New media, activism and racist internet trolls

by Camilla Eriksson on March 13, 2015

In her book Alternative and Activist New Media, Leah A. Lievrouw identifies four characteristics that set new media apart from other media forms and systems. In terms of design and use, new media are continuously recombinant and complexly and dynamically networked. With regard to their social consequences, people now take for granted new media’s ubiquity and interactivity. She defines new media as the combination of material artefacts, people’s practices and the social and organizational arrangements involved in the process of human communication.

In some of the previous posts in this blog it has been highlighted how the perceived anonymity of the internet and the ubiquous and interactive new media have meant an online environment full of hateful and racist comments. What has this meant for social practice? How do online contributers and activists deal with such an omnipresence of racist comments? And what do governments do?

A concept that has emerged in relation to this is the concept of ”trolls”. ”Trolling” is different from being critical. A troll is a person whose comments rarely have anything to do with the topic discussed, but aim to anger and intimidate others and derail the discussion. Racist comments are among them.

Internet troll

When calling some activist friends and asking what they are doing, it is not unusual to get an answer involving trolls. ”I’m fighting trolls on twitter”. ”I’m blocking trolls”. From the outside it seems almost as if you can get used to and desensitized to hateful comments if you spend enough time on the internet.

After the Global Voices Summit in Cebu, Philippines, at the end of January 2015, which explored the connections between the open Internet, freedom of expression and online civic movements around the world, Ethan Zuckerman blogged about the panel discussion ”Are we feeding the trolls?”. One of the panelists, Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, said ”I don’t feed the trolls – the trolls feed me”. She said often the trolls give her ideas for stories to cover in addition to more twitter followers. Certain times trolling could even be intelligent commentary wrapped in bombast according to her. Thant Sin from Myanmar said his personal response was to ignore the huge amount of religious and racist hate speech online, and suspected that such comments could even be encouraged by the government in his country. Another panelist, Gershom Ndhlovu from Zambia, likewise commented that troll armies could actually be hired by the government to attack any critique against it. However it was also noted that such comments could come from true supporters of the government.

Do-not-feed-the-Internet-trollIn a CNN article by Doug Gross about racist comments on Youtube, two Youtube contributors said that instead of trying to fight racist comments, they now just ignore them. In addition to just ignoring, there are certain technical tools to resort to when dealing with racist trolls. One of the interviewees said she has created an e-mail filter that sends any message with racial slurs directly to trash.

The other interviewee called the “block” button the most amazing button on YouTube. Social media companies explore various technological solutions for reporting and blocking racist trolls. By changing the practice of blocking someone on twitter to in practice just ”muting” that person, Twitter took a big step away from the role of controlling what users do on the site, and instead put the onus on users, telling them not to look at what they do not want to see.

'Just tell them to hashtag f*** off.'

Another tactic mentioned by contributors is to nurture your own community of fans. If a troll shows up, fans can go after them and police the comment section. Certain contributors have also started reposting some of the nasties comments they get as a strategy to turn such comments into a joke, mocking how stupid it is or the bad spelling.

 

Sometimes stories emerge in which an activist has engaged with a troll with an unexpected, positive ending. One example is Ijeoma Oluo, a prolific tweeter and writer on social justice and the politics of race, who used a deep humanist approach against a racist troll on Martin Luther Jr. King Day. It turned out that the troll was a 14 year old who was using hateful language to deal with his own suffering. The conversation ended with the teenager apologizing.

Ijeoma Oluo said that the more vicious trolling does not make her that angry. “The overt racism rarely bothers me. The racism that people are unaware of is what bothers me.” She added that the focus on the most extreme forms of racism can be self-deluding, stealing attention from the truly important things that are upholding an entire racist structure. A more effective strategy would be to use the power of collective action to target those individuals, corporations, and practices that contribute to structural racism. She mentioned for example targeting corporations that underpay their employees, many of whom are people of colour, to change standardized tests that are racially biased or to put pressure on the police to rewrite the training manuals that set up systems like stop and frisk.

In a related discussion, the line between what should be considered racist hate speech and what should be considered freedom of speech continues to appear rather fluid and confusing both online and offline, possibly adapting to power structures in its legal implementation. After the celebration of the importance of freedom of expression following the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo (whose cartoons should be noted are viewed by many as punching down and racist), and after a march by world leaders in Paris which to many appeared highly satirical due to some of the leaders’ own records of attacks against freedom of expression, France has been accused of double standards in its hate speech crack down.

Following the attacks, Jillian York wrote that it is not uncommon to hear calls from politicians and government officials for increased surveillance after a terrorist attack. ”Fear and grief can lead to quick solutions that have significant consequences”, however ” we must be wary of any attempt to rush through new surveillance and law enforcement powers, which are likely to disproportionately affect Muslims and other minorities”.

Jillian York moreover pointed out that mass surveillance does not only infringe on our privacy, but also our ability to speak freely. Surveillance has the effect of chilling speech she wrote. “The knowledge, or even the perception of surveillance, can make writers think twice before touching upon a given issue. Freedom of speech can only thrive when we also have the right to privacy.”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joakim Rådström March 14, 2015 at 9:02 am

Very interesting! “Trolls” as an expression actually comes rather from the fishing method “trolling” than from the folklore character, since it’s compared to when someone lets fishing lures drag from a boat in order to attract fishes. The symbolism is that people reacting to the troll’s blog post are like fishes aiming for the “bait” (be it a racist or in other ways provocative post).

This technique now seems to have become used by unscrupulous governments to whip up sentiments of support among some parts of the population and exclude, ostracize and attack their opponents. See for instance the example of Puting’s “troll army” in the war in Ukraine: http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2014/12/09/putins-new-weapon-in-the-ukraine-propaganda-war-internet-trolls/
and, in Swedish language: http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/de-ar-putins-soldater-pa-natet/

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Camilla Eriksson March 14, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Interesting, and I did not know where “trolling” came from. Thanks for sharing.

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Sophia Bengtsson March 14, 2015 at 7:31 pm

I recently listened to a really captivating story on the podcast My American Life, about a female journalist who was constantly “trolled” and abused online. After an especially painful incident she wrote an article about it, which went viral and proned the most voracious troll of them all to make contact with her and finally they managed to reconcile. It’s a fascinating story about how little it takes to cross the line, and the mechanisms that the online environment stimulate. You can read about the story at http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/01/how-an-internet-trolling-victim-bonded-with-her-worst-troll/, but I suggest listening to the episode, cause it’s great!

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Paula Holst March 17, 2015 at 8:04 pm

Indeed, trolling is a serious weapon of propaganda. We should however separate trolling and bullying. The first often comes in the form of spreading false, outrageous or downright absurd information but isn’t necessarily targeted personally. Whereas the latter is a direct attack against someone and therefore also more easily justified as a crime. I bet the podcaster that Sofia refers to would have had a court case or two there against her internet bully.

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Camilla Eriksson March 18, 2015 at 4:18 pm

Good points!

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