It is only recently that a particular expression has entered everyday conversation, and although it is perceived as slang, the popular connotation according to the Wikipedia is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. The noun troll may also refer to the provocative message itself!”
It appears that trolling has become one of the most popular pastimes and according to Judith Donath, Founder, Sociable Media Group, MIT:
Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they – and the troll – understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll’s enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group. Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitised to trolling – where the rate of deception is high – many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations.
Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation.
But surely this is not what the original expression “troll” meant; and to resolve this I looked into the two antiquated dictionaries I possess. In one “troll” is defined as:
verb (used with object)
and the other defines it as:
1610–20; < Old Norse troll demon
We indeed have come a long way from the original meaning!
I have always been an ardent advocate of the benefits of readership-author interaction for many years. It is so very instructive for someone who writes to know what his/her readers actually feel. Therefore I was delighted when the New York Times began to encourage comments on its articles. However, in recent times, a menacing dimension has emerged which has lead to some catastrophic consequences worldwide. The United Kingdom has already enacted Communications Act 2003 which prohibits posting messages which are abusive, obscene or menacing. There have been quite a few successful prosecutions leading to convictions.
I do not favour enactment of a similar legislation in India. The main reason why I feel this way is that until now we have not yet reached a meaningful consensus as to what “trolling” actually means. In my view not every adversarial comment no matter how strongly expressed constitutes trolling. Some individuals who comment regularly, genuinely do so because they believe they have a point to project and are willing to indulge in a civil dialogue. Rati Parker who had a vituperative exchange with Madhu Trehan is a case in point. I disagree with many of her positions and at times am uncomfortable with the aggressive undertones But I have never known her to use unparliamentary language and she maintains her own blog where you can indulge in conversation with her. I personally would not appellate her as a “troll”. It is only those who wish to silence you by getting profanely aggressive and seem decidedly supercilious that I do have problems with.
Admittedly when one scrutinises the comments of trolls, the similarities are more striking than any qualitative differences. Not only is the tenor of all their comments monotonous, but at times the expressions employed to provoke are eerily similar in their profane content and expression. The similarity is not only between the ones who comment but extends to the tenor employed by their opponents as well. I have made it a point to follow comments on the sites of a popular Pakistani newspaper site and the remarkable feature is that a particular “troll” by the name of “hindu-hater” employs the same logic on a multitude of sites. At times, even the words employed are identical! This group of “trolls” in an analytical context reflect a sort of atavistic craving for parental approbation.
However, I would still maintain that there exists amongst this subgroup a fraction that can be employed in a meaningful discussion. I believe that many of those who indulge in “trolling” are driven by misguided idealism which has a blinding effect on evaluating the possible alternatives to their own opinion. For that reason alone I would give a thumbs down to any effort to emulate the UK legislation here despite the fact that “trolling” has been conclusively established as directly responsible for suicides in different countries.
And it is here that a few experiences made me wonder whether alerting ourselves to the direction in which we are headed would be apposite. One of which has a very strong personal dimension going back more than 25 years when I had as a young man indulged in a major dispute with a colleague who had promised to destroy me. More than 25 years have elapsed and while I can confidently say that I bear no predatory instincts now and have as far as possible refrained from stooping down to the level that would demean me in my own eyes but it does not seem to have mellowed the other person who it appears would like the bitterness to continue to my funeral pyre. It resurfaced when someone -and your guess is as good as mine- using a pseudonym decided to send links with seemingly damaging information and this was gleefully picked up by those who had indulged in discussions with myself.
The famous journalist Samuel Langhorne Clemens had once commented – Untruths have a habit of spreading around the world before the truth has had an opportunity to put on its laces!
My personal inclination was to let this die its natural death-and I had made this known to the editors of Newslaundry – but I have till now received 19 emails on this matter from readers including a respected columnist. All of them felt that I should put an end to this nonsense. To me it seemed so surreal that I took a lot of convincing. After all I had had no contact – direct or indirect – with the person who still perceives me as a foe. And to have to have to state the provenance of my qualifications decades later having already been honoured with an Honorary doctorate and a membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences seemed absurd. But I now feel I owe it to my recent well-wishers to modify my stance and hence am appending 3 documents which would reveal the name of the “mail-order University” that had the temerity to award me a DSc and also why London University would never be able to confirm my doctorate.
I would hasten to minimise the personal impact the episode may or may not have had. Summing up, I would say that while I am opposed to any statutory provision for “troll regulation” believing it to be left best self-regulated, I think the time is ripe for all the media to alert itself of the harmful potentials of “trolling”. Being able to interact rigorously with authors or journalists is a trend that is to be welcomed -but it most certainly does not come with an inherent right to abuse and be menacing in any form.
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveboneham/6171514511/]