Ridding the Internet of Trolls

I started opining about politics on the Internet about 1995, which means I’m just about to mark 20 years of putting my opinions out there. I’ve gotten better at it in recent years. Back when I first started, I said a lot of shit I probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t always support my arguments, and sometimes, in the heat of the argument, I would make something up. Needless to say, I don’t do that anymore. I also used to engage in the art of the humblebrag, which I never do anymore as a matter of habit, because I’m afraid I might divulge something I shouldn’t. (Wait, that sounded a bit like a humblebrag. Sorry.)

Waiting For A RaiseBack when I first started, most of the Internet was a barren place; the only place to discuss politics was on Usenet newsgroups, which were a bustling place back in the late 1990s, when the idea of a blog was somewhat exotic. Now, we have more places to drop a load of “wisdom” than there are McDonald’s bathrooms. Usenet, for all intents and purposes, is dead now, relegated to audio and video downloads and porn. A few years back, so many were using it for porn, ISPs stopped providing access to it. Political newsgroups are now largely barren places where the only people discussing politics are a scant few cranks who are somewhat addicted, and their many sock puppets.

Anyway, I digress.

For 20 years, I have dealt with trolls, mostly those who considered it necessary to attack me personally because I have a differing opinion. I received my first death threat literally three days after I began posting. My first credible death threat came later that year, from a guy who targeted me and my son, because my name is Milton. You know, because that name meant I was a “Jew,” and he was a white supremacist who didn’t think Jews should live. That’s right;  I have never been Jewish, yet I have been victimized by anti-Semitism.

Luckily, I listened to my instincts and had him checked out. Turns out he had the resources and connections to carry out the threat. Eventually, he was sent to jail for 15 years. He’s out now, but he doesn’t even remember me, according to his parole officer.

On the other hand, I have a stalker who’s been following me around and harassing me for 13-14 years. He’s right wing and dumb as a post, and when it comes to the humblebrag, he literally cannot speak without doing so. Years ago, when I was less careful, he found out where I worked and contacted one of my right wing co-workers. (She used to work for Ken Starr, and sung his praises every time she could, if that explains how right wing.) He was pumping her for information, which I figure out when she started coming to my office to ask me personal questions, which she had never done in the four years previously. So, I fed her like a mushroom; lots of bullshit, which he would repeat it back to me. When I make a rare trip back onto Usenet, he still does.

At one point, I had him checked out, and found out he was harmless, albeit libelous. I also found out his humblebragging was, in fact, humblebragging. But what if he hadn’t been? I complained about him to his ISP, and I complained to Usenet services. But every single one of them his behind two concepts: “free speech” and “privacy.”

Sorry, but that’s bullshit. If I went into a Sears store and started screaming at their other customers the way some people do on Twitter, Facebook or the comment sections of websites, they would not only throw me out and ban me for life, but they would probably call the police. No one has that much “free speech.”

It’s a funny thing, really. People who have absolutely no guts in their real life – those with an absolute fear of saying anything to anyone face-to-face – develop balls of steel when they are allowed to hide behind a fake persona that can’t be discovered by the person they’re shouting insults to. These Internet companies make tons of money, but they act as if they have no responsibility whatsoever. While I would agree that, if someone gets killed by someone, the Internet company isn’t responsible for that. But if they are told about threats and serious discrimination, why do they have absolutely zero responsibility to try to mitigate that?

The problem has gotten worse over the years, and it’s not limited to politics anymore. You can be talking about anything at all, and someone who disagrees with your opinion is capable of creating an online email account immediately, using that to create a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Tumblr blog, a Disqus login and damn near anything else, and use it to attack you. That should be impossible. Freedom of speech does not extend to those who create fear in others, or to create a threat. Ever.

The same is true of “privacy,” which Internet companies throw around to the point that it’s meaningless these days. Of course, you have a right to privacy. But when you’re traveling through the “information superhighway,” and marking your territory, claiming an absolute to privacy is much like standing in Times Square naked and demanding that no one see you. Allowing everyone to be anonymous and completely untraceable is just an invitation for harm.

I’m not talking about everyone giving up all aspects of anonymity at all times. Many people operate without giving away their actual identity. There are cats and bunnies and angry pundits all over the place, and they should be able to continue as they are. But when they decide to cross the line, there should be a way to make them accountable. A carefully cultivated anonymous persona is fine, but we have to address the others; the people who get pissed and within 5 minutes can manage to harass someone with personas that can’t be traced. I’m talking about the people on Twitter who have hundreds of accounts, so that you block one, they come at you with another one soon after. That’s not a “privacy” issue. If someone robs a bank wearing a ski mask, the police don’t need a warrant to pull off the mask. And yet, if you’d read most companies’ terms of use, some guy can threaten to kill you and your kids, and no one is allowed to know who they are, unless they actually file suit and the plaintiff’s lawyer sends a subpoena.

It’s gotten really bad lately, and the people in charge of these things has to get a handle on it, and stop allowing people who scream threats and insults at others to hide behind the “free speech” and “privacy” bullshit. And it is bullshit. I know; the measure of a commitment to free speech isn’t about tolerating speech you like, but speech you don’t like. But that’s true only if people are speaking in generalities. When you libel someone, or threaten them, no one is obliged to tolerate that. Besides, protection of those rights is the government’s job, not Twitter’s Facebooks, Google’s or whoever. Once again, if Macy’s or Target wouldn’t let one customer call another customer a “c-word” or “n-word,” or threaten them without throwing their asses out of the store and/or calling police, please explain why Internet companies get to claim “free speech” and “privacy” as a rationale for doing nothing, and in fact encouraging such behavior? I don’t allow people to attack anyone on my blog, because I believe in basic decorum. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not against free speech; I’m in favor of civil discourse.

This past week, Ashley Judd, of all people, had the gall to express how proud she was of her Kentucky Wildcats, who have not lost a basketball game all season. How dare she, right? For that, she was attacked, complete with death and rape threats. That type of “free speech” isn’t protected by the government; who the hell is Twitter to protect those assholes? And look at the worst Tweets; most were anonymous and new.

When Robin Williams tragically committed suicide last year, hundreds of people attacked his grieving daughter Zelda on Twitter, using mostly cowardly, anonymous troll accounts. She left for a while because it was, understandably, too much to bear. And what about the constant stream of stories about people who are cyberbullied and end up doing harm to themselves, up to and including suicide. No one should have to endure that shit, especially from someone who goes to great lengths to hide their identity, or who creates an account with the sole purpose of saying and doing something mean to someone, or make them feel threatened.

Sock puppets and anonymous trolls have no place on social media and Internet discussions, and the owners of these sites really need to take better care of the people who use and enjoy their services. It’s not just one or two of them, it’s all of them. Some, like Facebook, give us a better measure of control, but they still allow the creeps a way to get in and harass people. Some have suggested

And don’t tell me it’s impossible because they already do it. Every celebrity on Twitter, Facebook and several other services are verified. It’s time to put a measure of verification on everyone. Some have suggested an Internet ID of some sort. I don’t know, that’s something for people who are smarter than me to decide. All I know is, something has to give, and every one of these cowards has to know that someone will figure them out if they cross the line.

Failure to do that may turn all of the Internet into something resembling Usenet newsgroups, in which the only people left are trolls and nutjobs. And that would be a shame for all of us.

About Milt Shook

A writer with more than 45 years in the political game (and let's face it, it is a game). I am a liberal because facts have a liberal bias, and I really like facts. If you like facts, you'll like this blog. If not, you'll have a hard time.


Ridding the Internet of Trolls — 1 Comment

  1. As another person too often threatened, I have learned a lot about “free speech”. It ceases to be such when someone issues a “true threat”. Any threat directed at you personally and especially ones backed up by information revealing personal knowledge of where you work, live, whatever, is actionable. Never mind the ISP- the police need to know especially if you’ve found information on the origins of the person making the threats. Assuming said person is not in Bulgaria, this can be pursued. We have to stop being intimidated by “free speech” when it turns vicious and threatening. That is a crime. That can be stopped. Good luck, Milt. You deserve “Troll Be Gone” when such people cross that very bright line.