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Trollwatch: the internet needs ethical standards

Saying “trolling is bad” does little to solve the problem.

Writing for Edge in 2007, Professor Martin Rees – then President of the Royal Society and ongoing Astronomer Royal – quipped: “The global village will have its village idiots.”

Rees, of course, was referring to how cyberspace can ill afford the exercise of extreme stupidity through actions by those with a lack of conscious control.

In the wake of a recent spate of high-profile trolling episodes on Twitter, affecting the well-being of celebrities Charlotte Dawson and Robbie Farah, it would appear anti-social networking is on the rise and digital foolishness is on the march.

Much of the media response to the Dawson and Farah cases has been akin to “trolling is wrong.” Suggestions and guidelines are offered to mitigate the risk of such bullying attacks and calls are made for government regulation and/or policing of online forums.

But the magic word that is frequently overlooked in these debates is “ethics”.

Shouting out “trolling is wrong” is what British philosopher AJ Ayer would have referred to as an example of the “hurrah/boo” theory (or emotivism).

Trolls be trolling

To say “trolling is bad” does not describe the moral content of the issue it denotes in terms that are amenable to reason. The statement is merely the transient equivalent of a growl in response to some deeper state of displeasure.

The word “troll” is clearly a pejorative, one that signifies a high level of emotion in any discussion where such terms are used. In Norse mythology a troll was generally an unfavourable supernatural being, either manifesting itself as a dwarf or a giant.

In contemporary vernacular, the word “troll”, in its most generic sense, refers to anyone who appropriates a property they have no original claim to and then misuses it in their name, which more often than not is a nom de plume.

Such misuse of, say, a shared property could possibly run counter to the greater communal good.

In economic terms, Garrett Hardin’s notion of the “Tragedy of the Commons” defines a social scenario whereby there exists a dispute between the interests of the individual and that of the common public good.

This tension can impinge upon the sustainability of freely-available public resources, such as the environment or energy.

Give and you shall receive

Research findings have indicated reputation can alleviate this Tragedy of the Commons. Indirect reciprocity of the “give and you shall receive” variety rests upon social standing and can sustain a high degree of co-operation within communities.

It has been shown that the need to maintain a reputation for indirect reciprocity can also have the side-effect of keeping contributions to freely-available public goods at a high level.

Take The Little Library at Melbourne Central shopping centre as an example. This library could be seen as a physical commons for the exchange of public goods, whereby books are both freely borrowed and donated in a reciprocal arrangement.

The pleasure of entities such as the Little Library is that they are low-key, accidental discoveries to potential users who then herald the concept primarily through word-of-mouth, thus building its good reputation.

Throw another blog on the fire?

So how does this relate to the blogosphere?

The public goods that constitute the content of blogs (or Twitter) can only be sustained by the indirect reciprocity of contributors, be they the authors of postings or those who comment on such postings.

Where the notion of the Tragedy of the Commons in the physical sense is dependent on limited resources being desecrated to non-existence, in the blogosphere there is effectively no limitation on quantity or content.

The depletion of public assets such as the environment can be attributed to “overgrazing” by individuals. In the blogosphere, something similar could occur through “overposting”, leading to information overload, possibly through trolling behaviour, which can then result in an analogous “Tragedy of the Virtual Commons”.

The internet by its very nature is the Great Accumulator and the blogosphere is fast becoming the “clogosphere”.

In simple terms, less is more.

Computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues that the mob rule of collectivism holds sway in our Web 2.0 world and this is at the expense of the individual.

Perhaps this digital Maoism that is lambasted by Lanier could also be a reason for the wrongful feeling of empowerment that emanates from the amorphous anonymity of some internet denizens?

If you are brave enough to openly name yourself as the author of a Twitter feed or a blog then such a display of individuality could raise a red rag to the vague rank-and-file.

Feed the beast

Ethics is a complex beast that is at the same time:

  • a rational scrutiny of moral beliefs that people hold
  • an offshoot of philosophy and one approach to gauging which actions are “good” and which are “bad”
  • a field of study that has been around for more than two millennia

I teach computer ethics which, in my style of delivery, attempts to walk the high-wire between the instrumental view of technology and its substantive perspective. The latter vantage assumes tech design can ultimately alter the ways in which a culture operates, for better or worse.

The instrumental view, by contrast, is essentially a “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” philosophy in which technologies are value-free tools.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be considered as an either-or proposition but more as a continuum of possibilities. But, as mentioned earlier, ethics, per se, is not talked about much in media, especially with respect to social media.

Round up the posse

What society needs now, in what is still the frontier days of the internet, is a dedicated computer ethics “posse” – a group that can enact a “Trollwatch” of sorts.

Such vigilantism should be informed through centuries of inquiry by those wise enough to have bothered to investigate the mundane and sometimes complex reasons for the continuing struggle of right versus wrong.

“Internet vigilantism” would suggest taking the law into one’s own hands, and to a certain extent this does exist, as in the case of cybersnitching, for example.

The moral connotation of Trollwatch would have to be driven through school and community-based schemes as well as pro-active awareness campaigns, much like Privacy Victoria’s activities within its core domain.

Technology doesn’t stand still and an agile ethics is needed to co-evolve with it. Once upon a time there existed a vibrant, independent body known as the Australian Institute of Computer Ethics (AICE) but in recent times this body has been barely active, apart from the odd academic conference.

Groups such as AICE should administer schemes such as “Trollwatch” because they have a vested interest in computer ethics. But such organisations should transcend their immediate scholarly and/or philosophical objectives and actually engage in spreading the word on the deployment of practical ethics rather than merely sharing platitudes.

A rep to protect

Offering guidance on online reputation management for ordinary citizens could be one strategy. Companies already exist in this area but they would approach the issue from a public relations/marketing vantage rather than from a ethical perspective.

The question to be asked could be: “How much do we value our good reputation and what can be done to sustain it?”

Plato is said to have remarked that:

Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.

Social media compel us to communicate through their very existence. Together, we all have to take responsibility and steer towards greater maturity through mindful consideration in how we use the technologies that can enrich our lives.

As Hillary Clinton once wrote: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

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