Using libel laws to deal with internet trolls is a terrible idea


by Robert Sharp    
9:20 am - January 29th 2013

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In the Daily Telegraph, Alasdair Palmer laments trolling and the unpleasant tone of online discourse. He recommends a toughening of the libel laws to deal with this problem.

I think Palmer is mistaken on three counts.

First, he fails to recognise that trolling, anonymity and defamation are three distinct concepts. It is perfectly possible to be an indentifiable ‘troll’. Many newspaper columnists write weekly articles that are almost indistinguishable from trolling, and I am always surprised at just how much hate and bile people are prepared to post in their own names.

Second, most trolling is not defamatory. It is just insulting. The Defamation Bill is exactly the wrong place to deal with trolls and online bullying.

Third, Palmer allows the trolls to become a synedoche for the Internet. As a journalist and columnist writing for a national broadsheet, I am sure that Palmer’s experience of online discourse is pretty unpleasant. But he mistakes a part for the whole. If one were to fly a rocket to Mercury (or even just take a trip to Death Valley) one might induce that “the Universe is very hot”… when in fact these are just pockets of extreme temperatures in a Universe that is on average very cold.

So it is with the Internet, which feels as infinite as the Universe in its breath and depth. The message boards on national newspaper websites are the equivalent of stars in our galaxy – extremes of heat. But as soon as one visits a specialist, local, niche, hobbyist or personal website, the conversation cools. The tone of comments on this blog, for example, is consistently civil.

If we really want to raise the tone of the debate on the Internet, we need not abolish anonymity. We just need to turn off the comment functionality on the big news media websites! They are too big and unweildy to have a proper conversation on anyway. Personally, though, I would advise against such a manoevre: Like big hot stars, the large news sites have a gravitational pull, and draw all the trolls into their orbit, leaving the rest of the Internet a calmer place to explore.

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Media


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Reader comments


1. the a&e charge nurse

‘If we really want to raise the tone of the debate on the Internet, we need not abolish anonymity’ – perhaps we could have two internets, one for ‘right tone’ users; this cohort would be be polite, and, despite expense to their own psyche, keep all the dark forces boiling under the surface under strict control, then we could have an internet for the rest of us?

By the way has anybody else been sent to jail this week for failing to understand abuse thresholds?

Just to strike a (probably futile) gesture in favour of the correct use of language.

The people being complained of in this (and other) article are NOT trolls.

They are simply very offensive people.

In Internet chat-room terms a troll is someone who posts a contrain view in order to provoke a post-storm. These could be offensive, for example posting on MumsNet that women should be kept barefoot atnd pregnant, but need not be, for example posting on ConservativeHome that Ed Miliband is the greatest party leader since Moses. Both would have the same effect of provoking a storm of contrary messages. Indeed, many trolls do not even believe in the sentiments of their posts: doing it soley to cause trouble.

3. Chaise Guevara

“The tone of comments on this blog, for example, is consistently civil”

Not quite. But we’re no worse than, say, a roomful of people at the pub. I agree that the more general and findable the site, the worse the behaviour. Hence the… disappointing level of debate on BBC’s Have Your Say.

Troll. noun: Someone who is less famous than the person they are arguing with on twitter.

‘If we really want to raise the tone of the debate on the Internet, we need not abolish anonymity

A brilliant way of excluding people from debates on, say, mental health conditions, because they might wish to draw on personal experience but might not wish to be publicly or professionally humiliated.

Also a fantastic way of excluding people who’s opinions might put them into conflict with their employers.

So basically, if you have first hand knowledge of an issue because it effects you personally but this potentialky makes you vulnerable you can fuck off; but if you are a narcissist with nothing at stake – well come on in!

Anf how are you going to check people are being honest about their identity without a monstrous invasion of their privacy?

MarkAustin @ 3:

You’re right, of course. But unfortunately I fear the word troll has evolved, due to its (mis)use by the MSN.

Shatterface @ 5: A Great defence of anonymity. You did get that I was referring to other people, and not advocating the abolition of anonymity myself, right?

To be fair to the parliamentarians in the House of Lords Defamation Bill Debates, they have never argued against pseudonyms. They instead seek to make all comments attributable and traceable… but someone who might wish to sue them. This would still discourage professionals and those who have suffered a humiliating experience from sharing it online, however, so your point holds.

8. the a&e charge nurse

“The tone of comments on this blog, for example, is consistently civil” – yes, but don’t forget, “abusive, sarcastic or (even) SILLY comments may be deleted. Misogynist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic comments will be deleted” (natch)

In other words LC is only for certain types of people – perhaps that’s why there is a bit of an echo chamber effect sometimes?

Alasdair Palmer wets himself because a few online commentators step over an invisible line – meanwhile the wail and scum continue to act like gargantuan propaganda machines, and always have done, yet the likes of Palmer doesn’t bat an eye (despite the greater harm being caused).

Why should we take such people seriously?

9. the a&e charge nurse

One of the great things about the net is it’s democratising effect – it provides a voice for everybody (however outrageous that voice may be).

T’web should not be manipulated by the powerful, or wet liberals, come to think of it, who shit themselves every time they come up against the sea of nastiness that’s out there.

Shutting people up, and certainly jailing people will not make the world a better place.

10. Chaise Guevara

@ Cylux

“Troll. noun: Someone who is less famous than the person they are arguing with on twitter.”

Yup. Also:

Bully. noun: Someone who writes reasonable criticism about a famous person on a forum somewhere, later found by said famous person, presumably following self-Googling.

http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/celebrity/bully-not-the-same-as-twat-2012061129880

To be fair to the parliamentarians in the House of Lords Defamation Bill Debates, they have never argued against pseudonyms. They instead seek to make all comments attributable and traceable…

I’m opposed to making comments traceable either. Comments on the internet can be there for decades; even if you think we like in a fairly benign State we’ve seen reasonably stable European societies turn into genocidal hell-holes overnight.

I think posters should stick to one persona when they post on a site; I don’t know much about a&e or Chaise but they stick to the same name and I can contextualise their comments because I know where they stand on certain issues. I really don’t need to know anything more about them because we are posting opinions and those opinions stand or fall on the evidence presented, their internal logic and the posters’s rhetorical skills.

On the other hand people who post under multiple names are just arseholes.

I don’t think the law should be involved in any way.

Nothing funnier than the so called free press demanding tougher libel laws.

But then we don’t have a free press, we have a corporate press. Very different animal. And as usual with the corporate press tgey can dish it out but can’t take it. It is amazing how thin skinned bully boy corporate media lackeys are.

This notion of getting rid of anonymity on the net is becoming quite popular from the international right wing. And the reason for it is the corporate elites don’t like the little guy having a voice. If he can be identified, he can be intimidated to shut up or lose his job, and with it his medical insurance, and pension.

This is rather hypocritical of the right wing corporate elites because they have just argued and won at the Supreme court a ruling that they can donate as much money as they want to political parties, but can do so anonymously. Therefore avoiding the risk of their businesses being targeted in consumer boycotts.

As usual with the right wing it’s one rule for them and one for everyone else. It’s all about controlling the filter at the gateway. Right wing owners and editors filter out thoese views that doesn’t fit with their world view. Suddenly everyone can by pass the filter. This scares the elites shitless. Which is why they are also trying to destroy net neutrality.

They like corporate pravda.

i had a restling match with a horse and the horse lost and i ate the horse!

” As a journalist and columnist writing for a national broadsheet, I am sure that Palmer’s experience of online discourse is pretty unpleasant.”

Probably because many journalists hated the idea that people who knew more than they did about a subject had the ability to point this out in public forums and expose the sham that most journalism had become ‘ctrl c’ and ‘ctrl v’ from whomeever was briefing them.

It’s just that journalists have tended to lump the above with the actual unpleasant abuse and demanded action action against both.

Learning to deal with trolls and abuse is – for better or worse – a skill that most online savvy people have developed over the years. Save the policing and legal work to the actual criminal and dangerous activity online (stalking, threatening violence and so on).

MarkAustin @5: What this article is talking about is actually flaming, not trolling, I believe

Robert Sharp:

Excellent piece. Well said.

18. Shatterface

MarkAustin @5: What this article is talking about is actually flaming, not trolling, I believe

Flaming would also include OPs published just to spark controversy – which includes about 50% of those on CiF.

Thanks, TONE!

And to others – yes, flaming is probably the more traditional description. But from the p.o.v. of parliamentarians and the MSM, I’m afraid that is a distinction they do not are about. They are disconcerted by the criticisms they receive personally, and bullying and nastiness certainly a feature of the modern Internet. And they call this ‘trolling’ – it’s a name that has stuck.

20. douglas clark

Interesting piece Robert.

It is, apparently, never acceptable to state the obvious on those stellar sites.

Journalists aren’t very good.

They have the facility to delete posts they doon’t like or contradict them. They also have the facility to stop anyone from posting again.

That is more than enough power for their fragile little egos.

The internet doesn’t make people be rude to each other.

The internet just provides a new place for rude people to be rude to each other.

22. Chaise Guevara

@ Zarathustra

“The internet doesn’t make people be rude to each other.

The internet just provides a new place for rude people to be rude to each other.”

Normally I get annoyed when people blame the medium for the content – and it would certainly be stupid for people to act like this is a new thing – but it does seem that the internet enourages people to behave antisocially. The main reasons given for this is that it allows people to have an audience while remaining anonymous or at least safe from physical reprisals.

Personally I think it’s also because it allows people of different sides to come into contact more easily and readily than they would offline: creationists and rationalists probably wouldn’t go down the pub together, but they’ll shout at each other in forums.

Details here (warning: contains some naughty swears): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_disinhibition_effect

23. Chaise Guevara

Oh, and also that we don’t seem to treat people as actual people until we’ve met them face-to-face, or perhaps spoken by phone. I’ve noticed that colleagues who normally interact by email will treat each other a lot better once they’ve met IRL.


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