Trolling Has Gone Mainstream

You’ve seen it in the comment sections of just about every article or post on the internet. You’ve seen people stirring the pot simply for pot-stirring’s sake, and trying to get a rise from anyone and everyone no matter which end of the (political, etc.) spectrum they fall on. People seem to think they’re sparking some sort of revolution by trolling; people who adhere to the idea that trolls are the “…only people that tell the the truth these days,” or  believe that successful trolling is an art form.

It’s a troll world

You’ve got Time Magazine complaining how trolls are ruining the internet.

There’s even a book out on the subject, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which covers the increasingly mainstream relationship between trolling, the internet and the people who use it.

It’s often just another tactic to try and exhibit power on the internet. And everyone is doing it now, and very poorly, usually. And, more importantly, as a result the average person is now less willing or able to be trolled.

But, here’s the thing: It’s lame, outdated – like the kid who still thinks it’s cool to pull on girls’ pigtails on the playground. You and every other twelve-year-old can try and rile people up online. Lulz. But anyone with half a brain, anyone who knows two things about where the world is headed no longer falls for childish trickery.

But that’s not the whole story, and it certainly doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop there.

So, what now?

So where do the 4chan, 8chan, Breitbart trolls go when their caves have been raided? Where can they find darkness after being brought out into the light?

To be fair, trolls are often nonpartisan. Like “Thor83” played by Patton Oswalt (amen) trolling party invites in this Portlandia sketch.

But of course, when it’s not messing with people’s lives, it’s not really worth writing about or reporting on. So, especially on the sites just mentioned, the loudest and most obvious trolls, like Milo, have taken to the alt-right’s terroristic internet presence.

So what now?

Never to be outdone, trolling is getting bigger, better, and, arguably, more entertaining. The “leaked” story about Donald Trump’s golden shower party in Russia, for example, is a perfect example: It had all the right ingredients; i.e. Trump’s link to Putin and the former USSR has been one of the current administration’s biggest talking points, as is his history of relationships with ladies of the night. Why not go one further?

Not only is Donald Trump in bed with Putin, but that bed is filled with urinating prostitutes. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true, and it doesn’t matter what further information comes to light: It’s now in our cultural memory, and someone trolled the whole world.

What we have to realize is that the power of the internet has to quickly and effectively spread (dis)information isn’t going to go away. Ever. Even as many articles and books have been written on the subject, brought it out into the light, and tried to solve it, trolls aren’t simply going to say,

“Whoops, well you got us. Sorry about all that.”

And spend the time watching videos of baby goats instead.

Like graffiti on the walls of mom and pop businesses, it’s not about winning or losing, doing right or wrong. Trolls simply don’t care – It’s all for the laughs, the fuckery, the rise from readers, and if those can be attained there is no subject off-limits, no joke made too soon or too late.

And if Trump wanted to try and control the internet before (limit the internet, limit free speech…), he will certainly want to do that now.

It’s not about addressing the issue, or giving (or taking away) a POV/voice. It’s, again, simply stirring the pot for pot stirring’s sake. Trolls will always find a way, and they’re just going to keep getting better and better at doing so.

Anarchy

So, now everyone knows about trolls, and everyone knows what to do when they encounter one, online or anywhere else: It’s become easy to spot someone stirring up trouble just to stir up trouble, and even some of the best of them are getting called out and caught up.

Read more: Don’t feed the trolls

It all comes back to personal responsibility, maybe. But it also comes down to holding people accountable for their actions. We can suspend twitter accounts and even charge trolls with crimes.

Fine.

But, and this is a necessary question, what about the freedoms involved?

Does taking away the freedom, the right to say whatever you want online lead to taking away the right to say anything? Is this the slippery slope that leads to censorship?

The unintended (or on some level intended) consequences of limiting speech in one arena, eventually leading to the limiting of speech in every arena?

That argument can be made.

So perhaps a more anarchic POV is necessary. Anarchy gets a bad rap, but it isn’t necessarily a fair one: Anarchy doesn’t necessarily mean chaos, but rather willing order; it’s order by the people for the people, simply without a ruler imposing rules.

No need for anyone to stir the pot when we are all cooks.

Through all the sh!t that gets put out – the fake news and falsehoods, the clickbait and character assassinations – is it worth it for the one shred of truth that does get through? Is it worth it because, on some level, we need this kind of rogue, completely anarchic (bipartisan) spread of information?

Maybe.

So keep trolling, you mainstream cans of vanilla coke. Because when something becomes normal, it eventually becomes useful. It can eventually become something good. It can become, perhaps, even necessary to the survival of our freedom.

Being Right in the Digital Age

The Digital Age is the current period of human history in which we’ve moved from the industry-based society of the Industrial Revolution to a focus on computerizing information and creating a more knowledge-based society.

Also known as the Age of Information, the Digital Age’s greatest achievement is the internet. With the internet (connecting computers through a series of networks) comes access to things we may never have gotten our hands on, and certainly not all at once. Information has, throughout human history, been a priceless commodity and has never before been so readily available as it is today.

So when we ask the question,

Have we become more intelligent or less in the Digital Age?

the knee jerk response is, Duh. Of course we’re smarter now. We have access to a wealth of information (a seemingly unlimited amount). We can connect cultures, and all of the learning therein, with the click of a button. And what’s more, we have the opportunity to share/spread that knowledge in the most revolutionary way since the printing press.

But as has also been discussed (in the article Why facts won’t help win an argument, for example), we often latch only onto the things that we agree with, or, more importantly, the things that agree with us. With the amount of half-truths, unfounded claims, and falsehoods on the internet, it has become too easy to trade truth for misinformation. We’re not always getting the truth or the right information, and then we pass it along thinking we’re doing the world a favor.

And, even if we are more informed, we’re not necessarily smarter.

The convergence of computer ability, data storage, and network ubiquity have become the determiner for how “smart” humans actually are. We’re perhaps less willing to (actually) learn than we ever have been before.

With a Google search only a few finger clicks away, we no longer need our brains to store information; Google does it for us. Having access to information doesn’t necessarily 1.) mean we will use it and 2.) mean we have stored or learned anything useful for real world settings.

“Our brains use information stored in the long-term memory to facilitate critical thinking.” As discussed in the article How the Internet is Changing Your Brain, our brains have been changed by “the thrill of instant information” and long term memory is no longer as important. We lose a piece of our identity while letting our brains get, well, lazy. “Every time we open a browser, we prepare for skimming, instead of learning.”

We post Huffington Post articles instead of doing our own critical thinking. We go digital instead of mental.

But even that might not be the biggest problem. Even when we research, look at evidence objectively, create a well-reasoned argument, back it up with real world examples, and then share or respond with it online, it doesn’t really matter.

Which brings us to the main point:

You’re still an asshole, even if you’re right.

We’re not actually calling you an asshole. But they will. The person who disagrees with you, the person smarter than you, the person dumber than you, the person who simply wants to piss you off, the person hiding behind a username and an avatar that can say whatever they want and get away with it.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you have knowledge and information.

Especially in the tumultuous political climate that has dominated the last year, being “right” has mattered less than ever. The internet has become a place where you latch on to like-minded views and disregard the rest.

When we should be on the brink of fatigue, the conversations, insults, goalless back-and-forths on Facebook, Twitter, et al. social media sites continue. It takes only one even somewhat inflammatory comment or meme or misunderstanding or simple headline to set off a wave of backlash crashing in from both ends of the political spectrum. And this doesn’t even take into account those trolls looking to stir the pot simply for pot-stirring’s sake.

Godwin’s Law (the adage that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches”) is ancient by technology standards, posited way back in 1990, and yet we still haven’t evolved.

But anyone who has been online over the last year, or several years, or ever in their lives, knows this to be true.

Discussions about internet hate are almost as tired as seeing it happen. 

So what do we do?

As you should Be responsible with the internet, it’s clear that yet another article detailing what’s wrong isn’t going to change the internet. Our opinions don’t even really matter. Few people actually see them, and even fewer care. Ultimately, internet arguers, right or wrong, just end up looking like trolls (4 Good Reasons Why Arguing Politics On Facebook Is Getting You Nowhere).

It’s gotten so bad that we have the Daily Dot giving us 6 stupid ways to win an argument on the Internet which outlines just how juvenile internet arguments are, and takes the line of thinking that led to Godwin’s Law to a whole new level.

Basically, we’re doomed.

Or maybe not.

It is possible that the fiery backlash and all-caps internet yelling could actually pave the way for positive discourse. We know that identifying a problem is the first step in solving it. The fact that people are even exposed to new ideas and information, whether they’re angered by them or not, is pushing humanity forward; while the Digital Age has made it much easier to find opinions that support your own, it has also made it much harder to exist in a vacuum.

As Tom Chattfield says in What does it mean to be human in the age of technology?

“Ours is an amazing time to be alive: to be debating such questions together. If there’s one thing our swelling collective articulacy as a species brings home, it’s that people care above all about other people: what they think, do, believe, fear, hate, love, laugh at – and what we can make together.”

While this discussion was centered more around the relationship between man and machine, it highlights something that is far too often forgotten on the internet. We are all humans, and we, each and every one of us a

“…broiling biological pot of emotion, sensation, bias and belief that constitutes the bulk of mental life. We are biased, beautiful creatures. Technology and intellect allow us to externalise our goals; but the ends pursued are those we chose.”

So maybe humanity will win out. Maybe the internet will become the information superhighway, where anyone can publish, discuss, learn, and continue to push society forward into new and exciting realms of possibility, that it was always meant to be.

And if not, we’ll all be replaced by A.I. anyway and good riddance. If we can’t have a simple discussion on the internet and find common ground with our fellow man in the Digital Age then maybe people really are just a bunch of assholes.

…Just kidding.

Be Responsible With the Internet

The internet has made information accessible to almost everyone. We now turn to social media to get our news, as platforms like Twitter and Facebook are often the quickest way to get information when tragedy strikes. These platforms can also seem more real and honest, without the bias and agenda of major news outlets.

But the rapid influx of (mis)information can also quickly run amok.

In 2016, we are all citizen journalists when we post something online. We have the ability to send and receive information quicker than ever, and while this is not inherently a bad thing, we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to hold ourselves to the same standards of integrity and accuracy that we demand from our sources.

When tragedy strikes, it’s important to put aside previous notions and look at the situation objectively to avoid jumping to conclusions.

Avoid the internet bandwagon

It’s far too easy to latch onto virulent posts and rants and opinions you agree with online.

Emotions run high, especially when it’s a situation that’s personal, unjust, unaddressed, or simply wrong. And social media can offer a voice to those who might not normally have one. Or, more than that, it can give us information we can’t get elsewhere. In the heartbreaking case of Philando Castile, for example, social media was the only way to cry for help (read more about that in the Wired article: For Philando Castile, Social Media Was The Only 911). Far too often does mainstream media ignore those with strong facts and important points of view, and social media is the only outlet we have.

But we have to be responsible about what we post, and from where we are getting our information.

It is our right to post our feelings, our opinions, and (most importantly) the information we have on news events as they break. We certainly don’t need to wait for cable news to tell us what to think. But we must be responsible with the way we add our voice, and what we’re actually bringing to the discussion.

We must prevent the spread of false information.

Much of the information you get is faulty

It’s hard to know whether what you’re seeing online is real or fake. And, as we just discussed, it’s much easier just to repeat what you agree with knee-jerk without taking the time to find the actual truth. There often  isn’t even enough information available to make an informed decision.

Fact-checking is crucial.

There might not seem to be time to fact-check your sources and information, especially if events are unfolding in real time. But taking that time to make sure the information you’re sharing, retweeting, posting anywhere is the only way to ensure you’re not making the situation worse.

Resist the urge to be first, and choose instead to be correct.

Also, run photos, which are often the most misleading form of media, through a reverse image search.

Far too often photos from past events are used to stir up current events, or photos are faked or photoshopped, or shared without context. These photos only add fuel to the fire, and do nothing to help an already volatile situation. If you’re on the ground, Veracity is a great mobile app that will help you to determine the authenticity of photos being released. There is no program better than Tin Eye if you’re sitting at your computer, and KarmaDecay is reliable for photos found strictly on Reddit.

Check everything. You don’t want to be the one perpetuating internet lies.

And you won’t always be right

Messages can easily be distorted as they travel through the various internet channels on their way to you. Even if your source is reliable, you might only be getting part of the story, or you might not know what came before or after what you have in front of you. Our human imaginations run wild, and we are quick to fill in the blanks when we don’t have all the information.

It’s happened before: 3 Times Social Media Perpetuated False Crimes

Before you send what you’ve learned back out into the world, stop and ask yourself what good it will do. Ask yourself if you’re just looking for attention and “likes,” or looking to benefit those who will see it; those who trust you and who might look to your post to better understand what’s going on in a tumultuous, ever-changing world.

Real Websites, Fake News

Fake news has existed from the earliest days of journalism, long before Bat Boy became Hillary Clinton’s alien baby. In 1835, Richard A. Locke published a series of six fake articles about the discovery of life on the moon, now known as the Great Moon Hoax, in The Sun newspaper.

Sales of The Sun went through the roof.

Writing false news stories and calling them real is generally protected by the first (and 14th) amendment (though libel can be prosecuted, and harassment). A groundbreaking 1931 case here in Minnesota defined journalistic freedom for the decades to come. The Near v. Minnesota case, dealing with a small newspaper that attempted to report corruption in the Twin Cities, went all the way to the Supreme Court. It set a precedent for recognizing freedom of the press by disallowing prior restraint on publication.

(If you want to know the full story, read Minnesota Rag by Fred W. Friendly)

This isn’t satire we’re talking about. We all know The Onion, or the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report, as reliable sources of satire. The number of humor-free sites attempting to convince an audience of authenticity without any real truth or foundation in them has been growing. As has their audience.

At first these sites were easily identifiable. They were cheaply made and clearly unprofessional. But it was only a matter of time before duplicity got a makeover and began looking a lot more legitimate.

The Big Hoax

Facebook is perhaps the biggest offender. 66% of Facebook users get news from the site, and falsehoods have spread there like the plague.

As outlined in the Select All article Can Facebook Solve Its Macedonian Fake-News Problem? the ability to generate income through ads has turned the social media platform into an even larger hub for fake news sites. The only point is to drive people toward these sites and capitalize on the traffic.

“The business model is not particularly different from any mainstream publisher’s social-media strategy in an era where more people look at Facebook than all news outlets combined: Build a Facebook page, gather a large following, and try to draw that audience off of Facebook and onto your site, where you’re serving the ads off of which you draw revenue.”

These sites get paid for every innocent click. But the problem doesn’t end with techies looking to make a quick buck on John Q public. It’s not surprising, either. The general populace is still very gullible. And, perhaps even tougher to get past, is the Backfire Effect: When people believe a story, even after it is disproved or corrected, it stays stuck in their brains as truth. The correction can even “backfire” and reinforce their initial beliefs.

If someone reads something that supports their beliefs, they won’t waver (and will often double down, becoming even more entrenched in their views) if that information turns out to be untrue.

In a study conducted by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler of the University of Michigan and Georgia State University, people were given a fake article claiming that the U.S. had found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When shown a second, true article reporting that the U.S. had indeed found nothing, the people leaning liberal accepted the information, while those leaning conservative refused to. In fact,

“After reading that there were no WMDs, they reported being even more certain than before there actually were WMDs and their original beliefs were correct.”

Fake news thus has a much stronger sway on the opinions of the populace. These narrative scripts say it’s okay to believe what you do; they tell you what you want to hear and confirm that you were right all along, even when (or especially when) they’re completely false. As fake news spreads further and reaches more people, the implications are that at some point it won’t make any difference; whether real or fake these articles will become news and people will react accordingly.

F is for Fake

Facebook is starting to address the issue. Fake news sites are no longer allowed on its advertising network, for example. Google has made the same move. But it is still up to the individual to know the difference. You can’t always count on a third party. You have to know what to look for yourself; know when you can or can’t trust your source to ensure you’re not part of the problem.

By sharing fake news, users themselves become a fake news source.

Facebook’s inability to control its role as a (fake) news site is one thing, but users inability to differentiate between what is legitimate news and what’s not is another.

Here’s what you can do:

Always check the source of an article. If you see something that sounds a little crazy, or too good (or bad) to be true, go to the source site and see what else they’ve published. If their content is nothing but sensational clickbait, chances are the entire site is bunk. You can always keep an eye on fake news sites at Real or Satire or at Fake News Watch as well. If ever something looks suspect (or even if it’s something you just hope is or isn’t real), you can plug it in and check its authenticity.

Avoid the echo chamber. If legitimate news sites are reporting a sensational story, check and see if they are all citing the same source. Even sites you can trust make mistakes. Sometimes a story based on false information gains traction. For example, when Huffington Post jumped on a story that a rich banker left a 1% tip and a note saying “Get a real job.” It was later reported that the story had been exaggerated, and the picture of the receipt, the damning piece of evidence, had been Photoshopped.

It’s important to be careful with pictures. As made clear with the example above, a picture is worth a thousand words, or none at all. Check photos through sites like TinEye (which can also be added to your browser) to ensure they aren’t misrepresenting a story, being misused, or simply fake (further reading: Be responsible with the internet).

The internet is human

It can be hard to separate fact from fiction. It is of course easier to hit “like” and “share,” with a bit of vitriolic side commentary, and move on. It is easier not to care. Advertisers sure don’t. That’s your privilege. You can be duped into believing anything, if you want to be. You can make a quick buck for the clickbait sites running rampant on Facebook, if that’s what you want to do.

That is your right.

Because, contrary to popular belief, the internet is still run by people. Humans. You and me and everyone we know. Sure, there are algorithms that supplement the work that humans do, helping choose search results on Google for example, but it’s still regular ol’ biased humans pulling the strings.

As Wired reported in the article Repeat After Me: Humans Run the Internet, Not Algorithms from September 2016,

“[Humans] still play a role. They build the neural networks. They decide what data the neural nets train on. They still decide when to whitelist and blacklist. Neural nets work alongside so many other services.”

On a much smaller scale, we Facebook posters and Twitter tweeters are in charge of what is on the internet. What spreads. What starts “trending” and what gets shared across social media, email, and the water cooler at work. Fake news, as it spreads, takes on a life of it’s own.

But it’s life that we the people give to it. We are responsible.

When nothing changes, the public only becomes more entrenched in their (possibly false) beliefs, and unable to think critically or keep an open mind, complicit in the spread of fake news, falsehoods, and misinformation across the planet.

Remember, you are what you share.

Clearly, this isn’t journalism.

This first example of journalism perverted (personal, unfounded opinions tucked away under the guise of news) comes from breitbart.com’s Total Irrelevance: Trump-Hating Emmys Hit All-Time Ratings Low written by John Nolte and published on 9/18/17.

Highlighted in red are the sections most offensive to the tenements of honest journalism.

not news #1, papers.media

Are readers curious which states he is referring to when he says “…the only states that matter” in the second highlighted section?

And who the “we” refers to in “we all know it is higher?”

Might have to quantify that one, Nick. And really, what did these “mean-spirited” millionaires do to make you so mad?

Just something to think about.