Thank You For Trolling

TrollThe Internet is accessed by hundreds of millions of people every day. YouTube has 100 hours of video uploaded every minute, according to its statistics page,[1] and with over one billion unique visitors per month, there is more than enough room for lively discussion among its viewers. In fact, there’s a plethora of forums, just like the YouTube-comments section, accessible to anyone with the Internet and a desire to surf the World Wide Web. Having the ability to keep instant, digital contact with people across the globe has certainly worked wonders for both big and small businesses, which was the case in 2006, when Google spent $1.65 billion to buy YouTube – then, a startup company – founded by two ordinary guys (Chad Hurley and Steve Chen) in their twenties.[2] Without a doubt, the Internet can be a powerful platform for serious developments, and perhaps the breadth of diversity in online commentary was once speculated to have world-changing potential, but a special degradation of this pure idealism has rapidly taken up a front against the Internet’s positive influences. The opposition to the Internet’s capacity to act as a productivity-catalyst, so to speak, is a collective of persons known as trolls. If accused of impeding this valuable progress, a troll might simply reply, “Some people just want to watch the world burn,” i.e., a troll will likely incite a reaction merely to witness it.

The Internet is a well-known place where there is always enough traffic for a person’s actions to go largely unnoticed, while still possibly having a significant impact, and thus trolls thrive online with a sense of anonymity-based security. The Internet is not secure, however, and incidents like the NSA scandal caused by Edward Snowden serve to illustrate this point.[3] Nevertheless, because the chance of physical contact between online-aggressors is practically zero, the troll’s delusion comes into play — e.g., a troll may use subversive rhetoric, such as straw man or ad hominem argumentation styles, to attack or deride an individual’s or group’s beliefs, believing that there are no consequences, and all without needing to show remorse.

The sources of these attacks are innumerable, albeit they are typically not very credible or reputable, and they usually appear in the easily ignored comments section located below an online article, video, or blog post. The trouble comes in, though, when decent people roaming the Internet meet up with trolls, and the former do not suspect the latter of being dishonest, malicious, or anything of the sort. Indeed, a troll is most successful when his or her fractious commentary is believed to be true; a lot of trolls treat the believability of their statements as a sport. It can be very difficult, therefore, to detect a troll’s presence, and it is here that a distinct line can be drawn in the digital sands of a would-be paradise: the Internet. A person sending a message through the Internet may either convey purposeful and scientifically evidenced opinions (educated guesses and chit-chat too), or a person may intentionally disrupt the balance of perceptions held by the online community.

A recent study, presented on February 14, 2013, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and published on the 19th in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication,[4] explored the effects of trolling on making deliberations concerning a scientific issue: specifically, nanotechnology. Nearly twelve hundred participants—a sufficient sample population for the United States—completed a survey indicating their predispositions to accepting and understanding nanotechnologies, as well as their familiarity with various forms of mass media, and they were even asked about their religiosity. One control group was exposed to a neutral, fake blog post about nanotechnology with a positive/neutral comments section, while a second group was exposed to the same fake blog post but with a negative comments section. Comments for the negative test group included phrases like “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot.” Needless to say, the second group derived higher risk perceptions about nanotechnologies, i.e., the comments meant to persuade readers of extremist viewpoints were, at least partially, successful. Although the study focused on nanotechnology-risk perceptions, the study indicated that trolling will typically have this general impact on a spectator: in the case of having knowledgeability or religiosity, one’s level of certainty over an issue is elevated, and in the case of not having a predisposition to believing one thing over another, one’s level of uncertainty is elevated.

Following the troll’s trusty slippery slope line of thought, when the public’s view of actual facts being presented by someone, or something like a professional society, can be skewed by trolls, more work would be needed to correct a general misunderstanding or perception of risk.

Suzanne LaBarre, the content director for Popular Science Magazine Online, cited the above study in her announcement on September 24, 2013,[5] for Popular Science’s decision to discontinue its tradition of including a comments section below regularly posted online-articles. “As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter,” writes LaBarre.

With moderators, just like anywhere else, everyone can enjoy the Internet responsibly. If used as an open forum for constructive purposes, the Internet can foster lively debate and increase the chances of reaching well-reasoned, meaningful decisions. One can only hope that companies like Google and Microsoft are hard at work developing methods of filtering for the elusive trolls. In the meantime, a continual supply of fun and inventive appliances of the Internet’s seemingly ever-increasing flexibility will only add to the troll’s arsenal. Although, caution is advised when pressing the “Summon the NSA” button, note, however, it is not advisable to press the “Summon the NSA” button.[6]

References

  1. YouTube, YouTube statistics.
  2. The Associated Press, Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion.
  3. C. Curry, NSA spying will continue despite snowden's leaks, experts say.
  4. D. Brossard, A. A. Anderson, D. A. Schuefele, M. A. Xenos, and P. Ladwig, The ‘Nasty Effect:’ online incivility and risk perceptions of emerging technologies, J. Comput-Mediat. Commun., 2013.
  5. S. LaBarre, Why we're shutting offf our comments.
  6. L. Murphy, Get on the NSA's radar with the push of a button.

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