Wednesday 26 June 2019

B**chiness is the new norm. Criticism is king ... Are you an Internet troll?

You see it as passionately defending your views, others see it as callously attacking theirs… and the social networks see the 'likes' racking up. Here, Regina Lavelle explores the rise of trolling and asks how we can change an online culture that rewards negativity

Stock photo
Stock photo
'Everyone's definition of "trending" or "abusive" is different'
Campaign: Senator Catherine Noone is proposing that a 'statutory duty of care' be imposed on social networks. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

On a recent Sunday, Twitter was busy. There were the usual suspects - Doctor Who, debuting in her first female guise of Jodie Whittaker. Marian Keyes' pithy dispatches on Strictly Come Dancing kept us up to date with the latest grubby tryst. However, it was not the unfaithful sequinned demigods of ballroom dancing which ignited Twitter's white hot rage.

That fell to Father Ted writer, Graham Linehan, who was in the eye of a storm over one of Twitter's most divisive current issues - the transgender debate. Earlier that day, news broke that Linehan had been given a 'verbal harassment warning' by West Yorkshire police following a complaint of 'trolling' by an activist. The reaction to the story was as emotionally charged as one might expect, including some callously referring to Linehan's cancer treatment, "Who gives a s**t? There are plenty of cancer patients who aren't pieces of garbage".

Is this also trolling, however? It feels like trolling. And some is as unprintable as it is sadly unremarkable - if this is your experience of online debate, you're not alone.

The noted Irish academic and writer Angela Nagle - author of the excellent treatise on internet subcultures, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right, a work acclaimed and criticised by the left and right in equal parts - responded to an Economist Q&A in August. Headlined 'How The Grotesque Online Culture Wars Fuel Populism', Nagle wrote: "Spend some time on Twitter or looking at YouTube comments and you'll find it hard to maintain a belief in liberal enlightenment ideals for long. The reality of what we are like when we are given the freedom to say what we like is actually extremely ugly. Public discourse has never been as idiotic, cruel, irrational and utterly pointless in my lifetime as it is now."

Campaign: Senator Catherine Noone is proposing that a 'statutory duty of care' be imposed on social networks. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Campaign: Senator Catherine Noone is proposing that a 'statutory duty of care' be imposed on social networks. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Whether it's Twitter pile-ons, Instagram call-outs, Snapchat screen grabs or Facebook feuding, there is no platform sacred. Bitchiness is the new norm. Criticism is king. Whether it's arguing classics with Professor Mary Beard, or debating psychology with Jordan Peterson, in the post-truth era, we can all be experts. And we are prepared to prove our 'expertise' with as many as insults as it takes.

Often the most venomous believe they are doing so in the service of a higher morality, the topics which generate the most vituperative debate are the political and the religious - big on emotion, short on restraint. And it is those posts which, on Twitter at least, are more likely to be rewarded with attention.

A landmark study of 560,000 tweets by researchers at New York University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that posts containing moral or emotional words were more likely to be retweeted. Each moral-emotional word used increased the likelihood of retweet by 20pc.

These findings do not surprise psychologists - when there is such attention available online, there are those who seek it out for its own sake. "Of course there are people online whose goal is social validation," says Dr Vincent McDarby, psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland. "This is especially the case on Twitter, where a critical post tends to get a lot of retweets, generating a huge ego boost for the poster.

"We look for social validation all the time, some of it for interval validation - for a sense of pride or well-being - but a lot is seeking external or social validation. We do things to receive praise, to get acknowledged."

What has changed, says Dr McDarby, is the result of negative behaviour. "We always had the potential to be critical, to be negative, I just think that social media has the potential to reward it, and to reward it quickly.

"You very rarely see people solving disputes on Twitter, what happens is they become polarised."

And there are often more tangible benefits to be gained from a bout of online fisticuffs, especially where publicity is concerned. If you're going to be abused, you may as well profit from it.

In Dublin, the White Moose Cafe's Paul Stenson makes the business case for fighting fire with fire - and has the audience to prove it. "Yes, we have been accused of being trolls but our philosophy is to defend not attack.

"Engaging with trolling for us has a financial benefit," he tells Weekend. "It has had an overwhelming result in terms of our bottom line."

The strategy may not have been premeditated: "If [someone] has left a nasty comment like 'you sound like an absolute d**k' I might reply with 'you look like an absolute d**k' because I release the inner child in me and I think 'what would a seven- or eight-year-old say?'

"You don't plan anything, it just happens. When a vegan looked at me with a miserable face, giving out to me why there was no vegan breakfast, I replied by saying that all vegans were barred from the cafe. That's not attacking anybody, that's very much defending."

It didn't take long for Paul to realise the potential. "I don't want to say, 'I always knew what I was doing' but I learned. I could create this niche of outrage marketing as a means of resulting in bums on seats. I would say 70pc of the customers who walk through our doors are there on the basis of either Snapchat or Instagram."

Currently The White Moose Cafe has 270,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. (The adjoining hotel has its own social media presence.) He claims that after he 'called out' UK blogger Elle Darby, who emailed Stenson seeking hotel nights in exchange for a positive review blog coverage, and then followed up with a fake invoice billing her for €5.3m for generated 'publicity', he increased his Facebook audience by "around 40,000".

But it's not just the culture wars, politics, religion, and apparently, vegans, that invigorate the partisans. Increasingly even the most minor infraction can see the foot soldiers forming ranks to engage in one-upmanship gunfights - even if the transgressions in question take place in comparatively benign forums.

Last month, Scarlett Dixon - a UK fashion blogger known as @scarlettlondon - uploaded a fairly inoffensive sponsored Instagram post for Listerine. The mouthwash people. Dixon wrote: "The best of days start with a smile and positive thoughts. And pancakes. And strawberries. And bottomless tea."

Users soon spotted that the 'pancakes' were tortillas and the cup was empty, prompting frothing, sputtering outrage. Now, in the hierarchy of staged and doctored photography this isn't quite faked pictures of Guantanamo inmates, or airbrushing Trotsky out of history, but in Instagram land, tortillas can be terrible too. The most remarkable element of Dixon's offence wasn't that her post (pictured above) was a pretence but that it was a lazy pretence. The issue was, rather bizarrely, not with intention but with execution. Had there been pancakes and tea, instead of tortillas and cup, it would have been (sponsored) business as usual.

It was a user called Nathan who began - charmingly - "F**k off this is anybody's normal morning," he wrote. "Instagram is a ridiculous lie factory made to make us all feel inadequate." His post generated over 100,000 likes and a pile-on of criticism, sparking accusations including, as Dixon told one newspaper, she was a "danger to young women and should suffer, should be stopped, I should suffocate on the balloons, I should kill myself."

This is the kind of abuse that Senator Catherine Noone seeks to tackle with her proposal for a 'statutory duty of care' to be imposed on social networks. It's a difficult to see how it might operate given networks' Venture Capital funders are only interested in returns. With an impending Brexit, a Government might understandably view aggravating corporations with a crackdown as a harikiri move.

But Noone's proposal does kick the issue back on to the agenda. She doesn't seem to be intimidated by the networks' representatives nor is she squeamish on calling out the features which seem deployed to stall looming regulation. "What I think they're doing is counter productive. Adding a red flag to content of an aggressive or violent nature only draws attention to the content. That's human nature. The idea that a red flag is going to stop people who are vulnerable from clicking is crazy," she says.

"That's how meaningful their response is, in my opinion. That's a tangible example of how ridiculous their approach is to difficult content online."

She is cognisant of the difficulties though: "Everyone's definition of 'trending' or 'abusive' is different. In law, the test for bullying is if the person feels that they're being bullied, then they are. But that's quite subjective," she continues. "There's no doubt you could be opening up a huge amount of litigation.

"The Law Reform Committee recommended a Digital Safety Commissioner, and then that was backed up by the Children's Committee. Someone needs to have responsibility for the space. I'd go so far as to say there should be a Minister for the Internet, because the online space is life for young people now."

Evidently this is a notoriously difficult realm to police, not least because of the grey areas. Some abuse, such as threats of murder or rape are easy for algorithms to find and grade: is there explicit threatening language, yes or no?

But other areas, especially where politics and religion are concerned, are less binary. The insults and intimidation more subtle. Indeed Senator Noone refers to "subtly sexist" comments. "Someone might say, 'Stupid woman', but they wouldn't say "stupid man". It's not threatening but it is diminutive."

Networks' content moderation is a thankless endeavour, but they perform a task which, in the world of print publishing was often teased out by squadrons of lawyers. Not anymore. Ersatz legal precedent concerning modern hate speech is being determined by executives in the pay of the platforms they police.

Many are rightly concerned about this. There is little disagreement that we need protecting from this content, and many believe that networks cannot be entrusted with this power. To leave the definition of hate, and by extension free, speech entirely in private hands is an abrogation of one of society's greatest responsibilities.

However, the other option - to criminalise hate speech - threatens to shut down debate entirely and tie up police time in possibly endless personal grudges.

"There are academics, or pseudo academics, who have a viewpoint, who claim they're being trolled or harassed but others believe that's just normal intellectual argument, that debating a point is just an acceptable part of academic debate," says Dr McDarby.

''It's good to be exposed to other viewpoints. It's important for us. So you're getting into the area of legislating speech, which is a very difficult area because who gets to police what is hate speech and what is debate?"

And among an adult population, should we intervene at all? After all, sticks and stones... But as the norm for online discourse becomes more aggressive, an example is being set to younger users. Though most sites have a theoretical younger age limit, in many cases, the children are still listening at the door.

Dr Maureen Griffin is a forensic psychologist who blogs at Laya Healthcare's Thrive site ( Over the past eight years, she has given workshops at 750 schools across Ireland on online safety. "Our children are being over-exposed at a young age," she says. "They grow up seeing social media, even if it's not intended for them and it's not popular with them, they see adults being abusive to other adults online and the behaviour being tolerated. So it creates a norm for them."

From Heathers to Clueless to Mean Girls, there's rarely been anything pretty about playground politics. Considering teenage girls have literally made bitching an artform, they're not usually the most innocent subjects of pathos. But, listening to Dr Griffin outline some of the ways this cohort is using technology to cross the line between trolling and cyberbullying, it's hard not to feel sympathy.

"There can be intended viciousness, even amongst younger girls in sixth class, going up to third year. Elaborate scenarios are set up with online groups arranging to meet somewhere, then they set up a new group but eliminating one person. They then arrange to meet somewhere else.

"This sort of exclusion can be common where class groups are set up. A student will say they've left someone out, 'Because they're not on Snapchat'. So they're eliminated then from activities that might be arranged."

Liz McKeever of McKeever Associates is a consultant who undertakes large-scale behavioural and attitudinal analysis for companies. Where Dr Griffin works with those, roughly, up to the age of 15, McKeever often works with those aged 15 to 30. "Fifteen years ago I did some research into how people were interacting online and there is no comparison to now because the change that has taken place has been so revolutionary. But there is also much more aggressiveness, and often, this tends to be exhibited as exclusion."

McKeever believes that, partially because of the examples of adults' behaviour on social media, for coming generations social norms have changed.

"The issue with trolling is that it gets attention. And online, it often doesn't get called out. So nastiness goes unpunished. If you set up an Instagram account in someone's name and post to it, often that can be funny and that generates interest.

"This is the sort of stuff that breeds passive-aggressive behaviour. There can be a lack of understanding of what's socially acceptable."

So while we may be all trolls now, whether it's for amusement, profit, politics, or social engineering, the coming generations are absorbing this harsher, less empathic normal.

Dr Griffin is cautiously optimistic. "One of the great benefits of technology is that it allows us to connect to other people instantly to connect to large audiences. We just need to keep breaking down the distance that technology creates."

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