Over the last few weeks, debate over the trolling (or harassment, depending on the line you take) of Caroline Criado-Perez has exploded across the internet and on Twitter. There's little doubt that trolling, cyberbullying, and many other online issues are exacerbated by the ease of remaining anonymous, but we stand to lose some very important internet freedoms if we allow outrage to set the tone of the debate.
Criado-Perez is the woman who spearheaded a campaign to get more female faces on banknotes in the UK, and she has the support of several female members of Parliament. Because of her work, Jane Austen will be placed on British banknotes within the next few years.
However, Criado-Perez and other figures involved in the initiative soon started getting trolled on Twitter. They took to both conventional and social media to decry the trolling, and characterized it as "abuse." Needless to say, since then, things have simply gotten worse. As the age-old internet adage goes, "Don't feed the trolls." When you do, you get more — and they get worse.
The response from Criado-Perez and her supporters has been quite disproportionate and potentially very dangerous. In an interview with Wired magazine, she said: "The things that are being sent to me are illegal. It's not legal to send people death threats and rape threats. We have the laws. I really hope they're going to be applied to the full extent in this case so that no other woman has to go through this again." Other media figures, such as Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, have used this incident to call for regulation of the internet. And Stella Creasy, one of the MPs who supported Criado-Perez's campaign, has been quoted in the Daily Express as saying, “I’d like Twitter to work with the police to be able to identify when particular accounts and particular users are under attack.”
While the threats have gotten worse over time, a typical example of the early "abuse" is this rape joke which, while horrible, is neither abuse nor a threat. It's obviously trying to elicit an emotional reaction. Ms Criado-Perez and friends were obliging to the troll.
To understand trolling, you need to understand trolls, and Ms Criado-Perez and her supporters do not seem to have quite understood the psychology behind online trolling.
Trolls do what they do to get a reaction, to upset people, and to waste people's time. Creating a media circus around trolling gives trolls a great deal more attention than they would otherwise get. It only encourages them to focus on celebrities and people in the public eye who can attract even more attention and more drama.
The BBC tracked down a troll, and asked him why he targets women online. They got a rather brutal reply: "Because women are easy. They get butthurt so easy and react. If they don't react no body flames. It's that simple. People target femi-nazi's because they're incredibly hypocritical and full of b******t .... It's for laughs not for political cause. If the b*tch had of just blocked and moved on nobody would of cared. But she reacted so [sic] further her BS beliefs. Now she wants to censor twitter for being a dumb b*tch. Lol." In other words, trolls go where they believe they can generate the most outrage.
The vast majority of trolls' threats are spurious, and unlikely to ever be followed through on. That doesn't make their actions right, decent, or excusable, but it does mean that some of the proposed responses, such as censorship of Twitter or ending internet anonymity, are an overreaction. In an environment where the idea of a UK-wide porn filter is being seriously discussed and Hannah Smith commits suicide after being "cyberbullied" on Ask.fm, it is easy to see why the idea that something must be done takes root, and it is difficult to speak out against this kind of censorship without being characterised as a misogynist, bully, or someone who condones child pornography.
But there is a plus side to internet anonymity, and we place ourselves (and others) at great risk if we censor internet content we don't like or identify anonymous users. Internet anonymity, for example, lets LGBT teens seek out people who will sympathize with and understand them. It helps them in circumstances where coming out would place them at risk of losing their home, their family, and even their lives.
In the U.S. Bible Belt, young atheists are often isolated and the internet gives them a way to find like minds and seek emotional support. Battered women can get help or find shelters online without exposing themselves to discovery and danger from their partner. They can find shelters, contact people to help them, and even register their abusive partners on lists so that other women can avoid those partners in the future.
In areas that are under repressive regimes, internet anonymity lets people dissent and discuss freely. Social media and the anonymity that goes with it played a strong role in The Arab Spring. Internet anonymity has aided sexual liberation and expression across the world.
Censorship and identification on the internet threatens all of this. Trolling is the price we have to pay for a free and open internet with all these important benefits.
Is there a way to solve the problem of trolling? A few have been proposed, but they all have problems attached to them. A "report abuse" button on Twitter seems like a reasonable idea, but the "report spam" button is already misused and an abuse button would certainly (and ironically) be abused the same way. With over 200 million users on Twitter, there simply isn't the manpower to deal with abuse reports manually. Linking people's real identities to accounts has also been suggested, but this has serious repercussions for a free internet, as mentioned above.
Some people have suggested some sort of a shared block list, such as those used in advertisement blocking. In theory this might be a good idea, but the existing example (Block Bot) demonstrates a problem with the concept. It's being used not just to block abusive trolls, but to block anyone who doesn't share an organization's political dogmas. Cutting out opposing viewpoints is inherently dangerous.
This problem is a tricky one, but as with Digital Rights Management, where attempts to protect content only inconvenience the legitimate user and barely slow down pirates, the likely outcome is that trolls will have the tools and motivation to find ways around attempts to control them, while legitimate users will be misreported.
There may be a better solution out there — perhaps an educational program to deal with online interactions the same way we teach children to cross the road with care or not to take sweets from strangers. Until this better solution turns up, the best advice remains the same old advice: "Don't feed the trolls."