Saturday, 29 September 2012

Westminster Skeptics: Anonymity on the internet, dealing with "trolls", and meeting one of my favorite bloggers

At the start of this month I finished my MSc. dissertation. This meant two things: firstly I get my weekends back and secondly that I moved to London to work.

For the first time in two years this meant I could go to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on Monday. Today's post is largely based on some thoughts and reactions to the discussions there. The theme was vaguely defined as "social media" and several topics were covered.

Oh, and one of my favourite bloggers, Helen Lewis from the New Statesman Blogs, was there.

Helen Lewis's blogging at New Statesman has really helped me shape myself as a feminist. I'm a white, well-educated, British, upper-middle class man. All societal discrimination works in my favour. Without Helen writing about what online harassment actually looks like I'd never have actually believed it was happening to the scale it was happening.

Also, and maybe more importantly, she highlights the little bits of sexism that usually pass unnoticed by WWEBUMCM's like me.

And if all that sounds too serious for you, or I've made her sound like a one trick pony try reading something more lighthearted or on a different topic altogether.

Between these two things Helen opened my eyes to the realities of modern feminism, and to how society still has a long way to go. But, what is more, I also had my eyes opened to the small assumptions we make in everyday life and this is where I as a WWEBUCMCM can actually do something by catching myself whenever I start to make one of these assumptions.

I realise that's a lot of links to a lot of reading. I don't care. They're worth the read.

Onto some of the stuff discussed at the meet:

Anonymity on the internet

There was some very interesting discussion around anonymity on the internet: is it moral to be anonymous on the internet? Is it moral to 'out' those who choose to be anonymous and, if not, do they deserve protection against outing? The panel included outers and the outed as well as some people who'd faced the anonymous "trolls" of the internet.

All parties agreed that those committing illegal acts forfeit their right to anonymity. Two of the panel had written very worthwhile blogs that they could only have written with the protection of anonymity.

John Gabriel's "Greater Internet Dickwad Theory" is commonly used as an argument against anonymity. It is a little simplistic, however. One major thing that the theory doesn't account for is the mob mentality it is so easy to build up. The internet has made it very easy to find like minded people and to have your viewpoints amplified by not meeting anyone who opposes you. In this environment it's easy for flippant thoughts to become full blown action. Anonymity may be empowering to dickwadery but nothing stirs it up quite like a mob mentality.

Ultimately we need to treat anonymity as a privilege, rather than a right. Those who abuse that privilege should absolutely be exposed. The question then becomes "what counts as abusing anonymity?" 

(Full disclosure: I don't use my real name on this blog, but make no secret over who I am in real life - it is more to differentiate between the real life me who enjoys terrible puns and playing the fool, and the more intellectual face I wear writing here. I tend to use my real name in other parts of the internet, thought.)

Dealing with "trolls"

Or "bullies" as they should really be called.

Actually, that would be a good first step. In internet parlance a troll is a practical joker. Mischievous, but rarely malicious and with a long history. By referring to the horrible abuse some people throw about as "trolling" the media actually make it sound acceptable.

Taking away anonymity wouldn't help much here either? Would people still do some of the vicious things they do if we knew their real name? Well... yes. Some of these are on Facebook groups where you are required to use your real name, and some groups even are happy to go and "troll" in person. Removing anonymity is not a panacea. The truth is that some humans are assholes.

But there is a solution.

It's all about signal to noise ratios. Increase signal, remove noise. Moderators work to delete inappropriate or unhelpful comments, and the community doesn't respond to them. Bullies are less likely to try to work where they won't have an audience.

If a place is being inundated, add to the signal. Ignore the noise. Noise is zombie like. The moment you engage with it you become part of the noise. It doesn't matter how offensive anything is, how harshly you want to take the bully down by attacking the problem like that you become part of the problem.

Staunchly ignoring bullying and effective active moderation will do wonders for a site by attracting more people you want and putting off the ones you don't.

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