Tech Will Take Care of the Trolls
The last generation dealt with email spam as a major digital annoyance. Congress passed some law against it, but nothing changed; the evolution of technology in stage after stage of development is what solved the problem in the end. There were opt-in filters, pre-delivery scanners, special email services. Finally Google figured it out and others followed.
Spam today is a minor annoyance at best. Now we have other problems, worse than just annoying, and it has several names. Cyber bullying. Doxing. Swarming. Shaming. It is more volitional than spam ever was. The threat is that a gang of trolls will come after you, publicly and in private messages, on Twitter, on forums, on Facebook, on anything, and try to take down your life in ways that shake your resolve and possibly even ruin your reputation. The worst scenario is one that has afflicted celebrities: your digital data is actually made public.
Growing up in the digital age has made millennials simultaneously hyper-aware of malicious activity, and ambivalent to it. We’ve grown up with it, so we’re used to it, but it’s happened to enough of our friends – and us – that we’re not blind to it. It’s a part of life that isn’t good, but we’ve all figured out ways to deal with it, at least until it hits a certain level of hostility.
I have been blessed (cursed) with a rather large ego that, mixed with a high level of self-confidence, makes me think I can say what I want when I want and it’ll all be fine. The result of this is that I will either die in a car accident because I thought I could walk across the street faster than that car could get to me, or I will sass someone who shouldn’t be messed with, and my head will end up on a proverbial pike.
Until then, this mix lets me turn internet trolls into amusement. For example, I recently tweeted something tongue-in-cheek about work, and was met with someone who apparently does not appreciate my life, but does appreciate Trump quotes. I held onto my self-proclaimed title of GIF czar and used it in every single tweet I sent to him, until he got bored and went away.
On Tinder a couple years ago, a college friend was getting messages from someone she wasn’t interested in. He wasn’t being crude, but she wanted him to go away. The group effort resulted in a conversation that took from history, along the lines of:
Him: So I was thinking we could meet up sometime.
Her: Yeah for sure, but I have to ask something first: how many cows are you willing to give my father?
Him: Haha what?
Her: How many cows are you willing to give my father for me?
Him: Haha I don’t know.
Her: He says he won’t accept anything less than one bull and four heifers, but I think I can talk him down to one bull, three heifers, and one sheep.
Him: *radio silence forever*
My experiences have been pretty tolerable so far. At this point the worst I’ve gotten is a random middle-aged man messaging me a picture of another man with underwear on his head, captioned with “Gary Johnson supporter hats.” I’ve never said, to anyone, who I’m voting for, but by all means, send gross pictures to twenty-something girls because you’re insecure and they haven’t outright supported your candidate, whoever that is.
I like to think that I’ll be able to toy with trolls forever, but I also know that they’re going to get worse. The memes will turn into explicit images, the banter will turn into accusations and denunciations, the pickup lines will turn into violent threats, and it’ll all happen multiple times a day, every day.
I doubt many of them will turn into actions, and I doubt that any of those actions will actually be what the threat had been. I really don’t think anyone would actually “rip out all of my hairs” and “twist my tits clean off,” as one troll told author Sarah Jeong. But words like that get in your head, and as a twenty-something girl, there’s a higher risk of the thing in my head actually happening, as compared to a twenty- or thirty-something man.
Is Google Coming to the Rescue Again?
Internet threats have gotten so bad that a new, small section of Google, called Jigsaw, is building artificial intelligence to end online censorship and filter out the trolls.
Would such technology hinder free speech? It could. But when words cross from being instructional to being a mere vent for hatred directed as a personal attack, with the intent to hinder your own free speech, to oppress your life, and to threaten physical harm, then they are no longer protected under the First Amendment, and fall under the Fighting Words and Offensive Speech exception and, usually, the Obscenity exceptions.
Jigsaw was founded to “end repressive censorship, fight the rise of online mobs, disrupt online radicalization and propaganda,” and “enable transparency and accountability.” As such, they won’t be selling to the government to let politicians filter out everything against them – they’ll be fighting such government action. Nor is the technology compulsory, so if you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it.
In the end, the social media market will decide whether troll-free technology like Jigsaw’s makes the internet better or worse. If a social media company adopts Jigsaw, some people (the trolls) will inevitably balk and start their own Jigsaw-free version. The number of users on each site will say whether people like interacting with trolls or not, but in either case, no one will have to live according to the majority rule. Even the trolls will be happy, until they find something new to fight about.
Patience and Innovation
The digital world is still growing, and we’re all still learning as we go. No matter how much it matures, no matter how many problems are fixed, there are always new problems because innovation is happening so fast. But as with all previous problems, digital or otherwise, not knowing the answer right now does not mean the answer does not exist.
Spam threatened to ruin email, just as trolling is now threatening to ruin social media. But as happened with email, and as it has with everything else ever invented, the growth and perpetual adaptation of social media will fix the problems it has created for itself. In the meantime, at least the little trolls are amusing.
Originally published on fee.org.