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Dick Pountain

Trolling does no harm? Think again

Posted on 21 Oct 2013 at 09:54

Dick Pountain dismisses the old "sticks and stones" adage when it comes to internet trolls

I've been reading a lot of anthropology recently. Not sure why, maybe because there’s something about the current state of the world that makes me want to know more about the workings of the pre-civilised mind.

David Graeber’s excellent paper, "Toward an anthropological theory of value", has a fascinating section about the ancient Maori and their world view, in which I found one item particularly provocative. That Maori custom of sticking the tongue out during their haka war dance, so familiar to all rugby fans, always strikes us as a gesture of cheekiness or insult, because that’s what it now means in most European cultures. However, this isn’t what it originally meant to the Maori: when aimed at an enemy during a battle it meant "you are meat, and I’m going to eat you", and true to their word, if they defeated you they may well have done so. For some reason, this put me in mind of internet trolls.

Trolling is a form of politics, and to that same extent it’s a kind of terrorism

There’s recently been a surge of outrage about trolling on Twitter, sparked initially by rape threats against Labour MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, then amplified by bomb threats against various female journalists, including The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman. This stuff plays directly into debates about internet censorship (Cameron’s anti-porn filters) and freedom of speech, all of which constitute such a moral quagmire that one enters it very cautiously indeed. I’ve always been largely in favour of the freedom to robustly criticise, in any medium at all, since to take the opposite view would mean to toe the line, to accept things the way they are.

However, in recent years this issue has become more complicated after various laws against "hate speech" have been enacted. These laws make certain kinds of speech – often racial insults – into prosecutable crimes, and that raises two, very difficult points: first, is it permissible to ban any form of speech, as opposed to action, at all (the pure freedom-of-speech argument)? Second, how do you gauge the degree of offensiveness of a speech act (necessary in order to decide whether it’s prosecutable or not)?

The argument for freedom of speech can be defended in abstract philosophical terms, but it always depends upon the old adage that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me": that is, verbal threats aren’t the same as the actions that they threaten, and don’t cause the same damage. That’s certainly true: the threat of rape isn’t as harmful as the act of rape, and the threat to bomb doesn’t kill or demolish buildings.

However, that isn’t to say they cause no damage. One result of the recent revolution in neuroscience is confirmation that fear and anxiety do indeed cause physical damage to people. These primitive emotions are useful from an evolutionary point of view: fear keeps you from stepping off cliffs or picking up rattlesnakes, while anxiety forms part of the necessary binding force between mammals and their highly dependent offspring. However, both operate by releasing corticosteroid hormones that have all kinds of long-term effects if repeated too often – high blood pressure, hardening of arteries and much more. Like fire extinguishers, they’re necessary and welcome during an emergency, but make a mess of the furniture and aren’t to be played with.

Trolling is playing with the fire extinguishers. It’s meant to induce anxiety, fear or confusion in order to dissuade the victim from some attitude or action of which the troll disapproves. To that extent, it’s a form of politics, and to that same extent it’s a kind of terrorism, since both seek to achieve political ends by inducing fear. The crucial difference is that terrorists don’t just speak but act: they don’t merely stick out their tongues but really do eat you. None of this is news, since bandits, tyrants, robber barons and military officers have known for millennia that you can bend a population to your will by terrorising them.

In fact, there’s now a whole new discipline that views our efforts to manipulate each others’ emotions as the driving force of history. We manipulate our own emotions with music, dance, art and drugs: why else would alcohol, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco and opium figure so highly in the history of trade?

We manipulate others’ emotions with scary stories (religion), clever rhetoric and the threat of violence. Democratic governments insist we delegate the use of force to our police and army; whether or not they can demand we also give up the threat of force remains a fraught question, but never believe that threats do no harm.

Author: Dick Pountain

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User comments

Just like the BBC...

...you too have got trolling wrong.
Where does this view that threatening to kill someone is trolling?
It's not, it's just threatening to kill someone.

By vin69 on 21 Oct 2013

Is Freedom Indivisible?

That tough old philosophical nut reappears via the Interweb.
It's a conundrum, and without re-hashing a dissertation or three one's point of view is very much coloured by notions of "Liberty" and by implication "Freedom".

The super-libertarian would say that Freedom is indivisible, and that Liberty must be untrammelled by societal control.
The "moderate" wing of libertarianism suggests that there can be a social contract limiting one's nominal freedoms to accommodate notions of shared benefit and so-on.

In the specific case of Internet Trolling, I'm with the moderate wing.

As vin69 points-out threatening to kill people isn't just bad netiquette its illegal. Offenders should be brought to book and prosecuted. That's the easy part.

I'd immediately remove the postings and log-ins of individuals and\or groups specialising in vile, hateful & vindictive postings. Whilst all those terms are pretty subjective, liberal smatterings of F* and C* words along with irrational bile are usually features of this stuff. Any kind of threat of violence should qualify for immediate removal.

This still leaves plenty of scope for ranting, insults, argument, abuse etc. I'm loath to use the phrase, but "Common sense" will probably be a decent guide to differentiate between "legitimate" and hateful dialogue.

By wittgenfrog on 21 Oct 2013

I agree with the comments above. Threatening murder or rape, either in person or in the social media must already be a crime.

I always understood trolling to be those people who deliberately stirred up trouble with incendiary comments they know will provoke a reaction. Something as simple as going on a Nikon camera forum and saying "Canon is great - Nikon is rubbish".

These people are annoying and often offensive but there must be better use of police time than tackling those sort of trolls.

By cyberindie on 22 Oct 2013

There's nothing wrong...

...with a spot of trolling. And it's never designed to threaten anyone. It's just a mischievous playfulness.

God knows where this new definition of trolling has come from that the mainstream media are perpetuating. Probably some graduate researcher in the bowels of Television Centre with nothing better to do.

By vin69 on 22 Oct 2013

There's nothing wrong...

...with a spot of trolling. And it's never designed to threaten anyone. It's just a mischievous playfulness.

God knows where this new definition of trolling has come from that the mainstream media are perpetuating. Probably some graduate researcher in the bowels of Television Centre with nothing better to do.

By vin69 on 22 Oct 2013

Exactly

the examples given aren't trolling, that is threatening behaviour and should already be covered by existing laws - as seen by the "Robin Hood Bomber" on Twitter; where they went totally overboard about a joke.

Why aren't the authorities going after threatening behaviour like that mentioned in the article, when they are already going after people jokingly using threatening behaviour?

By big_D on 22 Oct 2013

No, just no.

"To that extent, it’s a form of politics, and to that same extent it’s a kind of terrorism"

No it isn't. Are you serious? Trolling is an art of winding people up, with the key part being they don't know you are winding them up.. Being nasty to people online is just that, being nasty to people.

"However, this isn’t what it originally meant to the Maori: when aimed at an enemy during a battle it meant "you are meat, and I’m going to eat you", and true to their word, if they defeated you they may well have done so"

What can I say apart from no and no.

By JonJones on 22 Oct 2013

No, just no.

"To that extent, it’s a form of politics, and to that same extent it’s a kind of terrorism"

No it isn't. Are you serious? Trolling is an art of winding people up, with the key part being they don't know you are winding them up.. Being nasty to people online is just that, being nasty to people.

"However, this isn’t what it originally meant to the Maori: when aimed at an enemy during a battle it meant "you are meat, and I’m going to eat you", and true to their word, if they defeated you they may well have done so"

What can I say apart from no and no.

By JonJones on 22 Oct 2013

Trolled by trolls from Trollway

Analysis from an ass (as in the animal, not the rectum).

Come to think of it, it works either way.

By arichter on 24 Oct 2013

Trolling redefined

It must suit someone to have violent threats (already illegal) and harmless pranks made interchangeable in the public view. If we are to accept the censorship our fascist overlords feel necessary to protect their interests, we must be taught to associate mild annoyance with terrorism.
Also, I'm gonna kill you.

By dubiou on 31 Oct 2013

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