Friday, April 13, 2007

More on blog civility and dealing with trolls

It so happens that there's currently an active debate on blog trolling and how to deal with it.

The current discussion was motivated by the proposal of a blogger "code of conduct" in order to manage the virulent antagonism that often goes on in blog comment threads, when, from the anonymity of a keyboard, people are free to dehumanize those with whom they disagree and give vent to the most egregious forms of hatefulness their little minds can muster. This proposal, involving such quaint and silly concepts as "seals of approval," like you might find on a can of beans, is just a teensy bit on the absurd side and has led to criticisms from such prominent bloggers as John Scalzi and Kos.

Scalzi makes the most sound points: that, for one, there really is no such thing as the "blogosphere" as any kind of enforceable entity. When we refer to the "blogosphere," we are referring in the abstract to the social phenomenon of blogging itself. To say that there's any kind of uniform "code of conduct" that one can apply, let alone enforce, to what is essentially people setting down their thoughts on whatever subjects interest them is naive and foolish. And as for hateful and trollish commenters, there are many options available to blog owners: you can ban, you can disemvowel (as PZ Myers does), or you can moderate as I have chosen to do. As Scalzi notes:

...the reason that we're now at a point where some self-appointed guardians of the discourse have decided it's necessary to tell the rest of us slobs how to talk to each other is that people apparently forgot they have the right on their own sites to tell obnoxious dickheads to shut the hell up. Honestly, I don't know what to say to that, other than I'm sorry that other people's muddled-headed conception of what "free speech" is has allowed obnoxious dickheads to run free in blogs, and allowed busybodies to wring their hands in the New York Times about how mean the blogosphere is. It's idiotic.

What the blog world needs is not a universal "Code of Conduct"; what it needs is for people to remind themselves that deleting comments from obnoxious dickheads is a good thing. It's simple: if someone's an obnoxious dickhead, then pop! goes their comment. You don't even have to explain why, although it is always fun to do so. The commenter will either learn to abide by your rules, or they will go away. Either way, your problem is solved. You don't need community policing or a code of conduct to make it happen. You just do it.

You'd think this would be simple, but at times, there are folks who are unprepared for just how extreme trolls can get. One incident cited as a motivator for the "code of conduct" idea had to do with death threats received by blogger Kathy Sierra, some of which included distressing Photoshopped images of her. Certainly this behavior is alarming to someone who's never seen it before, and who would be understandably bewildered and horrified that such sick responses could be made to the mere expression of an opinion. But Kos made the following point:

Look, if you blog, and blog about controversial shit, you'll get idiotic emails. Most of the time, said "death threats" don't even exist — evidenced by the fact that the crying bloggers and journalists always fail to produce said "death threats".... For my part, I've gotten my fair share of such vile emails. Some of them have threatened my children. One or two actually crossed the line into "death threat" territory. But so what? It's not as if those cowards will actually act on their threats.... Email makes it easy for stupid people to send stupid emails to public figures. If they can't handle a little heat in their email inbox, then really, they should try another line of work. Because no "blogger code of conduct" will scare away psycho losers with access to email.

Kos's response might seem too glib, but I think he has a point. There are people out there in the world who are emotionally and intellectually incapable of dealing with the fact that some folks have opinions which differ from their own. The more strident and dogmatic their views (hello, religion), the less able they are to handle differing opinions maturely and rationally. They fly into rages. Unable to form a counter-argument and take down the other person with clear facts, they go berserk, sometimes making death threats.

However, as Michael Newdow (who's had more than his share of death threats) stated when he was here in Austin as guest of the ACA, these threats can most often be dismissed as idiots simply venting because they haven't got the tools between their ears to do anything other. When I was hosting the AE TV show we got at least two overt death threats over the phone I can remember, and several more threats of a lesser nature (mere beatings, those). And while we were always common-sensibly cautious, we didn't take them seriously. These were simply fools venting like the fools they were.

Which is why I think PZ has overreacted in criticizing Kos for the above statements.

Is Kos really so tone-deaf that he doesn't realize he has just sided with people who threatened to slit Sierra's throat and rape her corpse?

...This is not the time to act snotty and superior towards the target of online hate; I know that we get inured to the petty, vicious stupidity of some of the worst of the web (yes, I get death threats too, and some of them are nastily explicit), but what the kind of ugliness directed at Sierra ought to do is wake us up out of that take-it-for-granted attitude and get us motivated to shine more light on the cockroaches. It is not appropriate to encourage the roaches by acting as if the problem is Kathy Sierra's too-fragile hide — it isn't. We all ought to be outraged when some no-name faux-macho cretin writes to us and tells us to shut up or he'll shoot us in the head. There is the problem, the eliminationist assholes who thrive under the encouragement of AM talk radio, admire the posturing bullies like Limbaugh and Coulter and Savage, and think homicidal sexual fantasies are manly.

Well, for one thing, I don't think that Kos was blaming the victim. He was simply pointing out a fact: state controversial opinions in public, and expect to take some abuse from assholes. If you haven't got skin thick enough for it, then perhaps you ought to choose a different hobby than the public expression of controversial views. In other words...heat, kitchen, all that.

PZ may be right in saying that you encourage asshole trolls by letting them know their vile behavior can shut you up. But PZ should also know trolls seek the outrage he advocates. This is the thing about trolls: in their minds, they win no matter how you respond. If you ignore them, they call you cowardly. If you ban them, they call you cowardly. If you get angry with them and slam them back twice as hard, they laugh to know they ruined your day and got under your skin. If you try to engage them respectfully, they just amp up their reprehensible behavior until you do decide you've had enough and get angry, at which point they declare victory. Remember, it's never about the equitable exchanging of views with trolls. It's just about their stroking their little egos the only way they know how, through hurting and attacking others. It's the behavior of people who never matured past playground scuffles at recess in 5th grade.

So Scalzi's advice is the best. Remember that your blog is your blog and you get to make the rules, just as you get to set rules for guests visiting your home and are entirely within your rights to throw them out if they break the furniture or shit on the rug. For idiots who want to whine that moderating or banning offensive commenters constitutes some kind of free speech violation, all I can say is "pull your head out." Their free speech is never at risk, because no one's stopping them from starting their own blogs.

Confront us, challenge us, debate with us, critique us, disagree with us all you like. I'm happy to have you here. Once you descend to the level of playground bullying and emotionally unhinged raving, you're gone. And I'm not sweating it.


  1. I do agree with Kos. The blogosphere is most effective when it's an open forum. By deciding to blog, a person establishes a public space.

    Now, obviously it's not censorship in the legal sense if a blogger chooses not to run his or her "establishment" that way. Each of us is free to delete or monitor offensive comments, and to "toss" any and all e-mails. Certainly, trolls can be annoying or even frightening. But if you're throwing your opinions out there into the ether, you should expect -- and even hope -- to get some people riled up. As a newspaper editor once told me: "If you don't get negative mail on a regular basis, you're not doing your job."

    Of course, perhaps you'd argue that I can afford to be cavalier because my own blog is written under a pseudonym. Well, I started doing that, originally, in the spirit of the American colonial pamphleteers; because of my subject matter, I thought "The Exterminator" was a hoot. In my naivete, I had no idea of using my anonymity to prevent potentially dangerous kooks from seeking me out in the real world. In fact, if I were given an opportunity to expand my audience substantially on the proviso that I "out" myself, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

    A month ago, I stated my thoughts on this subject in a post, which you might enjoy reading:
    The "Good Book" Is No Good Here.

  2. Well, the way I see it, blogs are — as you've indicated — kind of like magazines and newspapers in that they are out there to be read by the public, but are run by private individuals who exercise editorial perogatives. Any magazines and papers published in the US today would be ardent supporters of free speech, but that doesn't mean they're obligated to post articles or letters that violate the editorial standards they've set up. Choosing not to publish hate speech, vulgarity, libel, porn, racist invective, or other such content is not "censorship" — or, more precisely, it's only censorship in the context of the editorial policies the publication's editors have established as is their right. But it's unequivocally no free speech violation, as anyone who wants to print such material can start their own publication (or blog, as the case may be) to do so.

  3. I think Kos was taking that particular case far too lightly, though. It wasn't someone blogging a controversial topic; it was a tech blog. It wasn't one negative email or asshole comments; it was specific, repeated death threats accompanied by her address, social security number, and photoshopped images of her being strangled.

    There is a role for "thick skin" and banning jerks, but I think there is also value in making a community stance that certain things will not be tolerated. It's the internet equivalent of public shaming.

  4. I would agree with you that if the abuse is that extreme, you might well be looking at more than a simple troll and that law enforcement ought to get involved. (And I think they are in Sierra's case.) So yes, Kos was probably being too glib, but there's something to be said for knowing the snake pit you're likely getting into when you blog.

  5. Sung to the tune of Dean Martin's You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You...You're nobody 'til some Christian trolls you...

    Seriously though, I'm glad to see you addressing this important topic. Christian trolls are going to find atheist blogs - they simply can't resist. They may be annoying, but I find that their idiocy often serves to validate my criticism of their religion.

  6. “Christian trolls are going to find atheist blogs - they simply can't resist. They may be annoying, but I find that their idiocy often serves to validate my criticism of their religion.”

    Isn’t that the equivalent of the Christians feeling validated by their perceived prosecution? The trouble is that your statement could be easily reversed:

    Atheist trolls are going to find christian blogs - they simply can't resist. They may be annoying, but I find that their idiocy often serves to validate my religion.

    You and I may not do it, but there are plenty of people rabidly attacking religion online without any thought-out arguments or intellectual motivation. These people have probably recently left or been hurt by the faith they’re attacking. Likewise, Christian trolls are insecure in their own faith and need it validated by attacking and receiving “persecution” in return.

    My point is that there are idiots all around so don’t get too much validation of your side from the ones opposite you. But do be sure to enjoy the entertainment they offer. As for validation of your criticism, get that from their inability to address that criticism.

    Minor point but important to me. Thanks. Carry on.


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