How can Twitter deal with trolls?

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The Internet is great.

Except when it isn’t. Unfortunately, the Web is also home to racists, misogynists, homophobes, fraudsters, malicious hackers, and unsavoury characters of all sorts. It is also filled with trolls, Internet users who gain pleasure from purposefully upsetting other users by expounding views that they may or may not have, what matters is the shock value. Dealing with trolls has always been one of the Internet’s most important self-regulatory problems, it is no surprise that one of the iconic tales of early online gaming environments tells the story of how a community deals with trolls and rape threats.

Trolling is a real problem for communities, particularly those dealing with issues such as politics, gender issues, religion, and other hot-button topics. Trolling has destroyed countless websites, and the Internet is filled with the graveyards of thousands of dead discussion forums. Some of the more resilient and organised sites manage to survive trolling by appointing community-based moderators with the power to suspend accounts and ban users. The problem with this approach is that the trolls would usually come back under another guise, so forum moderation soon became a game of whack-a-troll.

Sometimes trolling gets too much, yet one simply has to put up with it. My online gaming experience has been soured by the sheer noise of the misogynist and racist trolls, and I have to admit that this has played a big part in my departure from some much-loved games. Moderators and game masters simply cannot control the level of vitriol and hatred that shows up online. We are usually told to grow a thick skin and ignore most of it.

The argument of how to deal with trolls has surfaced once again on Twitter after a series of rape threats were made by several trolls against feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez. The attack were triggered by the fact that Ms Criado-Perez had a prominent role in the campaign to keep a woman on the new Bank of England banknotes; her efforts were successful, hence the animosity and hatred directed against her.

It is difficult for a normal person to understand the level of hatred that is often displayed online, some of the tweets against Ms Criado-Perez were horrific, some of the worst displays of misogyny and trolling I’ve witnessed in a long time, and as a gamer I’ve seen my share of appalling behaviour. The tweets prompted some of those affected to ask Twitter to take action. The perceived inaction from the social media giant has prompted calls for a Twitter boycott on August 4.

I am in two minds about this response. On the one hand, I abhor the behaviour displayed by the trolls, there is no possible justification for it, and those committing it should face consequences for their actions. People who hide behind a shroud of anonymity to spout hatred and to threaten violence are cowards of the worst kind. When uncovered, these types of trolls are usually shown as maladjusted individuals who love to push people’s buttons, and they deserved at the very least to be banned from a community. On the other hand, I tend to agree with Twitter that fighting trolls is a losing battle, as they will simply come back under other guises, and the game of whack-a-troll continues. Moreover, something as dramatic as a Twitter boycott perfectly plays to the troll’s hands. They love getting the attention and they love winding people up. The sheer level of defiance in their tweets is indicative of the mindset of some of these people.

So should we just do nothing and accept this sort of behaviour? No. Using existing channels also works most of the time, Twitter has a facility to report abuse, which seems to have failed in this instance. Twitter should strive to cancel the accounts of those involved. Even if they are back later. A strong signal from intermediaries and service providers against abusive behaviour should always be the default response. But we should understand that if banning trolls was easy, it would not be as widespread problem as it is.

The second most important response is to stand up against abuse. Communities should not become complacent, and when faced with any sort of abuse, be it misogynistic, racist, homophobic, ethnic, or any threat of violence. To suffer in silence is not acceptable, abuse should be pointed out immediately and condemned. This is the only way in which attitudes change over time.

Thirdly, we should perhaps remember that a great tool against Internet trolls is to ignore them. I know this is difficult, particularly when we are presented with behaviour such as the one exhibited in this case, but it truly works. It is possible to stand up to abuse, to point it out, and then ignore subsequent troll droppings. These people live for the thrill of knowing that they are producing a reaction on their victims, and the angrier the reaction, the happier they become. The commandment “Do not feed the trolls” exists for a reason, if you starve them of attention, they usually go away. If we continue to give them the interest that they crave, they will continue to thrive.

It is because of the above that I won’t participate on the proposed boycott. Leaving the platform to the trolls is precisely what they are looking for, and to me it is a declaration of defeat. I agree that Twitter’s response could have been better in this situation, but I do not believe that it merits the planned reply. Members of communities should stand up against trolls, ignore them if possible, point out their hatred as unacceptable. Boycotts against third parties is not the way to go.

ETA: Just read this excellent proposal by @BryceElder. It seems like some form of control on trolls is possible if we follow their usual behaviour and modus operandi.

2 comments to How can Twitter deal with trolls?

  • Miranda

    No. I am sick of people saying the best way to deal with abuse online is to ignore it. Why should we? It gives the abuser the power, means we have to repeatedly put up with more and more abuse on the offchance that it will go away.. it often doesn’t. Standing up to these bullies is the only option

    • @Miranda  I completely agree that one has to stand up to trolls and to point out hateful speech wherever it appears, but I think that after it has been pointed out, one has to ignore them. 
      To retweet every single instance of abuse is to give the trolls the attention they crave.

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