The growth of the Internet has seen many great achievements: you can research practically anything at the click of a button; it’s easy to video-call friends on the other side of the world; staying up to date with the latest news and events whenever and wherever you want is effortless.
But lurking in the seedy underbelly of this great and glorious world is a creature devoted to ruining the safety and community of it, whose only aim is to victimize, intimidate and persecute: the troll. A troll, in Internet slang, is someone who can be identified as continually starting arguments or leaving provocative, and often offensive, posts on websites where commenting is permitted.
In a move to try to eradicate these horrible beings from their website, The Huffington Post has changed its commenting policy so that henceforth, anonymous commenting will be prohibited and users identities will have to be internally verified. Managing Director, Jimmy Soni, appearing on CNN, stated, “We’re looking to promote a civil discourse on our site.”
When The Huffington Post made the announcement at the end of August (with policy to commence from September) I waited eagerly for other websites to follow suit, but at the time of writing, none have decided to join the online newspaper’s bid for a friendlier online experience. In fact, many have actually condemned the change, saying that it limits freedom of speech and strips away equality online.
However, it is important to remember that commenters are not being stopped from expressing whatever opinion they may hold, only being asked to put their name alongside their reaction. It seems inevitable that this small change will drastically reduce the amount of racist, sexist, homophobic and just downright rude verbal reflexes of those who type before they think.
Whilst interning at a national newspaper earlier this year, one of my tasks each morning was to moderate the comments that had been posted by online readers. I was truly horrified by the amount of derogatory responses that erupted each day. It was particularly frustrating when users would make an extremely insightful and intelligent argument, but finish off their comment by swearing, or leaving an offensive remark, meaning that the entire comment would have to be removed.
Eliminating anonymity from forums would encourage people to think twice about their reactions because they would be liable for what they expressed. This pause for thought might also help people to have a more measured, logical and rational response, rather than spewing out expletives in a fit of inculpable rage.
Of course, in some cases, people will still feel the need to be derogatory even after they have considered the consequences. When I first started writing articles for online papers, I stumbled across a blog where someone with no connection to me had decided to berate my writing. They had even gone to the trouble of taking my photograph from Twitter to accompany their post, making it look like an attack on me, rather than a response to my writing. Needless to say, this blogger was acting under a pseudonym, and when I contacted them, they were keen not to indulge their identity, despite the fact that they had sneered at mine.
Understandably, anonymity serves a more important purpose in countries where individuals may be victimized simply for speaking out against the government, or where communities are not as freethinking as we like to believe we are in the West. Similarly, anonymity can be useful on self-help forums and chat rooms where people may be less keen to share their identity due to the personal nature of their posts.
However, the way to tackle this problem is to have users create a username and profile specific to the forum, which means that although users identities are not divulged, they are still accountable for any offence they cause as they build up a history of comments, which can be monitored by an admin.
The Internet is never going to be a safe haven whilst still retaining its best characteristics of being a platform for uninhibited learning and debate. However, we should work towards removing hiding places for bullies and bigots. If a person’s name were to be emblazoning their opinion, I believe that they would be more careful to ensure that what they said was actually what they meant. So although I don’t feel that ‘trolling’ would ever be banished entirely, at least those who practiced it would do so in full acceptance of their accountability.
Illustration by Harriet-Jade Harrow