Sunday, May 29, 2016

Your Front Teeth and a Civil Tongue: Some Musings on Internet Trolls and Bullies

by Nomad

Some idle observations on trolls and other discontents and the pursuit of civility in divisive times. Spoiler alert: It's not easy.

Like Toilet Paper

For bloggers, the appearance of an occasional troll is a sign you must be doing something right. It used to bother me but not anymore.
That kind of reactive abuse is a kind of rite of passage and a validation that the information in the post annoys the very people it is supposed to annoy.

Like toilet paper, there are a variety of troll types. However, the main difference is that toilet paper at least performs a valuable service. 
When it comes to trolls the most common are the illiterate ones who read the headlines and skim the rest. They definitely clearly spend more time with their comments than reading. They explode on the scene, leaving their dung as a marker and then never return. 

There are the ones who direct their personal attacks at me (or other commenters.) "You MORAN!" is the standard salutation and represents the beginning and ending of their wisdom.
I call them snowflakes because they are sharp and cold but so tiny and unimportant. And like snowflakes, at this blog they disappear almost as soon as you notice them.
Think yourself lucky, that you never get a chance to read their comments. Your life would not be enriched, take from me.

Bottomline, I treat such remarks with the same respect as I would picnic trash left in a public park.

Generally, after name-calling and insults, the second most-recognized troll tactic is to dispute the evidence or to reject the source. All sources except right wing ones are biased. ("garbage") All polls are "sketchy" or "pretty suspect" unless the validate the prejudices of the troll.
(Of course, not all polls are equal and a fair degree of skepticism is not such a bad thing if applied generally.)

Generally speaking, nothing is allowed to interrupt their dreamy worldview. Every intrusion into their blissful sleep is painful and irritating.

Sometimes the reaction is much less coherent than that. "This post is ridiculous!" is an opinion that deserves only as much of my time as the comment took to write. 
Probably much less than that.
I see that kind of comment as one of a petulant child who is told something he/she doesn't want to hear.

Sad to say, it's very rare that any of trolls have anything important or original to say. There are thousands upon thousands of right wing sites, all very well-financed, all spewing the same nonsense and baseless accusations. The trolls deliver the same faded message again and again. 
Echoes echoing echoes, with the original remark becoming less and less meaningful each time it is repeated.

The clinking and clattering sound of the right wing propaganda machine  can be deafening. So I tend to have limited patience with people who clutter the comment sections or attack other commenters. Their efforts will be more appreciated at other sites, like Fox Nation and whatever net presence Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh currently host.  

The Paradox of Fairness

To accuse this site of being biased is accurate enough. I am not insulted to hear that. Why should I be?  Since the Fairness Doctrine was abandoned back in the Reagan days, the idea of "fair and balanced" was rendered null and void. Fox News is only taking the piss when it makes that claim- a boorish mockery of an antiquated and perhaps imaginary ideal.
It was a pity but the notion of fair and balanced journalism has been vanquished and all in the name of progress. 

The justification for abandoning this doctrine was that with the advent of cable TV, a single channel didn't need to present both sides. One could simply turn the channel to hear a contrasting opinion or view. If it was true for cable TV then it is even more applicable to the Internet.
Find a site that is fair and balanced and I can  instantly match that with 500 hundred people who will claim it is biased. So, to hear somebody from the Right demanding I present the alternative view strikes me as the ultimate hypocrisy.

In any case, it's not offensive to hear this "insult" that from a troll. Some opinions do not deserve to be given equal time. (Trump has paraded them all before us, too.) It cheapens the medium in a very basic way. There really is a such a thing as truth and lies and lies should not be given the same validity as well-supported evidence. That's been the mistake of mainstream media: equating lies and truth will always damage any journalistic efforts. 

Allegations may be true, they may be false but they are not the same as a conviction. (Likewise, tea-party voters and quite a few politicians , are unable to distinguish between the meaning of "impeachment" which only an accusation of wrong-doing, not proof. Go ask Kenneth Starr, if you can find him.)

One can say that Hillary Clinton is "crooked" but it is only a claim begging for support and without that evidence, it is both slander and as meaningful and appreciated as a fart.  

Out of curiosity, I sometimes go back and trace the people who leave angry comments. It's generally quite pointless. I usually find nothing because these are actually nobodies in real life. It's like trying to find a celebrity amongst a pile of slimy earthworms. That's not a very pleasant thing to say, I know. 
However, it seems to be true.

Still, I have always wondered what would motivate people to get so outraged and bellicose. Why would they work so hard to be so vulgar and belligerent? It is like encountering a person who intentionally cultivates bad breath and then finds ways to get into people's faces.  

Most of those people- understandably- take advantage of the anonymous quality of the Internet to make asses of themselves. Who would want their children knowing that their loveable pappy just called some stranger the "N" and "C" words because she supported Bernie Sanders and not Trump or vice versa? 

Like your average serial killer, all the neighbors would say the troll was such a quiet person, kept to himself and always "seemed" nice enough. However, with a couple of vodka tonics and an empty house on a Saturday night, the unassuming little guy can be Internet's version of Jeffrey Dahmer. 

Sometimes, there are the intelligent comments that disagree with the crux of the post on more solid grounds. Fair enough. For example, factual errors should not be re-broadcast as evidence, so I am more than happy to revise when necessary. When it comes to evidence to the contrary (but something debatable) the comment section should be enough. So long as it is respectful and open-minded (as all discussions used to be) then I am usually more than happy to make the appropriate adjustments. 

And why not? I am not expecting to change the world with this blog. 

Keeping Things Civil

Ultimately, free speech comes with basic limits, based mostly on what most children should be taught. By that I mean, the Golden Rule. "How would I like to be treated?"  
As simple a rule as it is, it's not as easy as it might sound. (And from time to time, all of us in moments of anxiety or whatever, drop the ball on that.)
However, people who do not show even the minimum respect to strangers are undeserving of respect from strangers. I have been called names online that, if said in a bar, would have led to broken noses and a few lost teeth. Not that I am a violent type.

Back before the internet, losing front teeth or being taken to court on slander/libel charges was the only way some people ever learned the paradox of free speech and the danger of saying whatever rude thing that popped into your head. The only reason Trump can say what he wants is because he has an army of attorneys ready to sue and bodyguards which follow him like baby ducks.

From my limited understanding, the human brain devotes valuable space in the pre-frontal lobes to filter out those unwise declarations from reaching our tongues and fingertips.  In our age, this part of the brain seems to be withering at an alarming rate.

Back in May 2011, a survey of Civility in America was conducted by KRC Research. After interviewing over a thousand people, the pollsters found that  86% had been victims of some form of uncivil behavior.  Rude or disrespectful behavior has become the norm. 

It's not merely a story of victims and attackers. It's more complicated than that. Almost everyone has contributed to the problem, and everyone is a victim of it. Americans also admit to perpetrating incivility—approximately six in 10 (59%) Americans acknowledge that they themselves have been uncivil.

And, that survey was conducted five years ago. Today, the levels of incivility- particularly, in political discourse- has reached toxic levels. There's seem to be no topic that hasn't been tainted by it. 

One source notes that the outcome of this year's election could be determined by the negative impact of the levels of rudeness. 
A new national poll has found that even though businessman Donald Trump has become the Republican frontrunner for president in part because of his brash, say-anything style, many people find him to be the least civil candidate in either the Republican or Democratic party....
And 70 percent of Americans, including 74 percent of likely voters, think incivility is such a problem that it has risen to crisis levels.
Breaking that down a little:
As for the presidential candidates, 90 percent of Democrats said Trump is uncivil, while 69 percent of Republican voters and independents agreed.
Johns Hopkins University professor Pier M. Forni is the founder of The Civility Project, which through a set of outreach programs aims "at assessing the significance of civility, manners and politeness in contemporary society."
Forni says that:
The onslaught of rude, bullying and uncivil behavior—intensified by the 24/7 reach of the Internet and social-networking sites such as Facebook—adds to the stress people are already feeling and can translate into real and very tragic consequences.
That 2011 study also found that:
Half of American parents (50%) report that their children have experienced incivility at school and nearly half of Americans twenty years and older (45%) say that they’d be afraid to be teenagers today because of incivility’s frequent occurrence. One in 10 (11%) parents report that they have sent children to a different school due to problems with incivility.
The irony is that many of these trolls/ internet bullies must have children in school  and would be outraged to hear one of them upset over being bullied by a classmate or a teacher.
Not only are these parents engaging in the same behavior  they condemn when it is conducting in schools, they are prepared to elect a man who engages in it to get elected.

When it comes to such a widespread social problem, why would any blog site wish to promote that kind of behavior? Especially if there was any reasonable way to prevent it?

Hijack This!

Another beauty of managing a blog is choosing the topics. As a means of keeping my fragile sanity, I write only about what interests me. The blog is not a commercial enterprise so I do not have to be overly concerned about pleasing an imagined customer. 
At times, it can also be a chore to find things that spark my curiosity but I do my best. 

Every blogger has his/her own site rules. So have I. 
I wish that it were not necessary. I wish the whole world would put down their switchblades and embrace with a good moist French cheek-to-cheek kiss. Alas, that happy vision shall not come to pass in my lifetime.
And experience has shown me deregulation of the blog has the same effects as deregulation in all other industry. Namely, chaos. 
It's an awe-inspiring (but demoralizing sight) to watch a site being overrun by trolls and gremlins and hobgoblins. Every post, every comment is subject to intense ridicule and vulgar and snide remarks.

It's true that too many rules tend to spoil the spontaneity of a discussion but when politics are as divisive as they are now, rules serve an important function. 

This leads us to the hijacking troll. When you board an airliner, the destination is not decided by a passenger. Only by the pilots. You don't get on a plane heading for Recife, Brazil and then demand the crew take you to Zurich. 

In the same way, blog posts can be hijacked by malcontents who are upset that an article about Donald Trump's mobster links isn't all about the Clinton Foundation. For that reason, I do not count changing the topic of the post to be a valid reason to condemn the article. 
Comparisons are fine, but to say "your side does it more!" is the kind of debating tactic that normally scores no points. It could be true but it misses the point.
Besides, it's really boring for other readers.

We can safely assume that the title (rather than the comment) is what sparked their interest in the first place. That's like a customer complaining at a farmer's market that the sign advertising apples is all wrong because there are no apricots to sell.  

Small Pleasures of a Blogger

One of the small pleasures of writing a blog is that I get to set the rules. As a  fair-minded king, I try to be slightly more fair than what I have seen from comparable right wing sites. 
To some degree, I also get to determine the focus and therefore, the general direction of the blog. That is, and always will be a liberal and progressive direction and I feel no shame or pangs of guilt for admitting it.  My entire life has been devoted to liberal principles and that is certainly not going to change as soon as I sit down before a keyboard.

I have in the past allowed my blog to be a platform for people (sane people) who did not agree with something I had written. It was on FATCA and it proved to be an interesting discussion. That was only because the debate was carefully monitored and those who wished to disrupt things were immediately shown the door. In addition, the community of commenters assisted in establishing and maintaining the atmosphere.
Should the trolls do not like that policy, I encourage them to go out and search for venues where they will be appreciated? And I wish them the best of luck.

If in doubt, the titles usually supply enough information to understand what the posts are going to be about. It might sound cruel but I see trolls try to switch the topic as really just frustrated bloggers who are too lazy to set up their own sites. 

There are many places to host a site, and they are usually free. They do however require quite a bit of dedication. They require technical knowledge and, rules to keep things in order, most importantly, you have to have something worth reading.
A warning to the wise.
Having your own site is not such a great idea for the perpetually angry ranter or the bile-spewing troll. The opinions of that sort do not tend to attract too much of a following in the long term.
My advice is to stick to Facebook groups if you need that sort of "attention fix."

Trolls or Misguided Cranks?

Very rarely, I see angry comments from people who are far more interesting than the run of the mind enraged dissenter. These are, I assume, people who, under different circumstances, command a high degree of respect. People whose opinions- at least in their narrow expertise- are sought after and for which, they are well-paid. 

Are they secret trolls? I couldn't tell you. Is that even the correct word to describe them? Or just misguided cranks who feel under threat? People seeking validation for opinions that are fast becoming obsolete. 

Whatever the case, it defies my imagination to understand how any of my relatively harmless posts could provoke an executive of a multi-million dollar software firm to spend even thirty minutes writing comments. (After all, 30 minutes of his time must be worth a lot more money than I make writing the articles.)

Even when the topic is about greed, the post was not intended to be a personal attack against anybody's lifestyle choices. Quoting Biblical passages about greed was never meant to be a critique on the time you spend on the yacht or your time-sharing condo in Jamaica or the fact that you might live better off than about 90% of the world's population. 

I say, enjoy it while it lasts. To quote Paul Simon, this type of person is fast on the way to ending up "a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard."
One of the mixed blessings of the Trump campaign. He has made the money grubbers look tacky and backward and brainless. They may not see it but the rest of the world has.

But, I would tell those fat cats with an ax to grind, don't think you are in any way special. There are a plenty of people who wish to be little Donald Trumps. 
Too many, actually. 
Luckily for the world, most of these people can resist the temptation to become internet trolls.