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Steph Guthrie


Let's Call "Trolling" What it Really Is: Hate Speech

Posted: 10/03/2013 6:26 pm

We've long since reached the point of linguistic inadequacy with the word "trolling." Ever since the mainstream media picked up on the concept, it seems like 75 per cent of the time I see the word "trolling," the context implies its meaning is something along the lines of "being mean on the Internet" (um, nope). In many cases it is used to describe bigoted attacks of the most vicious kind, such as the avalanche of violent misogyny hurled at feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. In my TEDxToronto talk below, I delve into the problems that arise when we conflate trolling with bigotry.

So what do we talk about when we talk about trolling? I tend to think of trolling as provocation for provocation's sake. In other words, intent is an important part of the definition, and a troll's primary intent is to get a rise out of someone. Urban Dictionary, o holiest of Internet linguistic tomes, backs me up on this one. (Worth noting: all the most popular Urban Dictionary definitions had a high number of downvotes as well as upvotes, suggesting that definitions of trolling are pretty contested terrain.) One of the most popular definitions of trolling says, among other things, "...trolling statements are never true or are ever meant to be construed as such" and "trolling isn't simply harmful statements."

THANK YOU, PERSON WHO WROTE THAT. In so many of the instances in which the popular press (and the general public) apply the label "trolling," they're referring to sincere statements from people who believe every word they're saying. These alleged "trolls" have myriad intentions that may include getting a rise out of their target, but also include silencing their target, humiliating their target, inspiring fear or emotional distress in their target, etc etc etc. It's not provocation merely for provocation's sake, and the stakes are much higher.

The word "trolling" is not appropriate for these situations, and that's largely why ye olde adage "Don't feed the trolls" is such absolute bunk advice in these situations. If the person's primary intent were to get a rise out of you, then sure, "feeding" that desire would probably be unwise. But what if the person's primary intent is to silence you, to erase your voice and your presence from their jealously guarded spaces for online social interaction? Following the "don't feed the trolls" advice would be giving them exactly what they wanted, wouldn't it?

It's one thing to erroneously apply the "trolling" label when referring to someone simply being a dick on the Internet. I can live with that. But when we apply it to people who are spewing hateful things about people of colour, women, queer people, trans* people... When we apply it to people who orchestrate months-long campaigns of harassment intended to terrorize the target...When we apply it to people uttering death threats and rape threats...Well, we're insulting the targets of this hatred and harassment, and I'd even go so far as to say we're insulting THE PROUD INTERNET TRADITION of trolling itself.

These kinds of behaviours shouldn't be defined differently on the Internet than they are offline. We don't need special Internet words for hate speech, harassment, or death threats. These words already exist. But if we are hell-bent on calling this stuff "trolling," then we need a whole new philosophy for dealing with trolls -- one that challenges them instead of looking the other way while they wreak havoc on our discourse.

This post originally appeared on Steph's blog.

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  • Confessionals, Office Gossip

    If you're angry at your boss or playing hookey from work, you probably shouldn't tweet about it. Furthermore, warns Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, tweeting your opinions about work-related topics can lead to trouble in-office. "Unless they are glowing, don't Tweet opinions about your company, clients, products and services. Employers are increasingly monitoring employee conduct on Twitter," says Yoo. "A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/fired-over-twitter-tweets_n_645884.html#s112801&title=Cisco_Fatty_Loses" target="_hplink">tweet could cost you your job</a> if you aren't careful."

  • Intimate Personal Information

    Details from your personal history are best left out of your Twitter feed. You can put yourself at risk for identity theft by revealing your birth date and place, your social security number, your maiden name or your mother's maiden name. Twitter also advises users to be wary of phishing schemes. "People are not always who they claim to be on their Twitter profile and you should be wary of any communication that asks for your private contact information, personal information, or passwords," according to the <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">Twitter Help Center</a>.

  • Exact Loctions

    Twitter's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/12/twitter-location-tool-exp_n_496464.html" target="_hplink">geolocation tool</a> can help you broadcast your location without squandering precious text space. However, geotags could potentially be used by stalkers to <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-08-08/foursquare-and-stalking-is-geotagging-dangerous/" target="_hplink">secretly track</a> someone's location. The good news is that you can <a href="http://support.twitter.com/articles/78525-about-the-tweet-location-feature" target="_hplink">turn this tool off</a> at any time.

  • Vacation Timeframes

    Burglars have admitted to using social networks to plan <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/20/burglars-using-twitter-fa_n_652666.html" target="_hplink">home invasions</a>. If you share a public tweet saying that you'll be on vacation for a week, you're also telling your followers that you've left your home untended.

  • Daily Routines

    "Be careful not to share your daily routine," says Amber Yoo of <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>. "Tweeting about walking to work, where you go on your lunch break, or when you head home is risky because it may allow a criminal to track you."

  • Your Kids' Names And Routines

    Children can be easy targets for online predators and identity thieves. You can keep your kids safe by leaving their names out of your Twitter feeds and refraining from tweeting about where you pick them up or drop them off every day.

  • High-Risk Activities

    Insurance companies have been known to check Twitter when <a href="http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/02/28/bisb0228.htm" target="_hplink">investigating compensation claims</a> and may even look to social media when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/22/facebook-twitter-users-co_n_471548.html" target="_hplink">assessing a customer's risks</a>. Tweeting about frequent climbing trips, for example, could result in a premiums hike. If you've filed for disability compensation, your insurance company could search for your tweets about high-risk activities and use them to supplement a fraud case against you.

  • Personal Attacks On Other Users

    The Twitter Help Center <a href="http://support.twitter.com/entries/115246-safety-privacy-cyberbullying-and-cyberharassment" target="_hplink">advises</a> users not to engage with bullies: <blockquote>You may encounter people on Twitter who you don't like or who say things that you disagree with or find offensive. Please remain courteous, even if the other people are not. Retaliation can reinforce bad behavior and only encourages bullies. Don't forward or retweet bullying or mean messages. Remember that the things you say can be very hurtful to other people. Don't turn into a bully yourself.</blockquote>

  • Geotagged Photos

    It's a risky move to tweet photos that show what you look like and what your home looks like. Including geotags with these types of photos could put you at risk. Moreover, some smartphones <a href="http://www.switched.com/2010/08/24/i-can-stalk-u-reveals-twitpics-as-creepy-tracking-devices/" target="_hplink">automatically embed geolocation data</a> into your photos, and you may not realize how much private data you're revealing with a simple snapshot. According to <a href="http://www.privacyrights.org/geotagging-privacy" target="_hplink">PrivacyRights.org</a>, "Your real-time location may indicate your home and work addresses, your commuting patterns, what religious institution you visit, how often you go to a doctor, political rallies you attend or whether you are seeking the advice of a lawyer."

  • Racy Or Inappropriate Photos

    "Employers routinely check out Twitter prior to hiring an individual, and have referenced social networking as helping them make choices on future employees," says <a href="http://www.reputation.com/" target="_hplink">Reputation.com</a> founder Michael Fertik. "Use better than average common sense when uploading photos to Twitter - if you wouldn't want your boss or grandmother to see it, it's probably a good idea to hold tight and keep it offline."

  • Every Detail Of Your Life

    Some Twitterers annoy other users by tweeting constantly. Sifting through minutiae on Twitter can be a chore. "It gets annoying and takes space and attention away from other Twitterers' links and observations," <a href="http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2345283,00.asp" target="_hplink">writes</a> PCWorld. "If you have that much to say, maybe it belongs on a blog."


Follow Steph Guthrie on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amirightfolks