Clippings: Internet trolls detract from dialogue

The Internet can be an amazing resource. It breaks down the limitations of time and space, putting you in touch with people around the world and making most information immediately accessible to anyone who can use a search engine. The Internet is a connector, and it enables dialogues and associations that would never have happened otherwise.
But there is something to be said for traditional means of communication. Recently I’ve been thinking about how many online dialogues, such as chat sites and the comments sections of news sites, allow people to keep the things they write on the Internet totally separate from their daily identity — and that lack of personal responsibility is an underlying weakness of this new avenue of communication.
One thing that happens frequently, in the absence of any kind of identifying system where someone’s “real life” identity is shown next to the comments they post, is that people feel as though they have an open invitation to put the worst of themselves out there in the open. No one is held accountable for what they say, so they just let loose.
I first encountered this phenomenon in a rather dramatic way. I was a freshman at Middlebury College and some enterprising sociology student from a different campus unleashed a pretty deft social experiment on us. They launched a website where anyone could post a topic or reply to other’s posts completely anonymously.
“Middlebury Confessional,” as the site was called, took off immediately. It launched just before finals week so students were parked in front of their computers anyway, but its immediate impact on campus was undeniable. If you walked down a row of study carrels in the library, or through the dining halls, or glanced in at a dormitory common room, nearly every screen showed a flash of the light blue background of the confessional’s website.
No one really wanted to talk about using it, because the majority of comments were not the stuff of polite social conversation. There were posts of cringe-inducing sincerity, usually related to unrequited love. There were entire threads that were so offensive you had to check out all the polite, polo-clad kids around you and wonder which ones were posting on it — racist stuff, sexist stuff, homophobic stuff.
The most active threads tended to be the ones that singled out individual students for either extreme attractiveness or unattractiveness. Some earnest “political” dialogue also surfaced, but mostly the whole thing was an embarrassment. It was a physical manifestation of the college’s hive-mind, and no one would publicly cop to being part of it.
But there it was, en masse, wherever you looked: students glancing furtively over their shoulders before typing comments about their crushes, political views, or personal experiences. Students sitting around hitting the “refresh” button constantly and watching fresh new confessions appear. The site was so popular in its first weeks that new comments would appear every few seconds.
Of course, the novelty of that particular site eventually wore off, people stopped using it as much, and those who did used it pretty much exclusively for the nastier comments.
But people seem never to tire of sharing their thoughts, no matter how half-baked, in public forums where they can stay anonymous.
In the few slow moments at work, I sometimes browse the sites of other news outlets in the hopes of picking up some useful leads, and often notice articles in particular that attract a number of commenters.
People love commenting on news websites. Our letters to the editor section gives a space for those to develop thoughts and opinions in ways that are productive for the community. And we have an online comments section so that there is an opportunity for readers to react immediately to a story. And that’s great, except there is also the distinct sense, given the fact that most people post under random and nondescript usernames that couldn’t possibly be used to identify them, that many feel they have the freedom to say whatever comes to mind — no matter how offensive, illogical or underdeveloped the thought is.
Just today, for example, I clicked on a short WCAX article called “Police nab busy burglar in Addison County.” It described a young man who certainly had been active, removing copper pipe fixtures from houses and stealing thousands of dollars in personal items.
“Anyone who steals copper from installed plumbing in someone’s home should have Islamic justice inflicted upon them,” Moonbat Rich opined. “The damage that results often costs much more than the replacement cost of the plumbing. Off with his hands!!”
Then last week my co-worker pointed out a comment thread to me that sent me off the deep end — under an article about a recent tragic homicide in Pittsford, in which a woman was beaten to death in her kitchen by her boyfriend, in front of their children, a commenter identified only as “John” shared his view that: “The only way to prevent domestic violence is to remain faithful in your relationships. Being a person who has been exposed to many people involved in domestic violence situations, I can tell you that if all women woke up tomorrow and understood that cheating is what causes domestic violence then the world would be a safer place.”
It wouldn’t have hit me so hard, except I had just spent the morning reading through the graphic details of the police affidavit for that particular homicide, which included gruesome details not elaborated on in the published news stories. Like, for example, the defendant had probably sexually violated the victim’s body after the homicide. And a child may have been present for that too. For all that explicitness, the affidavit never indicated the victim had “cheated,” but as other commenters quickly pointed out, wasn’t that beside the point?
I’d like to sit down with “John.” I’d like to ask him why he thinks that homicide could possibly be explained by infidelity. I’d like to look that guy in the face and try to figure out his train of thought, the way many of us around the state (including “John”) had stared down Christopher Sharrow’s widely disseminated mug shot and wondered what the hell had happened in his mind.
Sharing your views is a good idea, no matter how different opinions are. But easy access to the Internet also encourages people to react thoughtlessly and sometimes ignorantly. Especially when it comes to the news stories that stick in conversations around the state, and that touch on important issues like domestic violence or public safety (or Sharia law for that matter), it’s important to have a smart dialogue in channels that will keep the discussion on point. Just generating noise doesn’t help anyone.

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