Trolls, news and social media

Last night something interesting happened online, a small incident that I think illustrates the problems of instant communications quite well. Geek blog Mashable broke the news that telecomms giant AT&T was filtering access to imageboard 4chan. For those unfamiliar with this site, 4chan is a forum dedicated to the exchange of images, initially intended as an exchange of Japanese anime and manga pictures, it has evolved into perhaps the last bastion of Internet anonymity; it is the place where some of the most influential Internet memes are born, and is perhaps better known as a site inhabited by various trolls, where lulz are the basic currency. In short, it’s not the sort of place where nice people spend their time.

Twitter was set alight immediately with the usual accusations of Internet censorship, and various blogs commented that things would probably get ugly, as the 4chan community is well known for its militant approach to anything resembling cyber-censorship. Mainstream media sites quickly picked up the story, as well as the unavoidable backlash, such as someone posting a report on CNN’s citizen journalism site claiming that AT&T’s chairman had been found dead from a cocaine overdose.

The problem is that 4chan was not the subject of Internet censorship, part of the site was blocked to respond to a denial of service attack that seemed to originate from the boards. This is standard procedure, and the blocked sites usually get back as soon as the attack is over, or when the source has been isolated and identified. This did not stop the 4chan crowd getting all huffy and mighty, proclaiming a holy crusade against all things AT&T, and getting their collective knickers in a twist.

Internet trolling is something that I just do not get. True, it is mostly perpetrated by lonely males who have been scorned all their lives, and they take their technical proficiency as a method of empowerment (apologies for the pop psychology moment). However, Internet trolls seem to have developed a certain type of mystique in some social media circles, it seems almost as if people are both fascinated and afraid of the people at 4chan. However, the solution for trolling is simpler, as xkcd nicely points out.

Nonetheless, it is amazing how something like this gets reported, acted upon, tweetered, facebooked, blogged about, and commented in a surprisingly short span of time. I have become accustomed to wait until I can read some hard facts whenever a new Internet outrage takes place. Immediacy has replaced careful consideration of the facts, something that some traditional media gave us. Newspapers are not immune to hype, on the contrary, many mainstream sources are as quick to embrace hype and jump into bandwagons as the geeks, but good journalists at least try to source, something that random twiteratti cannot seem to do.

It is important to remember that in the grand scale of things these Internet storms affect a minuscule number of people. Trying to explain some of the issues that occupy endless Twitter feeds to “normal” people is a lost cause, even the important ones such as the Amazon Kindle fiasco. Perhaps there is still room for considered analysis and careful reporting, something that the blogosphere can give us, but often fails to do.

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