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Stop using the word "trolling" when what you really mean is "hate speech"

Trolling in a more traditional sense. | AP File Photo

Last week, the Huffington Post announced an end to anonymous commenting on their website. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t at least nod their head in approval at the change, most people know better than to go within spitting distance of an internet comment section. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” is an apt description of many websites’ comment sections.

HuffPo’s explanation for the change is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some relevant snippets:

But one glance at our comment section or the comment sections of other sites demonstrates what we’re all up against. Trolls have grown more vicious, more aggressive, and more ingenious. As a result, comment sections can degenerate into some of the darkest places on the Internet. At HuffPost, we publish nearly 9 million comments a month, but we’ve reached the point where roughly three-quarters of our incoming comments never see the light of day, either because they are flat-out spam or because they contain unpublishable levels of vitriol. And rather than participating in threads and promoting the best comments, our moderators are stuck policing the trolls with diminishing success.

There can be tragic consequences, too. Words in online forums and social networks have real power to wound. Caroline Criado-Perez, the campaigner who successfully petitioned to have a woman put on UK currency, received almost 50 rape threats an hour on Twitter after the announcement that Jane Austen would appear on the £10 note. Or take the case of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, who ended his life after suffering years of bullying and anonymous online abuse.

I applaud Huffington Post’s attempts to clean up the dredges of the internet. What I don’t like is the use of the word “troll.” HuffPo uses the T-word twice, though they are far from the only website to do so. Labeling activity as “trolling” has become the de facto terminology for all problems stemming from anonymous communication on the web.

Trolling is as old as the internet. Even older! History is filled with examples of people messing with other people’s heads to get a laugh. 18th century scientists planting fake fossils to hoodwink a rival? Nice trolling, bros of the 1700s. Tom Collins has been talking trash about people behind their backs for more than 130 years. Orson Welles’ The War Of The Worlds radio broadcast? The widely-reported panic probably never happened, making this a rare example of a double-trolling.

Maybe the single-greatest act of trolling, internet or not, was Chicago’s own 1987 broadcast intrusion, in which an intruder interrupted not one but two TV stations to broadcast an incredibly bizarre Max Headroom parody. 26 years later, those responsible have not been caught.

Internet trolls wish they were that successful.

But I take serious umbrage with the internet’s over-reliance of the word “troll” in describing what happens in comment sections around the web. It’s an intentionally vague descriptor that gets associated with everything from childish insults and crude attempts to get a rise out of someone, to vitriolic hate speech that seems to target anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, heterosexual white man.

Do you notice the huge gap in definition there?

Can we really use the same word to describe an argument against eating lunch outdoors as we use to describe when women[1] are subjected[2] to any[3] number[4] of vile[5], violent[6] threats[7], or when virtually any story involving a person of color will be filled with language so harsh that ‘merely’ calling it racism feels like we are going easy on the commenters?

By using such broad language, we’re unintentionally blurring the lines of what is acceptable. The language we use is important, and an over-reliance on the T-word ultimately has a desensitizing effect. By grouping the rude with the hateful, we undermine the seriousness of bigotry and unintentionally makes light of those who are victims of these comments.

So what can we do?

Huffington Post’s system of requiring internal verification for commenters seems like a step in the right direction, though even websites that require commenting through Facebook are far from immune. A bill in the New York legislature that forces websites to reveal the ‘real name’ of commenters if someone complains is short-sighted at best and definitely a major invasion of privacy. Maybe the NSA can develop an app that will show you someone’s most recent internet comment when you point your phone at them.

There is no one answer for shoveling hate speech back into the nether where it belongs. Digital editors will have to continue to find new and more effective ways to manage the conversation. The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the awareness of online harassment, much of it inspired by victims taking a stand and telling their story of their experience. Continuing to shed light on the hate speech and educating the public is vital. Maybe some day those who have long since given up on internet comments will some day be comfortable toeing the waters and returning.

An important step in the process is going to be a change in the language we use. So do me a favor, stop calling it “trolling.” It’s hate speech.

Further viewing

Anita Sarkeesian’s TED Talk on the online harassment she’s faced and how her harassers felt they were playing a “game,” sometimes literally.