Recreational nastiness sets internet freedom in flames

The internet is emerging as one of the big heroes of the pro-democracy, anti-despot movement in the Middle East. It’s regarded as being right up there with that courageous Muammar Gaddafi impersonator who has been suggesting absent members of the Libyan army are simply retreating to rest and relax.

Thanks to the cybersphere, Arabic members of generation TXT are using mobile phone cameras to film political violence and uploading the footage online. This, in turn, is leading to more civilian fury and more amateur surveillance. The regime-toppling threat posed by social networking has led one of Hillary Clinton’s senior advisers to describe the communications network as the Che Guevara of the 21st century.

It’s an interesting point (even if we aren’t likely to see suavely bearded and beret-ed pop art images of the cyber tubes on Che-style T-shirts). But it’s also important not to get too carried away with the celebratory “yay internet” rhetoric.

Yes, the ease and anonymity of online communications is permitting stunning new models of democratisation. But it’s also propagating disturbing new forms of vitriol. E-bile is no longer pooling only in the darkest digestive folds of the cybersphere: it risks poisoning the entire body internet. In fact, what used to be called “hate speech”‘ is now a run-of-the-mill online article comment section.

I first noticed this trend when I began including an email address at the bottom of my newspaper columns more than a decade ago. I’d always received plenty of feisty disagreement in snail mail correspondence, but there was something about the nebulous, untrackable nature of email that sparked a nasty combination of venom and vulgarity. ”Your article reeks of a half ugly lesbian, determined to get her own back on all the men who refused to [insert offensive slang term for sexual relations] her over all these years,” wrote one reader who disagreed with a column on a political issue. Another went through the list of coerced sexual assaults he thought I should endure before claiming “all feminists should be gang raped” and set to work in “hore” houses.

At the time, I felt singled out. Now, however, it’s clear such vile, sexually aggressive abuse has become the norm in cyberspace. Consider the response when CBS television reporter Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob in Egypt’s Tahrir Square the night former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. ”OMG if I were her captors and there were no sanctions for doing so, I would totally rape her,” read conservative blog Mofo Politics.

Commentators on this site who disagreed with the suggestion the journalist got what she deserved criticised their opponents’ incivility before hurling abuse that made Gaddafi’s “greasy rats” and “drug-fuelled mice”‘ insults seem tame. One person said they hoped the chat-roomers with whom he, she (or it) disagreed would be assaulted in various bodily cavities until they died.

Nice. And such an effective way to help lift the standard of public debate.

On Yahoo, many posters went for race-themed flaming. ”The Pigs of Islam strike again,” wrote one. And from another:  ”Typical coward low life Muslims.” Because there’s nothing cowardly or low-living about vomiting viciousness from behind a fake name on the web.

Many critics blame the anonymity of the internet — and what’s been called cyberdisinhibition — for the increase in these sort of toxic exchanges. But US computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier believes the “culture of sadism”‘ created by internet anonymity has spread from the fringes to the mainstream. There are now, for instance, many high-profile commentators happy to attach their names to their new media malignancy.

“Jesus Christ,” American war correspondent and academic Nir Rosen tweeted after Logan was attacked, “at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger.” He suggested Logan was trying to outdo US journalist Anderson Cooper (who was also physically assaulted in Cairo), adding that “it would have been funny if it happened to Anderson too”.

The thing, the really disturbing thing, about online vitriol is that it has moved beyond social acceptability and become aspirational: people are engaging in trash-talk competitions to see who can inflict the most emotional damage. As a result, we’re witnessing the growth of a kind of recreational nastiness which, more and more often, is spilling into non-cyber realms.

In 2006, the family of an American teenager who shot himself endured 18 months’ worth of prank calls because an organised online group of “death trolls”‘ decided the suicide was amusing. In Australia, meanwhile, the government is considering appointing a social network ombudsman to address the lewd defacing of Facebook tribute pages for murdered children. Such legislative action is essential because the nature of the internet means that e-hate is self-replicating: trolls are making more of themselves.

An example is the spread of racist and sexist stereotypes via Google’s new autocomplete function, that drop-down list of suggested search phrases based on other users’ online activity. Type in “China is” and the engine’s first suggestion is “China is evil”‘. Try “women should be” and this phrase is helpfully expanded to offer “women should be obscene and not heard”‘. Computer users can obviously make their own search term decisions, but the whole point of predictive web-ware is to use pre-existing routes to generate more traffic.

So, why is it so? Why do so many internet users gain such pleasure from inflicting such pain?

Vandals make elaborate justifications for their activities, claiming on sites such as the “troll archive”‘ Encyclopedia Dramatica that their methods are philosophical and in the name of greater goods. But their suggestion that people are stupid and weak if they allow themselves to be hurt by words ignores the fact what death troll victims are really being hurt by is their humanity. This vision of the troll as hyper misanthrope fits with media comments by celebrity hacktivist Weev who frames trolling as a form of eugenics in that it rids the internet of “retards”‘ who take themselves too seriously.  Predicting a plankton-related Malthusian crisis, the excited question Weev poses to The New York Times is: “How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?”

While it’s hard to imagine many punters agreeing with this proposal for friendly genocide, there is a strong case for the pit-bull style muzzling of trolls. As the world’s political infrastructures expands to permit the democratic aspirations of the Gaddafi-d, so too must its legal loopholes contract to curtail the hate hobbyists.

- originally published in The Australian on 05-03-2011.

Trackback URL

, , , , , , , , ,

No Comments on "Recreational nastiness sets internet freedom in flames"

Hi Stranger, leave a comment:


<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Subscribe to Comments