Rise of the twitchfork mob: how to civilise the web
Twitchfork mobs ... the name for group hatred online.
Hate on the web is banding together as "twitchfork mobs".
A combination of Twitter and pitchfork, the term was first recorded in Urban Dictionary in 2009 but gained currency in the past year as a way of describing viral mobs who bombard their targets with verbal bile and threats of physical harm - mostly anonymously.
Anonymity makes the weak suddenly strong - and sometimes nasty.
Jason Donovan (not the singer) knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of a twitchfork mob.
Within hours of allegedly trashing Anzac Day on Facebook last week, the Australian's comments were shared around the social networking site and on blogs, and a Facebook group was set up threatening violence against him.
His former employer, who has a son who served in the military for six years and is a long-time supporter of Anzac Day, was also the target of abusive emails and calls.
"Can anybody out there really understand how our family is feeling at the moment!!!" wrote the former employer, who asked not to be named, in a letter to smh.com.au.
"We have replied to every abusive phone call and email in an honest and open manner, and will continue to do so. The hurt that ill-informed people are inflicting on us and our business is very hard to bear as we have done nothing wrong and are very proud of our hard-earned reputation and hardworking staff."
The former employer also said Mr Donovan told them his Facebook account was hacked into. He was now unreachable by phone, and they were concerned if he was hiding as he was feeling guilty - or because he was fearful for his life.
Is more civilised conversation possible?
So what, if anything, can the web do to restore manners to the mob?
When should anonymity be tolerated and what can be done to make online forums more civilised?
Gawker founder Nick Denton declared at the South by Southwest festival in March that the dream of online comments - not just on social networking sites but also on news and blog sites - as a forum for intelligent debate was dead.
"The idea of capturing the intelligence of the readership - that's a joke," he said, CNN reported.
"For every two comments that are interesting - even if they're critical, you want to engage with them - there will be eight that are off-topic or just toxic."
The US news gossip site has, in the past few days, instituted a new way of moderating comments to try and weed out nasty remarks, by allowing those who post comments to also moderate responses.
"Give the source the ability to tell us what they know, then let the reader determine whether they've satisfied the critics, just as one would in judging a panel debate or a courtroom cross-examination," Denton wrote on Gawker.
Significantly, though, the article was titled "Why Anonymity Matters".
Gawker has also reworked the way it accepts comments to promote - rather than discourage - anonymity, by linking submitted feedback to the user's computing device used rather than through usernames, email addresses and passwords.
Anonymity or real identities
Others, like Alicia Shepard, Ombudsman for the US's National Public Radio (NPR), advocate putting real names to comments.
In an article for The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University last year, she wrote about the ongoing debate between dialogue and diatribe. Citing the 90-9-1 user participation rule* about internet users - 90 per cent of people who view a webpage don't comment, 9 per cent of viewers sometimes comment and 1 per cent of users comment frequently - and reflecting on her personal experience, she found diatribe often dominated the comments from the 1 per cent, like the "digital equivalent of the loudest drunk in the bar".
"Their messages are often rude and accusatory; they indicate little interest in joining a conversation, yet they succeed in scaring off those who might want to truly engage."
NPR now moderates all its comments, while commentators who have previously violated the public broadcaster's "community discussion rules" are pre-moderated - "a kind of guilty until proven innocent approach for those new to the site", Ms Shepard wrote.
Measures taken by other sites include using human moderators, providing readers the chance to report on remarks they find abusive, using software to filter comments, ranking comments (Slashdot) and favouring commentators, The Knight Digital Media Centre reported.
Such approaches also reflects the awareness that blogs and comments can be the subject of legal action if they are seen as defamatory.
In the past year in the United States, plaintiffs were awarded up to $US900,000 in damages after the courts found they had been defamed by online comments.
"The large verdicts are likely tapping into public outrage over internet nastiness," said Brenda Rogers, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers told legal newspaper the Fulton County Daily Report in March.
Why are people so angry online?
James Griffin, of social media consultancy sr7 says some people get a kick from making comments online they would never make in the real world, and that are then viewed by many others online.
Social media expert Laurel Papworth says these views are not new to our societies - it's just that we haven't heard them before in public.
"Those voices in the past have been silent. The only voices that we heard in the past were highly educated, have communication skills and were comfortably with speaking publicly," she said.
"One thing that social media does is that it shines a spotlight on different value systems in the Australian community. The challenge going forward is - do we want people to be honest or do we want them to be thinking those things and then to be too scared to say them?"
Echoing her thoughts, BBC presenter Richard Bacon, who presented a documentary on internet hate campaigns - The Anti-Social Network - in March, questioned if such online anger just reflected the truth about human nature.
"Does the net exaggerate our views, or are these views that people really hold? Either way, perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the idea that they are a tiny but vocal minority," he wrote.
"Or maybe this is what we are really like. Perhaps our day-to-day social interactions are the artifice, and these forums expose a dreadful truth about human nature. Could it be that deep, deep down, we just aren't very nice."
*The BBC suggested in a recent blog post that the 90-9-1 participation rule is "outmoded".
This reporter is on Twitter @curious_scribe