Beware the trolls.
Trolls (anyone who purposefully spreads discord and hate across the internet), saturate social media and every dark recess of the internet. Anyone with an online presence will have encountered at least one in their browsing history. Still, however, there’s a woeful lack of policing on behalf of the social media brands themselves. Attempting to censor abusive users lands companies squarely in the ever-present and unwinnable free speech debate. Silence a misogynistic user gleefully doling out rape threats and you could find yourself branded unpatriotic. As a result, most platforms would rather step back with their hands raised than wade into the fray. So who’s left to take on the trolls? Increasingly, users.
A Mashable article published yesterday highlights this very trend occurring on the new live-streaming platform, Meerkat. As the nascent company has yet to institute some of the blocking features enabled on larger platforms, users took it upon themselves to police their ranks, reporting particularly offensive accounts using the hashtag #911MK. The hashtag was crafted to signal to Meerkat which accounts most warranted disciplinary attention.
Meerkat’s community manager, Ryan Tooley, admitted that the burden of regulation should not fall entirely on users, and announced that the company will soon introduce a feature that allows users to control who comments on their streams.
In a related, now infamous incident in March, Ashely Judd made headlines when she spoke out against Twitter trolls who sent her vile messages in response to a March Madness tweet. Judd not only retweeted the most offensive messages for her substantial following to witness, but also made the decision to pursue legal action against the most appalling threats. Judd’s high-profile crusade drew comparisons to a similar instance involving former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling. Schilling became incensed when his tweet congratulating his daughter on joining her college softball team was met with foul messages and threats of sexual violence. Schilling personally tracked down the worst offenders and, as a result of his efforts, one troll was fired from his part-time position with the New York Yankees and another was suspended by his University.
While this extreme method of user policing is neither broadly applicable nor realistic (especially given that the average user lacks Judd’s influence and visibility), these instances of real-world ramifications will no doubt have a resounding impact. Contrary to popular troll-belief, the internet is not a vacuum you can dump hateful, threatening language into and walk away without consequence. Curt Schilling, at least, has made damn sure of that.
As user outrage grows, increased pressure is being felt by the social media companies themselves to take a stance. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo spoke out about their less-than-stellar track record in a February memo that admitted “we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.” While all the major players (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) have some vague measures of abuse-protection, they all fall firmly on the reactive end of the spectrum and users still place their emotional well-being at risk every time they log on.
While there’s no chance trolling and abuse will ever disappear entirely from the online ecosystem, more can definitely be done to mute their effect. Users must continue fighting from the front lines and hope that companies eventually roll up their sleeves and follow suit.