Trolls, bullies and us

There are three types of people who intentionally cause other people hurt on the internet.

First there are the trolls; those the IT purists will tell you emerged long before Twitter and online opinion sites. From what I’ve read (and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I get it wrong), the troll’s main goal is to provoke anger or other extreme reaction from their subject and then feed off the energy that is generated by that emotion.

Then there are the bullies, who are quite different to trolls. Anyone who has been subjected to bullying can attest that it manifests in many ways – ranging from outright threatened violence to subtle but sustained denigration. In contrast to the troll, the bully’s main goal is to feel superior: either in strength, intelligence, wit or popularity.

And then there is the third type of person who intentionally causes other people hurt on the internet: the rest of us. Yes, you and me.

There are times for pretty much all us online (I’d venture), when we just can’t help but say some something hurtful to someone else. We might do it because we’re outraged by their behaviour or something they’ve said. Sometimes we do it because we don’t agree with their point of view or find it simply ridiculous. And sometimes we do it because other people are doing it too and we want to fit in.

I’m not without guilt: I admit that I get a bit Old Testament at times, lashing out at people who sledge others or have caused me hurt in the past. Yes, I have also (quite often) ridiculed the cohort of people known as The Greens and Their Supporters.

But in a similar fashion to that described by GrogsGamut in his book, these days I mostly try to exercise self-censorship in the hope of preventing something that could degenerate into ugliness, and I rigorously moderate the comments on my blog for the same reason.

Unfortunately, relying solely on self-restraint will not do much to reduce the hurtful ways in which we sometimes voice our opinions, emphasise our disagreement, or attempt to appear witty and entertaining to our friends.

As Jonathan Green pointed out this morning, online human behaviour is no different to that which occurs offline. So maybe we need to start pulling the two worlds into better alignment.

In real life, if one of your friends rolled down their car window and yelled some of the sledges that are made on Twitter to a passerby, what would you do? Would you laugh and pat them on the back? Maybe reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution? Maybe you’d pretend it didn’t happen? Or would you say, hey, that’s out of line?

What about the same behaviour in the pub, at the footy or at a party? I’m pretty sure most of us would intervene somehow and try to defuse the situation, rather than turn a blind eye or succumb to the pack mentality and join in.

I understand the reasons posited by experts as to why people think they can get away with extreme behaviour on Twitter and similar places. They feel less empathy because they can’t see the body language of their “victims”; they breach societal boundaries because they are largely anonymous and not accountable for their actions.

Nevertheless, in most cases bullies on Twitter and elsewhere (and people like you and me who can also be hurtful), have friends and followers who have ways of communicating with them.  If there were more occasions when sledgers and bullies were told by their peers that they were out of line, degeneration into pile-ons and flamewars could more often be avoided.

So next time someone you know says something hurtful on Twitter, what will you do? Will you laugh and retweet them, reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution, or perhaps pretend it didn’t happen?

Or will you send them a DM or text and say, hey, that’s out of line?

Postscript: A very considered, and relevant, contribution to the discussion.

Grog’s Rise of the Fifth Estate

It’s probably not cool to blog about a book that mentions you, but I’m going to do it anyway because the release of Greg Jericho’s book this week has been excitedly anticipated by sections of the political blogosphere and Twittersphere for what seems like forever.

Yesterday, the book officially hit the bookshops, although dead-tree copies were hard to find. Diehards like me paid for the iTunes copy and surreptitiously read it at work that day.

Firstly, I’d like to say that the book is mostly free of the graphs and tables that distinguish much of Greg’s* political writings. That was a relief to me, because while Greg’s prose might be the poor cousin to his economic analysis, I actually enjoy the former much more. That’s probably because I don’t speak economist and as a literature wonk too, Greg does have a lovely turn of phrase.

The book was always going to be built around the story of Greg’s shameful and baseless outing by James Massola of The Australian; and it certainly tells that tale in confronting and gory detail. We can only be grateful that the story turned out to have a happy ending – the many other possible endings were not quite so sun-shiny.

But in an act of publishing brilliance, Greg has also been able to capture a snapshot of Australian political discourse at a time when many of the moving parts are spinning wildly. I’d venture that it’s a first for the Australian political scene.

Greg simultaneously gives us a history lesson on the genesis of political blogging in Australia (from which I learned a great deal), stark and perceptive insights into the way people treat each other online (in discussions on female bloggers and “not reading the comments”), frontline stories from the war between bloggers and journalists, and an examination of how Australian politicians and the media have attempted to either suppress or embrace the dialogue that foments on new media platforms.

I was particularly taken by the book’s narrative thread; the nod to Yeats’ “widening gyre”, where things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. Greg writes:

The MSM and those in power – politicians and governments – seek to hold the centre, but the internet and the social media world is a cyclone. It is a centrifugal force spinning control away from the centripetal forces of the establishment that is seeking to manage and formalise it.

This is a book that journalists may find difficult to read, challenging as it does their willingness to seek the truth over an easier news angle or headline. Equally, it challenges bloggers and the proprietors of online news sites to take responsibility for, and devote resources to guiding, their rabid and bile-filled commenters. Fans of the transformative nature of Twitter will feel mostly justified. Those that demand continuing delineation between conventional and new media will not.

Regardless, this is a book that anyone interested in contemporary Australian politics should read.

Dead tree and ebook versions of The Fifth Estate by Greg Jericho can be obtained here.

*By all means read Greg as Grog, depending upon your preference.

Belling the Abbott cat

To bell the cat: To undertake a dangerous action in the service of a group.

So that this does not become a pissing competition and miss the point altogether, this post is an attempt to capture all of the articles and posts that have challenged Tony Abbott’s merry dance with the truth. Posts from bloggers are marked in this colour. I’ve included those that I’ve noticed – let me know in the comments or on Twitter any other examples and I will include them:


Should online commenters register with a credit card?

I’ve lodged a comment today on Greg Jericho’s latest interesting piece at The Drum about privacy and freedom to comment.

My reason for doing so is the confusion that seems to have arisen about whether online commenters should register with a credit card.

I recall discussing this with both Greg and Jonathan Green at The Drum, so thought I would share my views on how/why it could be done.

This is what I had to say:

Another nice piece Grog. The irony of the Australian doing a feature on you yesterday was extreme to say the least.

Only to be exceeded, in fact, by your graciousness and generosity in doing the interview IMHO.

On the credit card point. I think that might have been something you and I once discussed. If so, I suggested that paying $1 by credit card to register to comment on an online news/opinion site would be more effective in proving that one is a “real” person than using one’s Facebook profile (which is a method used by some media organisations).

Using emails addresses or Facebook profiles does not weed out anonymous or pseudonymous commenters (clearly), or the astroturfing that can be perpetrated by them. But paying $1 by credit card demonstrates you are actually who you say you are, because the issuing bank will have made sure of that before issuing it to you. Or you would hope so……

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