Barbershop: Internet Trolling
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Today what's on our minds is trolling. Now, trolling - sending nasty, often personal, often racist, anti-Semitic and sexist taunts over the Internet. Well, that's been around for a while. But this is in the news again not just because of President Trump's well-known Twitter habits but also because of what his supporters are willing to do to take up his cause.
Case in point - last week, the president retweeted a video of him body-slamming an opponent made up with a CNN logo. CNN did some reporting on whoever made the video in the first place. And now, that reporter and his family are reportedly facing taunts and threats. Oh, and there's the matter of what happened when this network decided to celebrate Independence Day by tweeting out the Declaration of Independence. Some people didn't get it. More on that later. But first, as we said, this has been going on long before this President made Twitter his version of a fireside chat. But many people who follow social media say it's getting worse, so we wanted to talk about that.
So we've called three people who've thought a lot about trolling and some who have experienced it. And we should let you know that you should expect some offensive language in this conversation. We want you to know what sort of language trolls direct at their targets. So joining us for a shapeup now are Adrienne LaFrance, a reporter at The Atlantic. She covers technology. Hi.
ADRIENNE LAFRANCE: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: Anita Samuels, author of a book on trolling entitled "Rants & Retorts: How Bigots Got A Monopoly On Commenting About News Online."
ANITA SAMUELS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And Professor Michelle Ferrier of Ohio University. She's founder of TrollBusters, which she founded to support women journalists facing online attacks. Welcome to you. Thank you all so much for joining us.
MICHELLE FERRIER: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, Adrienne, I'm going to start because you cover technology to start by asking you to define trolling. And what do you think kind of gave this the presence that it has in our landscape today?
LAFRANCE: So this is actually a surprisingly hard question. What is a troll? I think sort of at the purest level, we're talking about someone who is just delighting in chaos, sort of utterly hateful, provocative, really wants a reaction. But culturally, we've sort of burdened trolling and trolls with so many other meanings that it has become pretty murky.
And almost - it gets difficult to talk about because people can't agree with what a troll even is. Is it just someone who's mean? Is it someone who disagrees with you? Do you have to, you know, be facing a death threat for it to be real trolling? So there's this sort of spectrum and not a lot of clarity about what a troll really is.
MARTIN: So, Anita, you make the point in your book that trolls have essentially taken over commentary sites. I mean, that's the subtitle of your book, that - you say that bigots got a monopoly on commenting about news commentary sites. Why do you say that?
SAMUELS: Yes. I say that because when you read most comments sections, the majority of the comments are bigoted specifically against African-Americans. When you read comment sections, the negativity takes over any of the positive. It outweighs any positive message there.
MARTIN: Adrienne, I'm going to ask you, is that true? I mean, does the research indicate that the negativity outweighs the positive?
LAFRANCE: I think that certainly the prevailing sense - the comment sections of many, many, many news sites, even legitimate, well-regarded news sites - it's just vitriol.
MARTIN: Well, so, Anita, go to that point about, like, when you say bigots, what do you mean by that?
SAMUELS: So that could be anything from skin complection, anything from if you're in New York, if you live in a certain area, oh, you must be on welfare. You must be, you know, if you have children, oh, you might not know who the father is. You probably don't know who the father is. You have multiple children out of wedlock. All of these things.
MARTIN: For people who think, OK, so what's the big deal? You know, journalists should just put their big-boy pants on. People should just - if they don't want to read the comments, they should just ignore them. This is where we come to you, Professor Ferrier, because you're a columnist. And tell us what happened to you. And tell us what you think people don't know about this.
FERRIER: Sure. So, Michel, about 12 years ago, I was still a newspaper columnist and an online community manager actually as the first African-American columnist at a newspaper in Florida. I received all kinds of hate mail, both through the postal system as well as through email. I was stalked by one particular letter writer who sent me manifestos in the mail, long letters of vitriol talking about, how do you get an N - a nigger nigger out of a tree? And, you know, cut the rope. Or other types of racial slurs and things directed at me.
And I wrote a lifestyle column. It was not on the editorial page. It was in our lifestyle section. So it was one of the early kinds of mommy bloggers that moved from online. And I was in the print portion. And that letter writer wrote me over a series of years. And I went to management. I went to the police, FBI, CIA, all the agencies you can imagine to get support, including our journalism professional organizations. And no one had any help to offer. This was organized activity. It was the rise of white supremacist groups using the Internet and Internet tools to be able to systematically create fear and intimidation in journalists, particularly journalists of color.
FERRIER: You actually felt so threatened by this that you started carrying a gun.
FERRIER: I did and disguising myself. You have to understand, I worked on the night news desk in a newspaper with probably less than 20 people after midnight at night. And I often worked from 5 till 2 o'clock in the morning. And so safety was a key concern because these letters continued to talk about violence. Trolls are not just what our president would characterize as, you know, heavy-set people on a couch.
These are coordinated groups of hackers using the Internet to organize themselves, to create attacks on people's websites and bring them offline, to do doxing, which is where they send out personal information about your home address or where you live or your family and children's names. This is activity that moves from online to the offline spaces and needs to be taken seriously by both management as well as law enforcement.
MARTIN: So when you approached some of these news organizations about why they continue to allow these kinds of comments - because they wouldn't print them. They would never print these in their printed pages. But somehow, news organizations allow these anonymous commentators to spread things that are not true or just vitriol. Why do they have such different standards for what they kind of print in their news pages as opposed to what they would allow on their anonymous comment boards? I mean, Adrienne, do you have reporting on this?
FERRIER: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the best way to think about it is to consider sort of like the utopian version of the Web and the idea of what the best possible version of sort of civil discourse online could be. And so when news organizations shifted many of their operations online, they were also sort of merging into this culture of what was already there, which was largely like blogs and people creating their own spaces, people publishing their own things.
And so as readers moved to platforms, you know, in an ideal environment, you hope that you can engage with them and let them sort of have this - no longer just have the newspaper be the gatekeeper but have it be sort of a two-way publishing environment, at least in the comments section. And unfortunately, sort of the lowest common denominator rises to the top.
In fact, there was a study that found that the first comment in a thread really does set the tone. And so if the first comment in a thread is very trolly or negative or racist, that it's more likely for the rest of the thread to sort of devolve into that space.
MARTIN: You know, here's an interesting experience that we had at this organization. You know, every year, NPR's had a tradition of having their on-air talent - including me - read portions of the Declaration of Independence. This year, NPR decided to tweet out the Declaration of Independence line by line. And some people didn't get it. And they thought that NPR was calling the president a tyrant who needed to be overthrown and a lot of angry tweets about that.
But then we reached out to some of these people to say what's, you know, what's happening here? One Twitter user actually apologized. And our producers called him. This is Daniel Davies (ph) of Virginia. This is what he had to say.
DANIEL DAVIES: I caught it right in the middle about the change in government, you know, with, you know, the revolution and to abolish the government. I did not recognize that it was part of the Declaration of Independence. And I had basically a visceral knee-jerk reaction to it. What I did was trolling. It's a perfect reaction to emotion over reason. I took something that was initially good and noble, and I put an ugly face on it.
We're so polarized. This nation is incredibly polarized. And by my isolating myself, listening to others who believe the same thing I did, I all but ignored any sensible comments from the other side of the aisle and made some mistake that I'm not going to do again.
MARTIN: So how about that? Is this - Adrienne, I don't know if you - is this unusual? Does this happen?
LAFRANCE: It definitely happens. I've had similar experiences where I've had sort of not the nicest tweets sort of lobbed in my direction and occasionally have decided to sort of reach out and see if we could just, like, have a nice conversation. And we have. And in one instance in particular, the person was sort of shocked that I replied and was like, well, I sort of felt like I was tweeting into the void and didn't at all expect a human on the other end and was then very embarrassed. And so I think that's telling as well. At the same time, solving trolling is not going to be like one person at a time appealing to the reason of another person.
MARTIN: Professor Ferrier, though, do people on the left also engage in this conduct?
FERRIER: Absolutely. I believe anyone can be a troll on any issue. It just depends on what the issue is. And I'm sure each of us can think to times that we've posted things online and said that might have been a little strong.
FERRIER: Is the president a troll?
SAMUELS: Yes. I think so.
FERRIER: A troll in chief.
MARTIN: Anita says yes. Professor Ferrier says yes. Adrienne?
LAFRANCE: I'm not as sure. He certainly has supporters who see themselves and their trolling instincts in him. I'm not sure he is officially a troll.
LAFRANCE: You know, I don't know. I think, you know - he doesn't - it's a good question. This goes back to the difficulty of defining trolling. You know, he may be trolling CNN, he might be.
MARTIN: OK. Who else said yes, definitely?
SAMUELS: I did.
MARTIN: OK. Anita, you say yes because?
SAMUELS: Because he's attacking people. And it seems like he's attacking people that aren't agreeing with him. And I think his behavior is showing a really poor example to children because they're reading this and hearing about it on TV and everything. And they may follow this behavior.
MARTIN: Adrienne, are most trolls children, by the way? I mean, the argument is that these are 15-year-old boys who are - and you're saying actually...
MARTIN: Professor Ferrier, you're saying no, they are not?
FERRIER: No. That's the mythology. And I think that's what has kept us stuck in this idea that this is innocuous behavior. This is not. These are organized groups, whether it's government operatives, whether it is anonymous groups of hackers, et cetera, or one person that could be a teen boy but also because of his online networks can rally people from around the world to do attacks on people's websites, et cetera.
So I think we're naive to think that it's innocuous as teen boys in a basement. And I think we need to understand that the online environment, as Adrienne talked about, especially positive comments can create a positive environment. And TrollBusters uses that methodology of providing support, positive messages, et cetera into a Twitter stream to try and help create an environment that's less tolerable to the trolls.
MARTIN: Anita Samuels, you have a whole chapter on your views about what needs to occur here. And, you know, we don't have time to go to all of your suggestions, but could just give us like your top one or two?
SAMUELS: It's a good idea probably to go and try and defend against the stereotypes and to defend yourself, but it's going to be a personal choice as to how far you're going to go.
MARTIN: Adrienne LaFrance?
LAFRANCE: Yeah. And I think looking at Twitter again, first of all, the responsibility that the platforms have to improve discourse is an open-ended question. They want engagement on their sites. And people who are emotionally riled up are engaged, so they don't have necessarily incentive that lines up with our goals for better, you know, more civilized discourse. And one other thing I'd like to mention is that Twitter has shared data about how harassment is reported and has found that in most cases, it's actually bystanders who are reporting abuse against people, rather than the victim of that abuse.
And so I think that that - for people who are who are hoping to do their part to make the Web a nicer place, if you see someone being mistreated, report the person who's doing the mistreatment. And ask people if you can help. If you see someone who's being attacked, you know, it might really help them to reach out to them. So that's something for people to consider.
MARTIN: That was Atlantic reporter Adrienne LaFrance. She covers technology. We were talking to her about her piece, "Trolls Are Winning The Internet." It was posted back in March. She was joining us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Anita Samuels' new book is "Rants & Retorts: How Bigots Got A Monopoly On Commenting About News Online." She was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. And Professor Michelle Ferrier is founder of TrollBusters. She joined us from her home office in Ohio. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
LAFRANCE: Thank you for having me.
SAMUELS: Thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me.
FERRIER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.