This past Sunday the New York Times Magazine had a story by Mattathias Schwartz called “The Trolls Among Us” (or, of you look at the title of the HTML document and not the story, “Malwebolence: The World of Web Trolling”). The story details the exploits of a group of men and women who, it seems, enjoy their ability to torment others online—and in particularly nasty cases in real life as well. Schwartz details events where bloggers were harassed and threatened with rape; individuals who had their social security numbers posted online after responding to a Craigslist sex ad; the hacking of the Epilepsy Foundation’s Web site so that pages flashed causing users to have seizures, and so on and so forth.
All actions that would make most people who consider themselves decent cringe and shake their heads.
The problems I have with the piece, however, are: 1. the assumption that the internet is to blame; and 2. the immediate focus on the speech rights of the individuals to troll as they wish (my gut says that their speech is protected) rather than looking at what I think is the deeper issue: access to information.
The idea that the internet—or any communication technology—is going to be a place of piece and harmony is absurd. McLuhan was saying that very thing decades ago. Yet, we have a very strong implication here that the internet is the motivating factor for the harassment. One only need look at smear campaigns in print media outlets to realize that harassment is a form of writing that humans have been engaging in for centuries. The medium just changes as new writing spaces are invented.
The greater problem is Schwartz’s immediate movement to freedom of speech, because the issue should not be the speech itself, but the content of the speech and how that content is gained. Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society” detailed the real world traumas of hacking into an online space and attacking a virtual character. The motives among what Mr. Bungle’s did in LambdaMOO and what the trolls do is quite similar: to get a rise—a “lulz”—out of an individual so much so that it causes some sort of emotional pain. The difference is the application: trolls nowadays are such sophisticated programmers that they can gain access to every shred of information about an individual in weeks, days, minutes, seconds depending on the security of that information and then use it as they see fit. They can post it online. They can drain bank accounts and trash credit scores. They can have a thousand pizzas delivered to your house.
That lack of security is really what they are exposing through their actions. But it is easier to write articles that locate all blame at these individuals (who, I admit, are not the most moral characters out there) rather than consider where they are getting the information, what is being done about it, and, most significantly, what those so-called “trusted” organizations are doing with it.
My supermarket’s database knows more about my diet than my family does. Google stores all searches and ties that information to an individual’s IP address. Facebook—a company in the hands of a man in his mid-20s—has stockpiles of information—photos, up-to-the-minute details of actions, friends’ and coleagues’ names, addresses and phone numbers, birth dates, job histories, and so forth—which it plans (very openly) to use to provide advertisers with the most specifically targeted advertising we have ever seen.
The concern that we must have is how these companies are going to use that information—information about us—to further their own agendas, which, like the trolls described in the article, is to make money at an individual’s expense. Let’s not be so blinded by the technological wizardry of these individuals that we lose site of the bigger picture: access to information.