Trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency

Thanks to Dave Statter of statter911 who alerted me to this outstanding op-ed piece in NYT by Facebooks’ design manager Julie Zhuo about the challenges the tech community faces regarding trolls. Trolls are those mean, nasty horrible creatures that lurk around seeing who they can attack with their slobbering, venomous mouths. In this case, they don’t lurk under bridges and pathways, but they lurk around blogs, news sites and websites, contaminating almost every conversation with their toxic expressions. Yes, you’re right, I don’t like them very much and have written about them a fair amount here under the topic of toxic talk. I think they are a significant contributor to the decline of public trust and the disagreeable atmosphere surrounding much of our public discourse.

As Julie points out, a primary cause for this is anonymity. People will do all kinds of things when their identity is unknown and unknowable that they wouldn’t think about doing otherwise. The Greek philosophers certainly understood this. Trolling, like many evil deeds, would be seriously decreased by making it illegal to reveal who you really are.

But, that runs smack into a primary ethos of the internet. The internet crowd really likes this anonymity and I suspect a great majority of them would fight hard to protect it. And I for one do not believe there is or should be a legal or legislative solution to every problem that plagues us. If that is the way, soon our only problems will be legal and legislative ones and sometimes I’m not too sure we aren’t there already. I just think it is quite ironic that the internet ethos of anonymity runs smack dab into that other high value of the internet culture–transparency. How can you demand transparency from anyone and everyone, while hiding behind anonymity? Yet, that seems to be the value system at work.

Speaking of transparency, and speaking as one who has proclaimed its virtues loudly and tried to help organization leaders understand its urgency and demands, we are now seeing some of the dangers and challenges of transparency. I am referring, of course, to wikileaks and the widespread publication of classified war documents and now diplomatic messages. I have little doubt that those subscribing to the internet ethos, as I am referring to it, are largely applauding the release of these documents and looking to nominate Julian Assange, wikileaks founder, for a Nobel prize. Part of me wants to join in the applause but there is also that part of me that says there are some times when secrets are necessary.

The dilemma inherent in this struggle against transparency versus other competing values and interests–including the lives of people and security of the nation–is evidenced in the New York Times explanation of its decision to publish most of the leaked documents. Wikileaks creates a huge dilemma for responsible news organizations like the New York Times. Refuse to publish and they not only lose out on all that web traffic and public interest, but they look like digital content Luddites. Publish it all, and they fall right into the reasonable accusation of not caring about anything other than their ratings or readers. Personally, I think they did a pretty good job of walking this tightrope with this explanation. Still, it makes you wonder a bit when they make a point of pointing out that they did not necessarily agree with the Obama administration’s opinion about publishing all documents and so are making themselves the arbiters of national security questions rather than leaving that to the government. I guess so it has always been, but this seems to be on a whole new level.

What seems clear in all of this is that transparency is not an unmitigated good–as even the most adamant of internet freedom protectors would agree. If they did agree that transparency was the ultimate good then they above all would demand an end to anonymity on the web. So, both individual members of society, like the publisher of the NYT and society as a whole will continue to struggle with finding the right balance between transparency and protection. It will be interesting to see how this will play out in the field of conflicting values. What is certain for crisis communication is that any effort to restrict information without clear and compelling justification will be met with hoots and howls from the media and the social media crowd alike. All the more for the trolls to slobber over.

4 thoughts on “Trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency”

  1. Excellent subject for a post! My guess is that it will take several decades of USE and ABUSE before we understand completely or even partially the cultural and psychological impacts of the INTERNET and its transparency or lack thereof. With estimates of INTERNET traffic consisting of 80% pornography (eye of the beholder?) then clearly it would be of interest to have full disclosure of reasons why that is the case! Profits? Psychology? Neuroses? Psyhcosis? Forbidden fruit?

    Time will tell on all of this but in meantime many will be damaged!

  2. Internet culture has little to do with transparency. I may prefer using open source software, but that’s only tangentially about transparency. I certainly prefer buying products from companies that are transparent and I would prefer living in a country where the government is transparent. But on the Internet, I don’t really care how some network I’m using handles transmitting my packets.

    Internet culture values autonomy (for example, your ISP’s autonomous system number: AS11798, every network on the Internet has one). If you chose to be anonymous, then that’s your choice. If you chose not to, that’s also your choice. It’s an individual choice, just like religion or anything else.

    William implies that porn is negative, with this “many will be damaged!” comment. Easy anonymous access to porn decreases rape. So, if you dislike porn, I think that means you’re (possibly unknowingly) in favor of rape. I don’t think that anyone would argue that rape doesn’t damage victims. So lets try to strive towards more anonymity and more porn so that fewer will be damaged.
    http://www.slate.com/id/2152487/

  3. Great article! I have also been fascinated by the rise of Wikileaks. You mention there are times when “some times when secrets are necessary” – you are probably right but the question is – who are the right people to judge this?

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