The trouble with trolls

It’s universally acknowledged that the internet, like so many creations, has potential for both good and bad. It’s true of nuclear power, and it’s true of the internet.

Doing research is infinitely easier today than it was just a generation ago. Rather than poring through old periodicals and tomes, inquisitive people can now look up more stuff in minutes, simply by clicking a few keys, than they could by spending hours in library stacks and files back then. Educational opportunities abound.

Interpersonal communication is enhanced today by a quantum leap compared to classic letter-writing or even telephoning. Meetings can take place electronically with much less effort and cost than what’s required for physically gathering at a specific place.

Those are a couple of the good things the internet provides. 

One of the bad things is the ease with which cowards can do harm through anonymity.

Malevolence is so easy now. Just type something that hurts someone or spreads  falsehoods and send it off, to whomever you want or to the whole world. And avoid responsibility by leaving off your real name.

Responsible print publications for decades have required authorship to be disclosed on articles, columns and letters they publish. If an article doesn’t have a byline, then the publication itself claims authorship, and must take responsibility for it. 

That’s especially true for editorials. The purveyor of any opinion piece has an ethical duty to attach his or her name to it, or to publish it as the opinion of the publication’s managers.

But the nature of the internet mitigates against such disclosure. 

If folks are so inclined, they can lie, slander or cyberbully to their wicked hearts’ content without fear of discovery. Cute “pen names” often accompany offensive material.

When I was an editor-publisher, like most other publication managers I required letters to be signed before publication, and to observe the boundaries of libel and good taste. 

We once received a well-written letter over a name I didn’t recognize. Both the first and last supposed names of the author were common Northern European names, with the last name with the suffix “son.”

I puzzled over it, and then tried deleting the “son” suffix and reversing the first and last names. Adding the “son” back to the new last name gave me the name of someone I knew, after I translated one of the names from German to English.

I called the suspect and asked him if he had sent me a letter to the editor. He confessed. But he chose not to have me publish it over his real name, since he didn’t want people to know who wrote it. It remained unpublished.

No such opportunity for true disclosure exists with the internet.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and the other carriers of interpersonal communications have no mechanism for trying to vouch for authorship of material they publish.

Nor do they want to. Traditionally they have stoutly maintained they are not “publishers” in the classic sense — they are simply platforms, like giant signboards, upon which anyone can post stuff anonymously without fear of challenge.

For a while, newspapers, both print and electronic, experimented with carrying anonymous reader postings under titles like “Your Two Cents’ Worth” and “Readers’ Exchange.” After awhile, when the anonymity proved too tempting and postings went beyond accepted guardrails, most of them ended the experiment. 

The danger isn’t restricted just to personal attacks like cyberbullying, of course. Anonymity and fake authorship are the drivers for false political statements from locations both domestic and foreign, as evidenced particularly in the past decade. 

The standard saying used to be, “I heard it on the grapevine.” Today it’s “I saw it on the internet.” 

The potential damage is infinitely greater from electronic dissemination than it ever was from mouth-to-mouth gossip.

Contact Us

Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161