Monday, August 4, 2008

Trolls, Griefers, and Anonymity

Recently, the New York Times ran an article entitled, "The Trolls Among Us." Trolls are people who purposefully disrupt online communities, forums, and discussion groups. Wired ran a similar article earlier this year entitled, "Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World." Griefers are people who act in willfully antisocial behaviors seen in multiplayer games like Ultima Online and first-person shooters like Counter-Strike (fragging your own teammates, for instance, or repeatedly killing a player many levels below you). In the real, non-virtual world, we call these people A**holes.

Both Griefers and Trolls are relatively harmless when destroying their friends in a video game, but they become subject to legal ramifications when they begin to participate in cyber-bullying and cyber-harrassment. For example, Trolls once flooded the Epilepsy Foundation's forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure. In the non-virtual world, someone who intentionally ran into the a group of epileptic patients with flashing light displays attached to their clothing would more than likely be arrested. However, in the virtual world of cyberspace, the Trolls and Griefers work under a cloud of anonymity.

Anonymity is the source of the problem...and a double-edged sword. Anonymity is an essential feature in fostering honest, critical discussion of hot-button issues within online forums. At the same time, it protects the identity of those who wish to commit cyber-crimes. Anonymity is quite possibly one of the most important elements to consider as we continue to construct a virtual community on the world wide web.

Kevin Kelly wrote on this topic two years ago, and his essay is worth examining today. He wrote:

Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These rare elements are an absolutely necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Take cadmium. Essential for life in very minute amounts; toxic in any significant amount.

Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishing small doses, it's good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, confessional, or persecuted dissent in a tyrannical regime. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system, even a half-rotten system.

I believe anonymity is essential. It is vital to a healthy society and market. Without the option of anonymity I believe a society would be less than optimal. Indeed I would fight vigorously to keep the option of being anonymous as an essential part of any society. It is both humane and wise.

At the same time I think there can be too much anonymity at work. When it becomes a default option it poisons the community -- like a rare-earth metal. My argument is not against anonymity but against too much of it.

How much is too much?
How little is too little?


aev said...

this discussion is a large one in the field of journalism as well. anonymous sources are necessary to a degree, in uncovering essential truths without damaging the source. however, if a news agency uses anonymous sources too heavily, journalism begins to lose credibility. anonymous sources to some extent also hint at a slightly broken society, since they seem to imply that any honesty will come with considerable blowback.

Hanno said...

What strikes me is the pseudo "strong" guy who feels the need to destroy others, eugenics he calls it. But he was himself abused, and justifies his abuse because he has suffered, too.

This is not a strong psychology, but a weak one, fueled by the resentment Nietzsche writes about. His own pain drives him to feel better about himself by hurting others. He is no doubt smart, but the need to use that intelligence to hurt others that he deems unworthy is the epitome of the weak minded use of the will to power, the need to feel superior to others. These are characters that real life has hurt. Broken people. They then direct their anger and cruelty on others who have done no one any harm.

It becomes all the more classically weak since it is hidden by anonymity,

And since when is trolling using actual criminal behavior, like posting social security info, or calling pizza places, etc?

Anonymous said...

Enough is not enough.

Josh said...

Posting someone's SS # is a violation of their privacy rights in regards to personal information and right to privacy. At the same time, it begs the questions of how someone gained access to your SS # (more than likely through illegal efforts)

Frankly, it is not necessarily surprising that alienated individuals in a society would use an alienating form of technology (the internet) to enact revenge on
the world. I wonder where these people would channel their frustration without a high-speed internet connection? Start a punk band?

Josh said...

Jerome found this interview with Professional Hacker and Troll Weev:

According to Weev, he does not do things anonymously:

I have not remained anonymous. For the companies I've targeted, I've showed up at their parties and given some friendly greetings to bask in the looks of disgust and disdain. I take credit and responsibility for my actions. I think the mask of anonymity is not intensely constructive. I think the Anonymous group has dismantled some of the great idealism which pervaded troll organizations previously. In Mark chapter 5, there is a man posessed by demons. When asked for his name, he replies "Legion, for we are many."

Some take the fact that I do not use my real name any longer as a sign that I am using a mask of anonymity. This is simply not true, I have just begun to contest the legitimacy of the identity assigned to me by the state. I am not anonymous. I have a name. I have a signature. When attacking organizations, I call their representatives or board members up to tell them in advance who I am and what I am about to do and why I am doing it.