Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Censorship, Offensive Speech, Trolls and You

Julie Zhuo, product design manager at Facebook, says tow-mah-toe, while I say to two-may-toe. Apparently she's a thin-skinned woman who believes in the sanctity and goodness of those who operate websites, create videos or have some other presence on the Internet at which critics, disputants, opponents, rabble-rousers and trouble-makers hurl their abuse.

It seems Ms Zhuo fears the open anonymous forum where hecklers can run wild. That's too bad. However, there she is, assured of her righteousness and confident that stopping people from posting whatever they please is the path to a better world.

Unfortunately, in Ms Zhou's world, the offenders are those who post comments at Internet sites. Specifically, comments that insult or impugn the content found at the site. Thus, it seems she believes there's no harm in operating racist anti-black websites, or racist anti-white websites, or anti-Semitic websites, or hate-filled anti-American websites. Or, the most caustic and virulent of all -- websites devoted to sports. The problem is -- in her mind -- a problem of what readers write in response. Does this woman live under a rock? It seems she does. By the way, what are her thoughts on Internet pornography?

Moreover, based on her name, it's likely Ms Zhuo is Chinese. Does she not know how the communist government of China has used its total control of the press to maintain its control of the most populous nation on the planet? Is she ignorant of what it means to give a handful of people the power to decide what's good for the rest of us?

Her prescriptions for saving the Internet from "trolls", is troubling. Actually it's nuts. It amounts to something falling between brain-washing and a loyalty oath. Then there's to name given to the offenders: Trolls. As they say, one man's freedom-fighter is another mans' terrorist.

Unfortunately and dangerously, this woman demands niceness. Niceness and politeness from everyone. If the Internet had existed during WWII, would Ms Zhuo have demanded courtesy from those posting about Nazi atrocities? Seems she would.

Of course her demand for censorship and decorum would destroy the experience of being a sports fan. She would put an end to the raucous, threatening clamor that fills the air at every stadium, as well as the trash-talking among the competitors themselves.

In short, her goal is to remove the humanness from the Internet and its users. Obviously, the way to destroy the value of the Internet in a free society is to control and limit its content.


Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt

By JULIE ZHUO

Published: November 29, 2010

There you are, peacefully reading an article or watching a video on the Internet. You finish, find it thought-provoking, and scroll down to the comments section to see what other people thought. And there, lurking among dozens of well-intentioned opinions, is a troll.

“How much longer is the media going to milk this beyond tired story?” “These guys are frauds.” “Your idiocy is disturbing.” “We’re just trying to make the world a better place one brainwashed, ignorant idiot at a time.” These are the trollish comments, all from anonymous sources, that you could have found after reading a CNN article on the rescue of the Chilean miners.

Trolling, defined as the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums, is a problem as old as the Internet itself, although its roots go much farther back. Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges.

That mythical ring gave its owner the power of invisibility, and Plato observed that even a habitually just man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that he couldn’t be caught. Morality, Plato argues, comes from full disclosure; without accountability for our actions we would all behave unjustly.

This certainly seems to be true for the anonymous trolls today. After Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old Long Island girl, committed suicide earlier this year, trolls descended on her online tribute page to post pictures of nooses, references to hangings and other hateful comments. A better-known example involves Nicole Catsouras, an 18-year-old who died in a car crash in California in 2006. Photographs of her badly disfigured body were posted on the Internet, where anonymous trolls set up fake tribute pages and in some cases e-mailed the photos to her parents with subject lines like “Hey, Daddy, I’m still alive.”

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

Many forums and online communities are looking for ways to strike back. Back in February, Engadget, a popular technology review blog, shut down its commenting system for a few days after it received a barrage of trollish comments on its iPad coverage.

Many victims are turning to legislation. All 50 states now have stalking, bullying or harassment laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication. Last year, Liskula Cohen, a former model, persuaded a New York judge to require Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who she felt had defamed her, and she has now filed a suit against the blogger. Last month, another former model, Carla Franklin, persuaded a judge to force YouTube to reveal the identity of a troll who made a disparaging comment about her on the video-sharing site.

But the law by itself cannot do enough to disarm the Internet’s trolls. Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity. Reuters, for example, announced that it would start to block anonymous comments and require users to register with their names and e-mail addresses in an effort to curb “uncivil behavior.”

Some may argue that denying Internet users the ability to post anonymously is a breach of their privacy and freedom of expression. But until the age of the Internet, anonymity was a rare thing. When someone spoke in public, his audience would naturally be able to see who was talking.

Others point out that there’s no way to truly rid the Internet of anonymity. After all, names and e-mail addresses can be faked. And in any case many commenters write things that are rude or inflammatory under their real names.

But raising barriers to posting bad comments is still a smart first step. Well-designed commenting systems should also aim to highlight thoughtful and valuable opinions while letting trollish ones sink into oblivion.

The technology blog Gizmodo is trying an audition system for new commenters, under which their first few comments would be approved by a moderator or a trusted commenter to ensure quality before anybody else could see them. After a successful audition, commenters can freely post. If over time they impress other trusted commenters with their contributions, they’d be promoted to trusted commenters, too, and their comments would henceforth be featured.

Disqus, a comments platform for bloggers, has experimented with allowing users to rate one another’s comments and feed those ratings into a global reputation system called Clout. Moderators can use a commenter’s Clout score to “help separate top commenters from trolls.”

At Facebook, where I’ve worked on the design of the public commenting widget, the approach is to try to replicate real-world social norms by emphasizing the human qualities of conversation. People’s faces, real names and brief biographies (“John Doe from Lexington”) are placed next to their public comments, to establish a baseline of responsibility.

Facebook also encourages you to share your comments with your friends. Though you’re free to opt out, the knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior.

This kind of social pressure works because, at the end of the day, most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.

Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.

In slowly lifting the veil of anonymity, perhaps we can see the troll not as the frightening monster of lore, but as what we all really are: human.

Julie Zhuo is a product design manager at Facebook.

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33 Comments:

Blogger SNAKE HUNTERS said...

Interesting perspectives on those that choose anonymity when posting comments on websites. I appreciate it when they leave a thoughtful viewoint, but I wish they would at least drop a nickname, or initials,
also with their hometown.

The sicko person doesn't have a chance of seeing their stuff, as I do "moderate" all comments now, but curiously the pinheads keep coming back with more vulgarity, and more inane sleaze.

That's Life on the Blog-O-sphere!

>

If you are aware of 'Gates of Vienna', I've published one today with a "link" if you'd care to comment. Probably one of the best I've posted in five years. Elisabeth, a lady with eloquence, and backbone! - reb
___ ___

10:44 PM  
Blogger SNAKE HUNTERS said...

ON OUR LINK-PAGE YOU'LL FIND - on
December 6th, 'Tennessee Christmas'

See: Debbie Hamilton's 'Right Truth' where she posted an interesting item on various religious belief systems, and those multiple confusions; I couldn't resist adding to it:

S/H Sez,
Here we go again with notions of 'Ecumenical Solidarity'...

We have the NCC, National Council of Churches, and the WCC, World Council of Churches, and the OCA, Orthodox Church in America (one million strong) exploring leaving the top two; then there's George Soros' "Shadow Party" pushing for OWC,
One World Government through his Progressive/Socialists under the auspices of OSI, Open Society Institute...Whew!

And friends are dismayed when I say that I'm a confused skeptic, leaning in the direction of Agnosticism! - reb
___ ___

1:58 AM  
Blogger SNAKE HUNTERS said...

Not waiting for human nature and time to change muslim savagery, I posted some photos today; see...

'Poor Little Muslim Kids?'

I'll be grateful to anyone that takes a few minutes to forward this post to friends - Thanks.

reb
___ ___

11:46 PM  
Blogger Whitey Lawful said...

When Myspace was popular their forums didn't tolerate offensive speech of credible right-wing social commentary. Claiming many were trolls because they had successfully engaged the reader. Yet the foul type and deranged usual antics of popular culture were abound.

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