube fans and tried to explain to them how Google+ lets you interact with millions of people troll-free. I challenged every troll on YouTube to "come at me, troll." In this post, I promised my followers that we would have a civil, respectful conversation without a single troll, harasser or hater -- and I kept my promise.
I wrote: "I will demonstrate the power of Google+ comments by asking you to find the personal attacks, trolling, spamming, novels, ASCII crap and all the rest in the comment thread below this post/comment. Do you see it? No, you don't. That's the power of the Google+ commenting system."
That post got 318 comments, and every single one of them was constructive and respectful. It was easy, because the fundamental structure of Google+ makes it trivial to eliminate 100% of the trolls and haters from your conversations.
Google+ enables you to create a cordon sanitaire -- a barrier around the trolls that protects not only you but others in your conversations.
One other point that everyone misses. In order to "direct message" someone on Twitter, the user needs to be following you. That means contacting someone who isn't following you requires that you broadcast that contact to the world -- and then trolls, of course, can see that interaction and start trolling the person you contacted. On Google+, you can privately message any other user -- or any combination of users -- via a post addressed only to them and completely beyond the knowledge of trolls.
There's a lot of good advice out there about dealing with trolls, which mostly boils down to "don't feed them."
Of course, many are opting for the nonpublic route, choosing messaging apps over social networks, locking their Twitter accounts or never posting publicly on Facebook or Google+.
But some people want to be public. They want to influence people, promote their work and not hide their posts out of fear.
I'm sorry, but the best advice is what nobody wants to hear. Here it is: If you're a woman, a youth, an LGTB person, a minority or a celebrity -- or just someone who wants to interact in the full light of day without ever being harassed by trolls and haters -- delete your Twitter account and start using Google+.
Of course, Twitter is a great place to monitor news and keep up on what's happening. If that's what you like about Twitter, then I recommend setting up a new account anonymously or using a pseudonym. You can use Google+ for posting your thoughts, starting conversations and engaging with conversations that other people start.
And, of course, there are alternatives to Google+, such as Facebook, which offers almost as much protection against trolls.
But for anyone who's serious about scraping the world's trolls off their shoe once and for all, nothing beats Google+.
The problem of trolls has already been solved. Just not on Twitter.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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