Civility

New research shows the internet is a swamp and the trolls have won

A survey by Pew Internet suggests the dark side is winning.

Civility

New research shows the internet is a swamp and the trolls have won

A survey by Pew Internet suggests the dark side is winning.
Civility

New research shows the internet is a swamp and the trolls have won

A survey by Pew Internet suggests the dark side is winning.

Congratulations, Twitter eggs, GamerGate supporters, and YouTube commenters — you win, the internet is all yours.

Trolls dominate online discourse, according to Pew Internet research, and there may not be much we can do about it. To come to this conclusion, Pew asked one key question of 1,537 tech experts, academics, government leaders, and so on. It appears to have avoided talking to the trolls themselves — understandable but a bit of a shame.

That question was: “In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust, and disgust?”

Rare Gratitude

Of those respondents, 42 percent said they expect the web to stay as it is now — which, to be clear, isn’t great — while 39 percent expect it to get worse, so it’s not only trolls who are “griping” online.

The report argues there’s plenty of reasons why negativity abounds online, and it’s the usual suspects. Incivility is a basic human instinct that’s encouraged by anonymity and exacerbated by inequality, the report said, plus anger helps drive participation. That means that anyone who benefits from trolling — whether it’s platforms themselves or populist politicians — have little reason to improve the tone of online chatting.

Trolls dominate online discourse, and there may not be much we can do about it.

David Wuertele, a software engineer at Tesla Motors, said politicians stand to benefit from negative online discussion, if they know how to take advantage of it. “Unfortunately, most people are easily manipulated by fear,” he told Pew. “Donald Trump’s success is a testament to this fact. Negative activities on the internet will exploit those fears, and disproportionate responses will also attempt to exploit those fears. Soon, everyone will have to take off their shoes and endure a cavity search before boarding the internet.”

How can we fight back? Companies can ask for real names and use reputation scoring, but that risks fragmenting the web into pretty gardens without anonymity and dark but private areas with free but nasty conversation — worsening the filter bubble effect. “Sadly, the trend — at least, in American political discourse — seems to be fragmenting into increasingly disconnected echo chambers,” noted one anonymous respondent.

Better moderation tools, helped by AI, could improve detection of nasty behavior, but the report admits “trolls and other actors will fight back, innovating around any barriers they face.” Plus, what happens when chatbots are harnessed for abuse?

“When chatbots start running amok — targeting individuals with hate speech — how will we define ‘speech’?” said Amy Webb, the CEO of futurist firm Future Today Institute, in her response to Pew. “At the moment, our legal system isn’t planning for a future in which we must consider the free speech infringements of bots.”

Another option to battle back against online abuse is increased surveillance, with the state doing more to regulate debate — not a great option, either.

“The majority in this canvassing were sympathetic to those abused or misled in the current online environment,” the report noted, “while expressing concerns that the most likely solutions will allow governments and big businesses to employ surveillance systems that monitor citizens, suppress free speech and shape discourse via algorithms, allowing those who write the algorithms to sculpt civil debate.”

In other words, online discourse can either be controlled by nasty eggs and abusive trolls or Silicon Valley or the government. Trolls or Trump, abusers or startup bros — take your pick.

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