Online Bullies, Trolls and Open Dialogue

The toxicity of online trolls is getting worse, or so says Wil Wheaton. I don’t know that I agree but he’s pretty active on sites like Tumblr and Reddit, where I am not. So maybe he’s on to something. Maybe it’s just those sites.

Most discussions of trolls, trolling behavior and the state of the internet are steeped in a sense of helplessness. The problem seems so intractable, so impossible to cure. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about this issue.

I disagree. I think the problem is really quite simple. But first we must recognize how we got to our current state of affairs. Three separate and distinct issues have become so intertwined in our daily experience of the web that we fail to see them as distinct. They are the right to privacy, the right to free speech and the notion of an open dialogue. If we can separate these issues out, the problem becomes clear, as does the solution.

Open Dialogue

The idea of an open dialogue is at the heart of the social web. Facebook, Twitter and Google plus have trained us to see the entire world as an auditorium with an open mic. Every post, every picture, every link has a comment box right below it, inviting us to share our opinion with the world. News sites and blogs have comments sections. Some people feel like they don’t really know the whole story unless we read each and every comment. The whole point of sites like Reddit is to create an open dialogue on a diverse range of subjects. It’s symptomatic of our times that the news has become less and less about news and more about people’s reaction to the news. No news report is complete without some reference to social media, the story going viral, or reactions from Twitter, Facebook, etc.

But do we need to have a dialogue on every aspect of our lives? Just because there is a comment box beneath a post or picture doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about that photo.

A picture of a woman is not an invitation to comment on her body. Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out is important news, without it a lot of people would have been left wondering why the person they knew as Bruce was now a woman named Caitlyn. But why should it be an opening for the entire country to discuss their feelings about trans people? It’s Caitlyn’s life and choice, not yours. Sometimes the news is just, the news. We can accept that this or that event happened without turning it into a debate.

Slowly across the web people are starting to wake up and ask this question. Do we really need an open forum for every piece of news that comes along?

After looking at the evidence of what online trolling does, Popular Science shut down it’s comments section entirely. Plenty of other magazines have made less drastic steps to limit comments, often hiding them behind a button.

Even a year ago it was a given that bloggers must encourage reader participation in comments. Now many big name bloggers have partially done away with comments or moderate them with a heavy hand. Blogs often allow comments on some posts and not others.

Users on social media are even showing signs of becoming jaded. They are quicker to delete comments, block or unfriend users and move on.

And honestly, I think it’s a good thing. An open dialogue is a privilege, not a right. It’s time to reassert this fact. Implicit behind the whole life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, behind the first amendment’s freedom of speech and religion, is the right to have an opinion without having to constantly defend it.

Women shouldn’t have to be subjected to comments about their bodies from random men online. A woman can post pictures of themselves wearing whatever they want. They can tag it with a comment like “I look hot today.” They are not required to leave those comments open so you can chime in your opinion about how she looks.

A statement about my gender identity or sexual orientation does not require you to chime in with your opinion on LGBT acceptance. When I went through my transition, I was crystal clear about this fact. I informed people that this thing was happening in my life and I would have a new name, gender role. I was not asking for their approval or acceptance of this fact. Not everything I share is an attempt to engage you in a public debate, believe it or not.

What about freedom of speech?

One of the problems we have when we try to school online trolls is that they insist it’s their right to not only have but to publicly air their opinions. This is, at best, a half truth. I’ve blogged about that before: How to Kick an Internet Troll right in the Freedom of Speech.

The short version is this, you have the right to free speech. But I don’t have to provide you an audience. You can have an opinion about my body, but I don’t have to share that on my Facebook or Twitter page. And if you are upset because I deleted a comment or unfriended you, you are welcome to rant on your own page.

Not only am I not obligated to give you an audience, I am not obligated to be part of your audience. Maybe it’s time to stop reading comments. There are many websites, especially news sites, where I never read the comments. Part of it is the over abundance of trolls. Part of it is what do the comments really add to the news piece? Will reading John Q’s opinion on police in America or Caitlyn Jenner’s transition really tell me something? Often the answer is no.

If anything a lot of public debate is degraded by the constant stream of dialogue from people who know nothing about the situation. Climate change remains controversial despite the overwhelming number of scientists that believe it’s real. Why? In large part because of the constant stream of news commentators, politicians and online “sceptics” that have no background in science but still feel empowered to tell the scientist why they are wrong.

The protests in Ferguson, Missouri became a flashpoint for millions of Americans who had never heard of the town and probably couldn’t find it on a map. Yet, they were all quite sure they knew what “really” happened there and were happy to share this valuable insight with residents who lived in the city their whole life.

The bottom line is that freedom of speech does not include the right to make your opinion heard on every single forum or every single issue. It might come as a bitter pill for certain people, to realize that their opinions don’t always matter. But they are welcome to pay for web hosting, launch their own personal website and rant to their hearts content. But I do not have to publish your rant on my website, or visit yours.

The Right to Privacy

The third issue is right to privacy, and it’s gotten intertwined with the rest of this debate due to a couple of website’s heavy handed attempts to deal with online trolls. First Google tried to clean up the horrible cesspit that the Youtube comments section had become and then Facebook tried to clean up it’s online bullying problem.

Both companies took the same approach. They figured if people had to come clean about who they were, they’d be nicer. Their approach to accountability was to insist on real names on their social media.

In doing so they made the online troll problem a privacy issue. It backfired on both of them. There are too many legitimate reasons why people might not want to use their real name online, and many issues with providing real names to companies like Facebook or Google.

Facebook continues to waffle on this issue, stating they are enforcing the real name policy, ignoring it in some cases and enforcing it in others. They continue to claim that it will stop bullying, but without much proof of whether it works or not.

Google blinked and in doing so, created a half ass solution that works better than what Facebook is doing. First they tied Youtube comments to Google Plus, then they blinked on the real name policy on Google plus. So now you can no longer comment anonymously, which at least gives Google some way to block abusive accounts. (That doesn’t prevent them from opening a new email account and then a new Google plus account. But it does make trolling a lot more work.)


The solution to the right to privacy issue might require some compromise on both sides. Social media sites are focusing on real names in an attempt to avoid looking at their other problems, namely an inability to effectively enforce their own rules of conduct.

On Facebook the problem comes down to two issues, they automate most complaints, applying simplistic algorithms to determine what is and is not a valid complaint. Secondly, when a human decision is required, those decisions are often outsourced overseas and the people judging the complaints might have little cultural understanding of what is going on.

Websites need to focus more on policing comments in ways that don’t infringe on rights to privacy. There are numerous options, but the problem is simple. The solution to both problems is to have better oversight, an expensive proposition in terms of manpower on a site used by more than a billion people. It’s no wonder they prefer the band aid of a real name policy.

The compromise for privacy advocates might be to realize that while you should have the right to surf the internet anonymously, you may not have to right to engage in public discourse on those terms. Blog comment sections might require an email or some other account validation process.

Trolls would have us believe that these requirements are a violation of their right to privacy. I would respond by saying that engaging in a discussion on my website isn’t a right, you can do it on my terms or not at all. The choice is yours. Those wanting to protect their privacy sometimes have to make hard choices about whether to use a particular app or website. Sometimes they have to do the same about engaging in public dialogue.

Websites or social media could perhaps accommodate both sides by allowing anonymous comments but treating them differently. A button would toggle them on or off, allowing readers to decide if they want to include anonymous comments or not. I’m guessing that most readers would choose no.

Another really simple fix would be for Facebook or Google plus to provide a simple way to disable comments on certain posts/pictures and to change your account settings to allow you to moderate comments on your own posts. (You can already delete comments, but those comments have already been posted and seen by followers if you aren’t online when they come in. Websites allow you to hold comments and only post the ones you approve.)


The bottom line is that we can reduce, if not eliminate, a lot of the online trolling problem, but it will be work. We need to start by understanding that this behavior is not a right. As I have said before, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. And the consequence of being an online troll is that you might be banned from making future comments.

Those who run websites, be they personal blogs, news sites or social media, will have the most work to do. They need to recognize that some news and announcements aren’t open to discussion and comments can and should be closed. In other cases, comments might have to be moderated. If a comment doesn’t add to the debate, don’t allow it. Most social media sites don’t allow personal attacks or threats. They need to work on applying those standards in a more even handed way.

There is an old saying that it’s the darkest before the dawn. Perhaps Reddits problem is a sign that the tide is turning against the trolls. More and more websites are working to stop troll  behavior and the trolls have fewer pastures left open to them. We can only hope.


How to Kick an Internet Troll, right in the Freedom of Speech

From Gamergate to homophobia to this piece of crap, trolls are everywhere on the internet. When challenged about their behavior their first fallback position is almost invariably freedom of speech. “You are violating my freedom of speech. I have a right to my opinions.”

In making this argument they are taking the moral high road. The argument ceases to be about their behavior and becomes about some higher principles.

It’s also pure bullshit. Yes, freedom of speech is an important right. However it’s not as gray as trolls would like you to believe, nor is it applicable to their behavior.

Here are three simple ways that the freedom of speech argument fails and how to shut down trolls when they try to use it on you.

1. You have freedom of speech, too.

When you speak out on an issue you feel strongly about, that’s freedom of speech. When a troll responds in the comments, or in person, trying to shout at you to shut you up, that’s not freedom of speech. That’s the exact opposite. When Gamergate “activist” attack feminist who critique gamer culture, they aren’t expressing their opinion, they are attempting to silence their opponent, and then trying to claim that is freedom of speech.

2. freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequence

Remember in high school when you had to debate that ludicrous situation where someone yells “fire!” in a crowded movie house. That always drove me nuts because the solution seems so obvious. Having the freedom to do what you want or feel is right doesn’t mean you are free from all the consequences of your behavior.

The right to bear arms doesn’t make murder legal. You might have the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded movie house, but if people die in the stampede to escape and it turns out you just thought it would be funny to see people run, you can still be charged with manslaughter.

Yes, trolls have the right to their opinion. But when they phrase those opinions as insults or threats, they may face consequences. That’s life.

3. Speech may be a right but publishing is a privilege.

You have the right to free speech but no one owes you a platform. I have the right to write whatever story I want, but I can’t force HarperCollins to publish my thousand page rant on how mice don’t really like cheese. HarperCollins gets to choose what it publishes.

What we often forget is that anything posted on the internet is actually being published. Most of the websites we use don’t belong to us and the owners have a choice of what to publish and what not to.

If I am running my own personal blog, I don’t have to publish any comments. I can, and most bloggers do, because it builds a sense of community around a blog and brings readers back. However if I feel a comment is from a troll, or has no value to the discussion, I can choose not to display it. If you disagree, you are welcome to start your own blog and respond there.

Most public websites have clear terms of service. They vary in details but most clearly forbid certain behaviors. It is Facebook, Google plus or Twitter’s prerogative to decide what these are and to decide what is acceptable on their website.

The users are faced with the choice of playing by the rules or not using the site. Sometimes that means they allow posts that we personally find offensive. Sometimes that means they remove our posts because someone else found them offensive.


Trolls may be a fact of life in the internet age, but the damage they do, and the number in your life, can be controlled. It starts by realizing that insults and attacks in comments aren’t free speech, they are an attempt to silence the original poster’s free speech. It’s possible to respectfully disagree with someone without being a troll.

Second we need to recognize that online behavior does have consequences. If someone violates the rules of a given website by posting threatening or derogatory language, flag them. If they want to cry that their freedom of speech has been violated, they can do so somewhere else. Believable verbal threats, doxxing someone and adding rape threats, for example, might also violate the law. Contact your local police to see what sort of evidence they need and how to gather it.

Finally, all of us are webmasters, even if all we have is a Facebook page. You control, to a large extent, what lands on your webpage. If you are a journalist or a blogger, you are also an editor. It’s up to you to make sure that each comment on a post adds to, rather than detracts from the discussion. You have the right to delete or unapprove comments. On social media you have tools to delete, block or untag people and photos. Use your power wisely, to strip internet trolls of the one thing they were never guaranteed in the first place, an audience.