Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Internet Trolls: Hiding under Virtual Bridges

KIRK: You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he'll dare. Who's to stop him? He doesn't need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What's your prognosis, Doctor? (Star Trek,)


After my posting yesterday, "James", who often comments on my posts, noted that:


"You have, I presume, been following the case of Caroline Criado-Perez (who campaigned for Jane Austen to be added to the new £10 note), and the vile abuse she had to put up with? The trouble with Facebook and Twitter is that they allow users to spread offence far faster and further than any previous media - the old story about a lie going twice round the world before the truth has its boots on has never been truer. "


So I thought it would be time to address the darker side of social media, and how any restrictions may end up as a trade-off against free speech.


The really clever troll, of course, creates fake identities, which is simple enough to do online. Of course, the IP address of people posting information can be tracked, but there are also IP anonymised systems out there, so it is very difficult to track down someone really determined and technically savvy.


There is at least one Troll posting under assumed names on Politics Jersey in Facebook, on Twitter, and often in the online comments area of the Jersey Evening Post. He (because it seems likely that he has been identified by his turn of phrase) creates new aliases whenever he is blocked, using both male and female names. This is what the abusers of Caroline Criado-Perez did.


On Facebook, the lack of any history, any photos, and in fact anything that can identify him in any way as someone with a social life is often lacking. His messages are not threatening, but they are often aimed to cause offence, and disrupt sensible discussions. He may even be behind several letters to the Jersey Evening Post which were found to come from bogus local addresses that didn't exist, and probably were written under an assumed name.


He is not the only perpetrator locally. The late Simon Abbot, who died recently, also produced a variety of identities in which he could both promote his non-existent charitable fund raising events, and also no doubt try to infiltrate any closed groups in which his critics discussed him.


But there may be legitimate reasons why people want privacy, without being malicious. "James", who made the comment on my blog, exists, as far as I can see, only as a Blog name, and the details there of how long he has been on Blogger. He has no visible blog of his own, and no personal details identifying him apart from his moniker of "James".


And this need for privacy also protects those who use social media like Twitter in countries where free speech, and political dissent is trampled upon. Mic Wright, writing in the Telegraph notes the problem on how difficult it is to balance freedom of speech against offensive and threatening use of social media, and he makes the important point that existing laws do exists against those who abuse social media in this way:


"To some extent, holding Twitter so directly responsible for abuse that flows through its network is like demanding that the Post Office inspect every letter. If Twitter were to institute the kind of "zero-tolerance" policies some users are advocating, it would become harder for it to resist laws in countries where genuine free speech is curtailed. Let me be clear: death threats, rape threats, threats of violence are illegal and we have laws to deal with them. Twitter cannot don a policeman's helmet. It doesn't have the technical resources or manpower."


"It's grimly ironic that many of those now calling for Twitter to ban multiple accounts and anonymity as well as suggesting a fee to join are the same people who cheered the social network's supposed role in Middle Eastern revolutions. The downside of a platform where users can send messages to anyone else using the service is that its power is as available to abusers as it is to constructive critics and friends. If Twitter were to take the route Facebook has – censoring content like images of breastfeeding and certain political views – there would be just as many howls of protest. It is not a simple question of deciding who is "nice" and shutting down those who don't fit Caitlin Moran's magical unicorn definition."


Twitter can of course suspend accounts and they are working on ways to simplify reporting abuse, by anyone who breaks their rules. Tony Wang, the UK Manager says "We will suspend accounts that, once reported to us, are found to be in breach of our rules."


Twitter's law enforcement guidelines say it will release a user's personal information only if requested under court order. But as they noted - that "may not be accurate if the user has created a fake or anonymous profile. Twitter doesn't require email verification or identity authentication".


We are back to the problem of the anonymous troll, and whether Twitter should keep compliance information to determine the individual's identity. But of course, once it does that, there is no reason why that cannot be obtained by countries wishing to stifle dissent, or as we have seen in recent weeks, the USA security agencies covertly obtaining information from Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc.


Legislating against threats will deter and catch those who sound off without thinking, but they will do nothing to capture the really malicious and clever troll.


Forbes magazine describes just such a case:


"Leo Traynor, an Internet user in Ireland, had a problem. More specifically, he had a troll, a very nasty troll. At first, the troll just sent him nasty messages on Twitter, telling him that he was a "dirty f*cking Jewish scumbag," for example. Every time Traynor blocked the troll, it would reappear with a new account. Then the troll moved to other forums, spamming Traynor's blog, sending him Facebook messages, and flooding his email account with "foulmouthed and disgusting comments & images… of corpses and concentration camps and dismembered bodies." And you thought your email backlog was bad."


Traynor tells the story on his own blog:


"It transpired that the abuse had emanated from three separate IP addresses in different corners of Ireland. Two of them were public wifi locations but the third....The third location was the interesting one. The third location was a friend's house. The Troll was his son. His 17 year old son"


He confronted the boy in question:


"The Troll burst into tears. His dad gently restraining him from leaving the table. I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him "Why?" The Troll sat there for a moment and said "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing." A game thing. So, that's what it was... The Troll's mother said "If you want to call the Garda we'll support you in that. I'm ashamed of him." I responded: "I'm not criminalizing a 17 year old kid and ruining his future. But I will write about it - and you must all guarantee me that he'll go and see a counsellor about this or I will go legal on you.""


The psychological aspect is part of the problem, which I think we see both in this specific case, and when hundreds of abusive tweets and retweets are made against individuals.


Social media is such a new medium that we simply don't know how to use it properly. There are no lessons in etiquette, it is an instantly picked up means of communicating, and because it does away with the slow steps people take to learn and engage with one another, it sometimes seems like putting a 14 year old behind the wheel of a car, and letting them drive without driving lessons.


Part of the problem, I would suggest, is that while the internet is very good at fostering communications on a global scale, there is also a disconnect between the real and the virtual. The internet is an artificial environment, and like the great shift to urban society, with the rise of the great Victorian cities, it can be profoundly alienating.


The case of Leo Traynor illustrates this very well. What is virtual becomes almost a game; it is detached from the real world, where we meet people, and speak to them face to face. It is so much easier when detached from that personal contact to forget that there is a real human being with feelings at the other end of the abuse; it becomes more like a game, a fantasy world in which nothing is actually real. The target of abuse is no longer a human being; they become a virtual dart board onto which poisoned darts can be flung. What is needed is not just "report abuse buttons", helpful as they may be, but educating children as they grow up to respect others online as well as offline, and to teach them that while sticks and stones can break bones, words can cause deeper and longer lasting wounds.

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