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Don’t feed the trolls — tackle their abuse of platform power instead

ICE Graveyard 24/07/2016 Natasha Lomas

In the ever accelerating social media feedback loops of the modern Internet age, ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is a phrase that appears to have fallen out of fashion, favor and collective memory.

The result? An impoverished quality of debate that frequently and increasingly appears to be approaching something resembling mass hysteria as trolls are delivered dining on-demand.

Simply put: you can’t have meaningful discussion if you are forever polarizing into two sides simply screaming at each other. Both apparently convinced to the threat-sending death that one worldview rules supreme.

Case in point: Just this week Twitter finally fell into the trap of the Internet’s most self-aggrandizing troll — the self-styled “supervillain” Milo Yiannopoulos — by kicking him off its platform.

Twitter had previously punished Yiannopoulos’ provocations by removing his privileged blue-tick status. It’s now gone the whole hog and ‘no-platformed’ the platform-loving self-promoter. The predictable result? Yiannopoulos gets to step up his native swagger by parading a status as the ‘victim of Internet censorship’.

Quoth he:

With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.

Twitter is holding me responsible for the actions of fans and trolls using the special pretzel logic of the left. Where are the Twitter police when Justin Bieber’s fans cut themselves on his behalf?

Like all acts of the totalitarian regressive left, this will blow up in their faces, netting me more adoring fans. We’re winning the culture war, and Twitter just shot themselves in the foot.

This is the end for Twitter. Anyone who cares about free speech has been sent a clear message: you’re not welcome on Twitter.

The straw that broke Jack Dorsey’s quavering resolve to let one professional troll’s tweets flow was the latter’s sophisticated ability to marshal his Twitter followers (aka his ‘adoring fans’) to fire forth a stream of targeted abuse on his behalf.

Not that Yiannopoulos takes responsibility for the actions of his followers, of course. He walks the provocateur’s fine line — ensuring the abuse he personally doles out, while horrible, remains just that: one person’s unpleasant viewpoint. So he wouldn’t admit to anything as crass as getting others to do his dirty work.

The wider point here is that tech platforms — most especially Twitter’s broadcast network — can be trivially manipulated to magnify a particular sentiment. Whether that’s a humorous trending hashtag or vile racial abuse.

Social media platforms are already structured to disseminate information. But with a little bit of choreographed intent a relatively small set of networked connections can be chained together to hugely theatrical effect — repurposing mainstream outlets into single cause megaphones.

All the modern day Internet ‘supervillain’ (or social justice warrior/SJW, if you prefer) has to do is pout out their call to action, which will disseminate onto sympathetic fellow forums, and watch as their adoring fans pile in. Then they merely need sit back in a high backed computer desk chair and let out a devilish laugh.

And so in the latest instance of Yiannopoulos’ slickly executed social media manipulations a public critique of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones yields a vile stream of targeted abuse — and the understandable reaction from Jones to quit Twitter.

“I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart,” she tweeted, before departing the platform. “All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today… wrong.”

What do trolls crave? Attention. What do they feed on? Outrage generated by provocation. How do you accelerate trolls’ outrage cycles? By doing what they’re hoping you’ll do – firstly by paying them attention, and then by reacting in a way they can paint as unjust (e.g. shutting them down). Or which they can celebrate as a win (e.g. the shutting down of their target).

In the Leslie Jones case Yiannopoulos can chalk up two wins: his own censorship by Twitter, and the self-censorship of Jones quitting Twitter after he criticized her performance and his fans piled in to racially abuse her.

This is the ‘by the book’ formula that lurks behind the well-trodden maxim ‘don’t feed the trolls’.

Yet Twitter just fed the Internet’s self-styled king troll a two-course meal of the very finest troll dining.

Platforms, power and perspective

So what can we learn from this sorry situation? Apart from the obvious – that trolls are horrible and racial abuse is intolerable.

One clear takeaway is that the structures of social networks are being far too trivially subverted and manipulated by entities with malicious or determined intent. Twitter clearly can and should do far more to stop orchestrated pile-ins designed to amplify abuse and carry out campaigns of harassment on its platform.

Bottom line: it’s not free speech if it’s a choreographed campaign of targeted abuse.

As I’ve pointed out before, at the time of the #Gamergate saga: “…small, orchestrated online groups can magnify the impact and influence of fringe viewpoints by weaponizing mainstream digital services to repurpose these platforms as propaganda machines. This is not a new thing but the frequency with which it is happening online appears to be growing, and the toxicity being generated is becoming harder to escape as the tactics in play are honed and polished to ever greater effect.”

But arguably there’s something else we need to consider.

We can perhaps also say that certain malicious entities are holding up a (black) mirror to the political correctness they abhor – aka the modus operandi of their SJW foes – and using the same single issue megaphone method, aka the bounce back amplification made possible by follower-based tech platforms, to win (or so they would argue, as Yiannopoulos has) the Internet’s ‘culture wars’.

At this strange juncture in the evolution of the mainstream media, see also: Donald Trump achieving a similar effect by subverting the news media’s drama-seeking lens.

The point is that when debate gets closed down and nuance gets tramped underfoot and empathy gets battered to death we all lose.

That’s the ugly truth Yiannopoulos is illustrating via a sort of ‘media process deconstructing performance art’, if I can put it that way.

Point is: Any single opinion amplified via this megaphone method of follower armies intent on crushing alternative perspectives can be oppressive to those with a differing view.

Moreover, no one who self-styles as an ‘Internet supervillain’ should be taken at face value. Such a person is stating they are playing a role and inviting us to critique their melodrama. Their mission is to force their enemies to confront their own Manichean flaws, reflected in reverse.

To not deconstruct the drama is to walk right into the massive pitfall trolls exist to set. And that’s where we are now: With the self styled king troll gloating over the Twitter whale tangled up in his subtle net.

Zooming out again, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the shouting down of points of view on the Internet happens on all sides of the political spectrum – whether it’s leftwing campaigners taking up a diversity/feminist/gay rights/etc etc cause, and urging their followers (implicitly or intentionally) to shout down opposing viewpoints. Or conservative supervillains jerking liberal chains and rattling leftwing cages on mainstream tech platforms by acting out a manist, white-supremacist tantrum-pantomime in plain sight.

You could argue that neither radical left nor radical right appears willing to accept there might be more shades of grey than are allowed for by one particular entrenched perspective — as they fight their take-no-prisoners culture wars via the tech platforms that give them the power to turn a personal viewpoint into a weapon of mass media destruction, aiming to level the landscape of debate via the tribalism of fervent follower armies.

Yet the Internet is connecting more diverse viewpoints than ever, as more and more people come online. So we’re going to have to get used to confronting alternative views. Simply screaming down difference doesn’t seem to be an approach that will scale.

You might not like the message but trigger-finger shooting down of the other side’s messenger is perpetuating the Internet’s culture clashes by encouraging a ramping up of verbal violence and a reduction in the diversity of debate available on tech platforms – which are fast becoming the only mass media. (And, as others have noted, pile-in public shamings that close down debate by cementing a majority judgment are fast becoming the new majority entertainment.)

If your actions end up stripping out the possibility for nuance or individual disagreement and demanding complicated humans reduce to polarized positions then you can’t be too surprised if braindead abuse is all you’re left with. And so we are all impoverished by Twitter’s knee-jerk banning of single transgressing individuals while it fails to address the underlying problem of the hijacking of its platform by orchestrated abuse campaigns.

As tempting as it may be, censoring individual trolls is not how the technology industry wins the war against trolling. Individual stupid opinions are just that: one voice in a sea of voices. Tech platforms need to tackle those actors who would weaponize a personal viewpoint by cutting the strings to the puppet armies that give them disproportionate volume to force their views on others.

It’s not the single bad or provocative opinion that should trouble society and its technology platforms. We should not fear to engage with difference or publicly shun ignorance. Indeed, by closing down the single voice of the other you hand that entity a verified status as a persecuted individual. You gift them additional fuel to pour on the fires they live to start.

Rather you need to take away their power to turn one opinion into a mass attack. It’s the follower armies that wreak havoc on mainstream platforms that Twitter should be seeking to close down with tools that prevent pile-ins of orchestrated abuse. And with rules and structures designed to pop not promote filter bubbles.

Social discourse suffers if it can’t support an understanding of alternative views. And empathy is rarely encouraged by closing the door on a lone problem voice.

At the end of the day, if you don’t offer the courtesy of listening, how can you properly articulate the valid reasons why you disagree?

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