Is hate trumping love online?

Is hate trumping love online? Photo: Genevieve Laplante

“Yeah. I've had, you know, the emails, the tweets, the photos, the, you know, general interactions even in the street which is not necessarily trolling but you know, ‘you're a dirty whore, go off and die.’ ‘I want to’, you know, ‘I'd rape you in the gutter walking home’. Stuff on Twitter and you know - emails and photographic - very explicit photographic emails coming my way.  And I'm totally prepared to say I'm putting myself out there, I've got to be able to expect a reaction and because I'm a blogger I've always promoted conversation in a two way scenario. I'm happy to engage, the idea being I'm happy to engage with people who are reasonable.”

The above text is drawn from the transcript of Tuesday’s episode of Insight – a televised panel discussion I was privileged enough to have been invited along to – and it captures my, er, perhaps less than loquacious response to the host’s question:

Part of me thinks we need trolls to remember what it means not to be a monster 

“Now, you’ve been trolled Katherine?”

In short, yes. Yes I have been trolled.

Does the above abuse qualify as trolling though? That’s one interesting question. The other is this:

Is trolling a tragic indictment of modern culture? Or is it simply a word popularised by people trying to explain why the same old shite is happening online as it has been off-line, forever? A word that actually reflects the big, human struggle to understand why bad stuff happens, as opposed to one that speaks to a specific, new idea.

I’ve been ‘trolled’. But I can’t escape the feeling that trolling is an ancient thing, regurgitated all over a brand new forum (the webz). Yet, if we’ve learned anything from recent coverage, it’s that trolling is a notion that has captured our attention. Presumably, we’ve also realised it’s a very confusing subject. It involves big feelings, be that in a definitional and/or consequential sense.

But perhaps what I’m more interested in is how this business commonly known as trolling impacts the way we relate to each other. Does the existence of trolling suggest a rotten society? Are trolls unravelling the bonds that keep us together? Have trolls let festering hate overwhelm pure and righteous love?

Certainly, there are places on the web where bile and malice bloom. And let’s not forget these places have been built by human beings – people drive the internet machine, and people are governed by mortal urges, some of which are sinister. The darker side of human nature is manifest online through the actions of people who use the internet to aggravate friction, abuse, harass, and commit crimes.

Are these people trolls?

If you understand the concept simply as someone using the internet to provoke a negative emotional response, you might think so. Trolls seem to flourish in these dark places. Sometimes, they crawl out from under these bridges to monster passers-by. Depending on their victim – a naïve teenage girl perhaps - the consequences can be horrific. But whose fault is that?

Trolls I’ve interacted with say ‘not theirs’. They say they’re just having fun. Dark fun, sure, ‘but what’s wrong with black humour? People should know how to take a joke. People should develop thicker skins. People – if they’re going to be wandering around the web, a place known to be troll-infested – should be prepared with a shield or just stick to the safe, well-lit, moderated avenues of Tinternet-land.’

Is that a cop-out, or a fair-crack?

Fact is, not every internet user is savvy. The digital world is still foreign to many, especially those who don’t really ‘live’ online. These people are most at risk of being attacked by a troll. They’re also the least likely to ‘understand’. And understanding is a key – it’s necessary before informed decisions about whether trolling is or isn’t excusable behaviour or not may be made.

It’s also true that trolls are nothing new. People have always been attracted to the twin-powers of provocation and domination. Cultures have always had baddies. The troll as a mythological figure qualifies as such – and perhaps this modern incarnation is nothing different.

But here’s the thing; baddies aren’t ‘bad’ things. We need baddies to remember how to be good.

However you define it, trolling is clearly not good behaviour. It is not kind, and it is not civil. But does that make it wrong? Or is it right, in the sense that it helps establish the point from where pendulum should swing, back towards the sensible, rational, reasonable and civil common ground?

Part of me – even having been what I’ll call trolled – thinks trolling serves a purpose. Part of me thinks we need trolls, to remember what it means not to be a monster.

So do I believe trolls represent the end of decent society? No. They are nefarious characters. They need to be dealt with. But they aren’t all people, and good people won’t let them be anyway. This I know because I’ve seen trolls dragged out by their hairy toes and summarily pitch-forked by a mob of the do-gooding masses. Skewered for their shameless and sometimes unjustifiable trouble-making, these trolls either self-combust, realising there’s no fun left to be had, or they become contrite. Contrite because ‘trolls’ are just people after all, and nearly all of us want to belong.

(I might add, such troll-hunting is occasionally quite unpleasant to watch. But then, justice can be a vicious beast…)

So here’s what I think needs to happen. We need more clarity around online interaction. (Actually, contemplating the manners displayed by some people, perhaps we need a general refresher in how to interact properly with people, anywhere.)

The internet has enabled a whole range of behaviours to be displayed publically that otherwise would have been confined to private domains. I don’t believe the internet has altered the nature of the people who comprise the public. But just as there a codes governing what is and isn’t acceptable on the street, so too do we need codes for the passageways of webz. Dignity, collegiality and ethical behaviour should not be any less important just because you’re relating via machine.

But these qualities have been drowned out in this time of great change when reaction is so much easier than consideration. When BLAH comes more naturally, and can be shared with greater ease, than ‘let’s sit down and talk about what we think, and why’. It’s time for the good people to freaking engage rather than hurrumphing and simply calling for “greater legislation!” or “more regulation”.  It’s time for the tide to go back out. It’s time to remove the great dam of denial.

Trolls haven’t killed the love. They don’t represent the end of the world. But they do cast a long shadow. So why do we let them?

How do you understand trolling? Have you ever been trolled, and how did you feel? Have you ever trolled, and why? Why do you think trolling exists, and what should be done about it?

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kfeeney@fairfaxmedia.com.au