Don’t Like Where Online Journalism Is Going? Blame Trolls

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Internet trolls take many forms: contrarians, mischief-makers, wisecrackers, spewers of hate. But they’re also, for better or for worse, a deeply engrained part of the new-media landscape, and in some cases, they’re the most interesting thing about it. How many times have you briefly scanned an article’s headline and opening paragraph only to jump right to the comments section and watch the fireworks?

The Urban Dictionary defines a troll as “[o]ne who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument,” and that’s as good a definition as any.

For the weaker-willed among us, online trolls are compelling because they appeal to our baser natures -- the small part of us that never left middle school. But is the presence of trolls having an overall positive or negative effect on the state of online journalism? That’s a question some researchers are aiming to figure out, and the answers so far may not bode well for the pro-troll camp.

While conventional wisdom indicates that trolls accomplish little besides amusing themselves, a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that the tone of comments can influence readers’ perceptions. Supported by the National Science Foundation, the researchers looked at readers’ perception of newspaper blog posts related to nanotechnology when the civility of comments in the post were purposely manipulated. The researchers found that name-calling introduced into an otherwise balanced blog post could provoke higher or lower perceptions of the risks associated with nanotechnology, with readers who are less likely to trust science becoming more skeptical after reading negative comments.

In other words, while trolls may not necessarily change anyone’s mind, they can polarize us -- even more than we are already polarized. Dominique Brossard, one of the study’s authors, told UW-Madison’s Terry Devitt that the research was the “first to look at the potential effects blog comments have on public perceptions of science.” She said the results showed that even simple disagreements can sway perceptions and influence conversations.

But not everyone thinks that’s such a bad thing. Dave Bowman, a left-leaning Arizona student who habitually posts contrarian comments on conservative Facebook pages, contended that the type of trolling he engages in is no different from other forms of expression through which public discourse is held up to scorn and derision.

“To me, it’s a form of satire,” Bowman said in a phone interview. “I don’t go out of my way to infuriate people. Mostly, I just like making people laugh.”

Bowman’s troll-persona vehicle is the satirical Facebook page Steven Kohlbert. He said he began the page as a joke, but it grew rapidly -- it now has more than 4,100 likes -- during the presidential election, when Facebook was a breeding ground for political mudslinging.

“Bowman” is a pseudonym, and he said he doesn’t use his real name because he doesn’t want his online rabble-rousing to cause trouble for his friends or family. On the Steven Kohlbert home page, Bowman proudly keeps a running list of the conservative pages that have banned him from returning, a list that includes the Facebook pages for Michele Bachmann and Ben Quayle. He said that he and other liberal Facebook page owners have only embraced the term troll because they were branded as such by the owners of the conservative pages they frequent.

But Bowman, who wrote about his trolling escapades on Glittersnipe after the election season last year, believes there is a deeper purpose for what he and his cohorts do, a purpose that goes beyond simple mischief.

“Whether the tone is mocking, factual, or satirical really depends on who’s writing,” he said. “But the main point has always been to call out liars and debunk the lies they tell.”

In the end, proximity may be the one thing that separates trolling from other forms of public ridicule. Whereas, say, Jon Stewart pokes fun at his targets from within the confines of his TV studio, trolls go directly to the source, attacking their political enemies on the very same forums their enemies use. In that sense, they’re more like hecklers than satirists, but either way, their presence is a mostly unwelcome one for those on the receiving end -- particularly in digital journalism, where popular news websites often require heavy moderation to maintain civility. But exactly how, and to what extent, news sites should deal with trolls is very much an open-ended question.  

In the U.K., the Society of Editors is aiming to address this issue with its Online Moderation Survey 2013, an effort to codify the various ways in which news organizations police disruptive comments. Bob Satchwell, the society’s executive director, said the survey is a way to begin to understand what tactics work best. “The goal is simply to figure out what is common practice,” he said. “What are the methods of moderation? What kinds of content is moderated?”

The society, with members in more than 400 news organizations, launched the moderation survey after it was contacted by the U.K.’s Department for Communities and Local Government, which is currently seeking ways to protect vulnerable people -- particularly children -- from exposure to inappropriate online content. Satchwell, who is aware that overzealous comment moderation poses a threat to freedom of expression, said the idea is not to unleash a bevy of rules and regulations, but rather to come up with basic recommendations to help news organizations reclaim their comment sections, or at least keep them civil.

“No one is saying this is a science,” Satchwell said. “The aim is to produce some kind of picture of best practice, to create a set of guidelines for media sites. They may choose to use them, or they may choose to ignore them.”

Modern journalism is often likened to a conversation, an ongoing dialogue between journalists, readers, and anyone else who may be within earshot. As long as that conversation continues, trolls are going to keep making noise. And who knows? Some of us, once in a while, might actually listen. “I’ve gotten messages -- quite a few of them, actually -- from people who said what I wrote really made them think,” Bowman said. “Although sometimes I feel like I’m just preaching to the choir.”

Got a news tip? Send me an email. Follow me on Twitter: @christopherzara

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