Online, we all have a little bit of troll in us.
Somewhere, in your online history, there is some snarky comment that just made its way out. Whether there was good cause for it or not, it happened.
Sure, some are worse than others. Some people might go as far as to make it their only business online to create and maintain a persona of “hating on stuff,” while others might be a bit more fair-weather dropping the occasional, “this article lacks a cohesive thesis and credible source citations” on a Rush Limbaugh op-ed (don’t look at me). And for the most part, our comments remain kept in check by others if at all and are not taken seriously.
But, sometimes a post online can be taken very seriously.
Last week, a story on NPR highlighted the case of Justin Carter. Justin Carter left a post on a Facebook page in response to some heated action on the game League of Legends. In the message, Justin threatened, "I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down/ And eat the beating heart of one of them." This was followed by a series of jk's and lol's.
Justin was brought into custody as a result of the comment, has been in jail since March 17, and faces up to 10 years in prison. Was the comment tasteless? For sure. But is it deserving of $500,000 bail and up to 10 years in prison? Unless it can be proven he was completely serious, probably not.
We all have the ability, whether out of boredom, passion, anger, or dissatisfaction, to be a real online prick at one time or another. The real question is, are we still defending our right to free speech if we use the comment section or public forums or even a status as a place to unload literally whatever we want to say? And how do we choose what posts justify a punishment and what posts we choose to ignore?
Does it all come down to being “real” online? Justin spoke as himself and got punished while others do not and remain untouched.
In 2012, Adrian Chen wrote an essay for Gawker that exposed the infamous Reddit troll Violentacrez. Under his online identity, Violentacrez moderated many different sections including “Jailbait,” a section devoted to posting sexual pictures of underage girls.
Violentacrez was largely left on his own on Reddit as he did not infringe on the site’s rules regarding free speech and it was argued that he was not cut off from the site because in many ways, his worst-case scenario affect was seen as maintaining a broad spectrum of freedom for all. But do we really want pictures of underage girls being a line of defense protecting the free speech we all deserve? It is one thing to want online privacy, but the ability to have free speech on the internet must be met with a level of transparency. People should always own what they say or post.
The internet has become a place of decentralized power. While there still remains a loose hierarchy of where “trusted” voices come from, the personal ability to comment or write or share information with mass amounts of people with or without using a real name leaves people an ability to influence from a mere idea. No longer is mass media the go-to for information. But, the way one can influence online can be done completely anonymously, unattached to any particular person. There is no character or reputation on the line, only words.
This is the online phenomenon known as deindividuation. People find a power in the anonymity of the internet and their respective online accounts on certain sites. Take a look at Reddit to see this “free speech” in action. I’ve seen articles torn to shreds by one or two people in a comment section simply because of a word in the headline, as if the content of the article meant nothing.
Free speech is all about standing on your own two feet to say something you feel passionately about. It’s about articulation and development, not recitation or degradation. It’s not supposed to be a waste of characters.
If you pay a visit to NPR’s newest blog Codeswitch (a very insightful addition in my opinion), you are sure to see a wide array of grumpy people spilling hate without a name. That is not someone’s free speech — that is someone’s boredom ruining what should be a brilliant comment section. If there is a writer who has a point to say clearly written out in a cohesive argument with their name attached to it, there is a level of vulnerability that should be recognized on the part of those reading. Free speech on the Internet must continually evolve in not how much we should be able to say, but in the level of discourse we hold each other to.
It is a relatively new power to be able to directly respond under a writer’s written work or post in a forum for everyone to read. Whereas years ago, in the golden years of print media, one would have to write a letter to the editor if they felt particularly misrepresented or resentful, we now see those same letter-to-the-editor people with high-speed internet being able to say their piece with an audience.
The issue of trolling on the internet is nothing new, but it is an ongoing issue that we should pay attention to every once and a while. For now, people largely keep one another in line and we can only wait to see how our mass communication online will evolve. As Alan Martin points out in Wired Magazine, “seeing the person behind the avatar can make all the difference.” With an abundance of people being able to broadcast themselves online, it is important to remember the humanity of the people who make up the internet.
And in the meantime, we can always ignore the comment section if we want to.