There’s a quote attributed to JC Watts: “Character is doing the right thing when nobody is looking.” The Internet could be the human race’s first true test of this maxim: What do you do when you perceive yourself to be anonymous and invisible, to not be at risk for consequences? If you use your Internet anonymity to taunt and abuse others, does that mean you’re an immoral person?
As long as there has been the Internet, there have been trolls. The motivation and type of troll can vary, but one thing is constant: they do not care what you think of them, and usually, the more you voice their displeasure, the more pleased they are (with themselves, with your frustration). If there is one Internet maxim you must learn, it is this: Don’t Feed the Troll. Like the kid who chased after you in the elementary school playground, if you can’t get him to see sense, and you can’t beat him up, and if telling the teacher will make it worse, your only option is to ignore him. But recently, another tactic has surfaced: publishing notorious trolls’ real names and biographical info. The most famous recent example of this is the article on Gawker that revealing Reddit troll Violentacrez’s information. Since the article was published, Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez, has lost his job and apologized on CNN. Reddit reacted harshly, deleting links to gawker.com, and debates broke out all over Reddit, alternately defending Violentacrez’s right to privacy and free speech and gleefully celebrating his public shaming (see this article, along with plenty others).
The question at the heart of the debate, in words that I am borrowing from the Babble blog Momcrunch, is this: “…Is this the best way to tackle the increasing lousy anonymity of the abusive web? Do you think revealing the identity of these vultures, or trolls, or bullies – whatever you want to call them – should be public? Will this make people behave more kindly online?”
I guess I don’t get the question, in a way. The question isn’t “Should we do [action X]?” but rather, “What are we going to do?” I mean, did you have an easy time ignoring bullies in elementary school? We can talk about shades of harm and rights of privacy (did Violentacrez harm the girls whose pictures he posted without their permission? Did he have an expectation of privacy that Adrien Chen, the author of the Gawker article, violated?) all day, but Reddit has already done that. You could argue that if you don’t like ViolentAcrez’s posts, don’t go to the subreddits that he moderates. And yet we go anyway. We know not to feed the trolls, but we argue anyway. Watching humanity–social animals that we are–grapple with the social hive mind that is the Internet is a fascinating activity. To a certain type of nerd, it’s better than the Planet Earth series.
Humans are profoundly social animals, and we’re never really alone, even when we’re solitary. We’ve all grown up surrounded by and learning the correct behavior from others. Each of us has the morals and ethics of the culture in which we grew up embedded deeply within our brains and our hearts. We police each other, we always have. Not just in the usual ways of coercion and punishment, but with social judgment, fear of embarrassment, and social exile. We do this because it’s a big, bad, scary world out there, and if you can’t count on the people around you to act in a relatively predictable way, then the world is all the more dangerous. Many of our cultural ethics and morals are designed to keep a group cohesive and working together. The Bible doesn’t tell you to not covet your neighbor’s wife only because it pisses off God. If you covet your neighbor’s wife, if you don’t respect his property, that damages the whole community. And if the community can’t trust each other–if everyone’s just borrowing everyone else’s wife without asking–then when the sandstorms come, when the locusts come, when the marauding Romans invade, we won’t be able to solve the problem. As Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” It doesn’t even have to come down to a situation of life or death. Anyone who has ridden public transportation can list the many unspoken rules of etiquette that govern riding the bus, the little things that you can count on that make you willing to lock yourself in a small box with forty or fifty strangers. And anyone can tell you how alarming it is when a passenger starts violating those rules of etiquette, even if they’re not doing anything dangerous (see: the This American Life episode “Ruining It For the Rest of Us,” and listen to Act Three about the Amtrak Quiet Car).
Many people (perhaps most) don’t really think about how the Internet is different from “real life,” and behave in online forums in more or less the same fashion they behave in in real life. But some take refuge in the Internet’s insulation from the “real world,” some revel in their ability to cause trouble and push boundaries. In real life, of course, boundary pushing is subject to real life consequences (whether it be raised eyebrows or jailtime). Some of us would love to cut loose in real life, but raised eyebrows scare us, so we take to the Internet, where we are protected from raised eyebrows and mocking laughter. And some of us revel in that insulation, and use it to run rampant and cause trouble. Some of us use the Internet to provide release to our inner troll. It’s not a question of whether or not trolls are immoral because at the end of the day, we’re only as moral as the group we’re surrounded by.
But all the same, I think the impulse to shut down, shame, police, or judge trolls is damn near biological. We can’t not do it. I should know by now to not feed the trolls, but I can’t not argue with them. But since they’re removed from or immune to all the usual ways of social coercion (ostracism, financial punishment, a swift kick to the face), what are we left with? Shutting down accounts or kicking someone off the Internet isn’t really practical, so what do we do? We drag them back to where we can hold them accountable for their actions–we out them in the real world, to their employers and family members. Assholes are inevitable, and we ignore as many as we can, because we’d drive ourselves crazy if we didn’t. But to ignore them all would allow social anarchy to take over, and I don’t think our biologies would allow us to do that. Maybe there’s a better way of dealing with trolls (actually dealing with them, not just ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away). I’d sure like to hear it.