Some things really get under my skin – drivers that honk when they don’t have the right of way, passive aggressive behavior and, more than anything, angry trolling on Internet comment sections.
According to PCmag.com, trolling entails deliberately posting derogatory messages to bait readers into responding with equally aggressive remarks. Trolls (i.e., individuals who practice trolling) often write heated comments that contradict common knowledge or throw blanket insults at other readers.
It’s easy to recognize trolls. Instead of adding their opinions to this particular article, they might dramatically proclaim that anyone who finds issue with online commentary is trying to crush our freedom of speech. They might then sift through the article to find grammatical errors and repost them, declaring that I can barely write, let alone reason.
Trolls often make inflammatory attacks on subjects regarding religion, race, ideology, politics and other strongly polarizing topics of conversation. Whether they arrive with the intention of making someone mad or express angry beliefs to vent their frustrations, trolls demonstrate a complete disregard for commonplace courtesies. Because many websites do not scrub their comment sections, we expect to find trolls on most of them.
Depending on the popularity of the site, the topic involved and the degree of provocation, trolling can result in a few angry retorts or several dozen repetitive backlashes. In worst-case scenarios, it can turn a comment section into a torrent of angry statements that drown out thoughtful ideas and discourage serious posters from sharing their thoughts. Sometimes, it even forces sites to remove stories or discontinue discussions.
In July 2012, the entertainment review site RottenTomatoes.com had to temporarily shut down its comment section due to a barrage of hateful speech and threats prompted by a movie review. For hours, the staff at Rotten Tomatoes had to sort through comments to find and delete misogynistic and hateful speech, including death threats targeted at the film critic. The Dark Night Rises – the movie at the center of this debacle – was not even released to the public when the incident took place.
While threats or verbal assaults are inappropriate in any comment section, they are particularly alarming when found within the pages of high-profile newspapers. Sometimes inflaming, occasionally humorous, frequently jarring and always obnoxious, trolling is commonplace in the online comment sections of Pulitzer Prize winning newspapers such as The Huffington Post, Politico, Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal. Here are just a few comments reprinted from the comment section of a Politico article detailing the Democratic National Convention:
“Your team has nothing. If you think God or Israel is going to be the deciding factor in this election, you're just dumb.”
“Biggest take away, todays [sic] democrats have nothing to offer.”
“People like you make me sick…when you write those kind of comments we have to conclude you're writing them from a mental institution and you've checked out of reality.”
Another commenter, this one posting in response to an article in The Wall Street Journal,wrote:
“It's notable to see the paid Obama bots, spreading their disinformation, name calling, attempting to insult any factual conversation.”
Note the irony in the last statement.
Because website publishers are the first line of defense against trolls, they can hold posters to strict writing standards and stop trolling before it starts. In a perfect world, an equipped troll patrol would make it an ethical priority to maintain a harassment-free environment. In reality, obnoxious people can post on the same platforms as the rest of us, automatic screening tools are inadequate, and trolls can be an afterthought for busy employees.
There are several reasons why thorough comment screening may not be in the best interest of editors. For one, angry commenters—annoying as they are—can promote traffic. If trolling is overlooked, individuals with a penchant for posting have incentive to return to websites and post again. When they do, they may see more ads, run into subscription requirements, and pique the interest of other readers.
Editors may also be lenient with trolls due to time constraints. Employees are often in over their heads with the number of posts, especially when editing them is one of the many responsibilities they have. In the interest of time, overworked writers in understaffed offices may turn a blind eye to offensive remarks.
Most administrators do acknowledge that trolling is a problem. Popular websites often post serious-sounding statements that declare their dedication to keeping comments clean. On its regulations page, The Huffington Post maintains that it does not tolerate, “direct or indirect attacks, name-calling or insults, nor does it tolerate intentional attempts to derail, hijack, troll or bait others into an emotional response.”
But if you quickly browse through the newspaper’s comment sections, you will find numerous examples of off-topic trolling. Beneath an article about the iPhone 5’s unique unlock feature, a poster insightfully reflected:
“That's doesn't sound like an American freedom, it sounds more like communism. Americans only care about being free to own the biggest guns and pray to the biggest statues of Jesus.”
Some days, I think it is best to simply roll my eyes and ignore the attention-seeking trolls who write these comments. I imagine them to be a small but loud bunch with a giant chip on their shoulder.
But they may be more numbered, more diverse and, on occasion, more malevolent than they appear. Having their ideas printed online can also be empowering, possibly firing them up for outrageous public behaviors.
This lends itself to the question: Should readers feel obligated to address trolling when they see it? After all, by frequenting websites that ignore vitriolic or belligerent commentary, readers are sending the message that they do not take it seriously themselves.
Although publishers are primarily responsible for reigning in trolls, readers should genuinely consider speaking up when trolls get hateful. If editors are unresponsive to the “thumbs down” or “flag” functions, it falls on the reader to contact administrators about offensive, belittling or investigating commentary. If that means bringing out the soapbox, so be it.
Managers are more likely to take trolling seriously when they see that their readers will not tolerate it. The New York Times is just one of numerous established websites that have managed to reign in the trolling problem and keep posts relatively clean. The newspaper has been able to keep trolls to a minimum by limiting the number of comment sections and hiring several editors to screen article discussions.
Unfortunately, many websites are happy to attract any posters and cannot afford to pay for new editors. This forces online administrators to make difficult decisions regarding their monitoring strategies. Publishers must balance the ethical importance of providing respectful platforms while making sure their financial goals are met. Depending on their priorities and means, this balance may be hard to achieve. Ultimately, it is the executive and not the troll who leaves the final comment.