Redefining the word troll, it’s all about control

Politicians love using the word troll to attack their online detractors. My creepy stalker usually gets this term wrong, along with his use of ‘sock-puppet’.

But they generally get the context wrong. I have long wondered if it was deliberate stupidity or a plan. My creepy stalker usually gets this term wrong, along with his use of ‘sock-puppet’.

Now there is evidence that such hijacking of the term may well have been deliberate.

It will undoubtedly thrill those responsible to know that the abusive comments and emails they have sent me over the years – mostly when I was running the Blogocracy blog at News Limited – were actually upsetting.

Although such abuse was a very small percentage of the tens of thousands of comments the site received, there is something debilitating and disquieting about knowing that someone took the time to write to abuse you in the most base terms, wished you actual physical harm, or worst of all, wished harm upon your family. Being a bloke, I probably got off fairly lightly too: look no further than the recent torrent of online abuse targeting women for proof.

To put it plainly, I have nothing but contempt for those who engage in this sort of behaviour, and am happy to see them pursued and exposed. But I am also a fan of online discussion more generally, whether it be on social media, on blogs, or in the comments section under stories in the mainstream media.  

Trolls and abusers can hurt. You should see some of the hateful emails I have received over the years, mostly sent through anonymous email accounts. The voicemail messages are worse…because you can hear the hate in their words. They don’t frighten me but they do sometimes get through the armour.

Such interactions have significantly changed the nature of the media environment, giving voice to sections of the community who have never before been able to contribute. These developments are not the democratic panacea cyber utopians sometimes pretend they are, but they are a vast improvement over the top-down media models of the past, where the audience was relegated to the role of passive consumer. We need to be careful not to let this abuse discourage us from pursuing online interactions in a way that enhances democratic participation.

There is a reason why the team here at WOBH keep a light hand on moderation…and it perhaps one of the reasons why the blog is growing…people can and do have a say.

What particularly disturbs me is the way in which sections of the mainstream media and others in positions of power use the worst of what happens online to condemn all that happens online. One manifestation of this is the way in which the word “troll” has been appropriated by sections of the mainstream and redefined.

The word once had quite a specialised meaning limited to a particular sort of disruptive behaviour, but it has now become a catch-all term to describe any behaviour that some journalists and editors deem inappropriate. Their responses to what they call “trolling” often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t. It is what US academic Susan Herbst calls “the strategic use of civility”.

I think we have a good handle on trolls here at WOBH.

Another aspect of this sort of gatekeeping is the demand by certain privileged people inside and outside the media to end online anonymity. On the surface this seems like a reasonable idea, but it is really just an assertion of power.

It is very easy for those with the institutional backing of, say, a political party, a trade union or a newspaper to demand that everyone use their own name when entering online discussions, but it isn’t that simple. Without that sort of institutional support, and without the experience of involvement in public discussion, many ordinary people feel vulnerable – anonymity is the one tool they have to level the power differential.

Probably the most hypocritical aspect of the “concern” some in the mainstream express about online abuse is their willingness to turn a blind eye to their own shortcomings. They not only assert their own right to unfettered free speech, but actively encourage from some of their most highly paid employees the sort of abusive behaviour they condemn in others.

Ahem…David Fisher…Duncan Garner…yes…you guys.

As a result, some idiot calling people names in a comment thread is defined as a “troll”, but a high-profile columnist who provokes anti-gay sentiment in a major newspaper is a “hard-hitting journalist”. I mean, who didn’t laugh in disbelief when shock-jock Ray Hadley joined last year’s “anti-trolling” campaign run by the Daily Telegraph in Sydney?

Twitter has been so revealing.

Online abuse doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of the sort of aggressive, adversarial approach to public debate encouraged by some of our major institutions, from the courts to the parliament to the media itself. We are right to be appalled by some of its worst manifestations, but we also have to be smart enough to realise that campaigns against trolling, or bans on anonymity, are less to do with concerns about civility than they are about exercising control over public debate.

There are plenty people in positions of power and authority who simply don’t want ordinary people to have a voice in the public sphere and we shouldn’t let them set the rules of engagement.

And that there is why the media were so loud in squealing about their rights…they don;t want others having access to what they have, they are simply protecting their patch.

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.