Monday, August 04, 2008

Of trolls, anonymity and online norms

The nature of good and evil is not the usual TechnoLlama topic, but I have been thinking a lot about what makes people evil after reading the article in the New York Times entitled "The Trolls Among Us". This is a disturbing and compelling look at certain online communities that proudly dedicate themselves to trolling. In common internet lingo, a troll is a person who makes a deliberately incendiary comment in order to elicit an emotional response. As an old hand at internet forum moderation, trolling is a given, a fact of life as immutable as qwerty keyboards and Estonian hackers.

Many people buy the idea that the internet gives users seemingly tight anonymity. This belief, unjustified as it is, tends to create a particularly obnoxious class of netizen which revels in other people's suffering. I have often believed that the internet allows people to show who they really are, and often the picture is not pretty. As the much cited Greater Internet Fcukwad Theory predicts, a anormal person can become a troll when presented with the prospects of anonymity and an audience.

What does this have to do with evil? I believe that there is something happening in those online comunities that can tell us a lot about human nature. True, some of the actions of internet trolls are annoying, puerile, infantile, and often harmless, so why tar them with the big E word? Some of these people do whatever they do for "lulz", for fun, so where is the damage? There are several examples of nasty behaviour online, ranging from the disgusting case of some trolls emailing and phoning the parents of a teenager that committed suicide, to the outright strange case of Lori Drew. There is something clearly wrong with people who perpetrate such actions, but what I find most interesting is that there seems to be a large element of peer-pressure, community reinforcement, and ad hoc reasoning for the action undertaken by trolls. Most of these actions seems prompted by earning some form of community recognition in the troll underground sites, currency in the shape of "lulz". Trolls seem to get enjoyment from the juvenile act of telling other trolls of their exploits, thus reinforcing each others actions as normal. It is a well-documented phenomenon that peer approval is a very important factor in determining behaviour, and that criminal and "evil" behaviour is usually the result of community feedback. "Everyone else is doing it" quickly turns into "I was just following orders".

Some of the actions described in the NYT article may seem inoffensive social experiments, such as a blog saying that suicide victim "had it coming". Others range on the downright criminal, such as hacking email services, bank accounts an flooding phone numbers. One of them seems to defend his actions as a way of social service. He does hurtful things, but if people get offended it is not his fault, it is the victim's fault for taking offence in the first place.

Should the law enforce trolling? I am quite shocked that some of these people wilfully describe their actions to the press, when in many instances they could constitute criminal offences. Certainly, some type of trolling seems indistinguishable from hacking. Nevertheless, as long as the internet remains largely anonymous, the homo orcus will continue to inhabit the dark spaces under the information superhighway.

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