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Wild Wild Web-Trolls Create a Revolution

July 23, 2015


The Internet, or Wild Wild Web,  is in the midst a revolution.  Freedom of speech is being tested, and major corporations such as Reddit and Gawker are feeling the hardships of (loosely) restricting what their audience is able to post on their sites.  Reddit, which is referred to as the front page of the Internet, recently removed five "subreddits" (which are equivalent to different sections in a newspaper) that focused on discrimination of minorities, transgenders, and fat shaming.  Gawker recently removed a post about a married male media executive's request to hire a gay escort.  


Removing that content seems sensible, right?  Both aim to tear down others, and are certainly not newsworthy.  Yet, both Gawker and Reddit were built on the ability that users could post anything they pleased with no repercussions.  Vivian Schiller, who is the former head of news at Twitter, spoke on the transition both companies currently face, “We’re moving from the early days of ‘We’re free to write or post whatever we want,’ to the reality of building a business.”  Allowing people to post anything they want on the Internet is a dangerous game.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for freedom of speech, but when you have people hiding behind their computer screens posting hateful and sensitive information for everyone all over the world to see, there needs to be some sort of guideline.  Gawker Media's founder and chief executive, Nick Denton, reiterated this to his team after his top two editors resigned earlier this week, "We need to create more humane guidelines.  We need a codification of editorial standards beyond putting truths on the Internet."


The humane guidelines that Denton talked about for Gawker was something that Ellen Pao created for Reddit. (Pao was the one who banned the five derogatory subreddits.)  However, by creating these guidelines, plus removing a well-liked employee, Pao faced an unprecedented level of rage from users, and after only eight months of being chief executive, she resigned.  The hatred that was directed towards Pao was unprecedented, as she was "trolled" endlessly by redditors.  (Trolling, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is defined as, "making a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.") When speaking on Pao's treatment from Redditors, board member Sam Altman voiced his displeasure, "It was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. The reduction in compassion that happens when we’re all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is Internet between you."


Altman's quote resonates with the current culture on the Internet.  "People are still people" is something that Internet users so often forget when they are staring at a screen.  People are rarely held accountable for their actions on the Internet, especially in places like Reddit or YouTube comments.  (Twitter is the exception.  When people of prominence post distasteful tweets there can be major ramifications.  That's only because those tweets end up in main stream media, but for a majority of Twitter users whose tweets are only glanced at, anger or ridicule is a popular form of expression.)  Pao penned an op-ed piece for the Washington Times (which I HIGHLY recommend) and pointed out how the Internet can be used to amplify bullying and harassment, "The foundations of the Internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behavior. Or that the users who were the biggest bullies would be rewarded with attention for their behavior. Or that young people would come to see this bullying as the norm — as something to emulate in an effort to one-up each other."  Furthermore, according to Pew Research on online harassment, "40 percent of online users have experienced bullying, harassment and intimidation. Some 70 percent of users between age 18 and 24 say they’ve been the target of harassers. Not surprisingly, women and minorities have it worst."


Online bullying and harassment are taking over the Internet, and as Pao pointed out in her op-ed piece, "the trolls are winning."  However, with all of the negativity on the Internet, Pao also shared the support she's received from thousands of people.  The encouragement and support counterattacked the negativity that she's received.  The one message that is a springboard for all of us using the Internet focused on inactiveness.  As Pao pointed out, "some apologized for standing on the sidelines."  One user wrote, “I didn’t do anything, and that is why I am sorry. I stayed indifferent. I didn’t attack nor defend. I am sorry for my inaction. You are a human. And no one needs to be treated like you were.” This indifference is where the battle of the Internet can be won.  As Pao pointed out, trolls typically use a certain four-letter word countlessly and their points are weak and lack thought.  On the other hand, those who sent encouragement presented well thought, positive responses.  So if we want the power of the Internet to sway more towards positivtity, then we need those who are standing on the sideline to speak up and voice their concern when witnessing mistreatment.  


Communication is constantly evolving, and with the Internet being the strongest tool to communicate, it is up to all of us to reconsider how it is used.  Reddit and Gawker are in the midst of figuring out where to draw the line with what is acceptable and unacceptable.  Freedom of speech will be tested, and when people feel attacked or undermined they will lash out, as seen with Ellen Pao.  It is up to us, Internet users, to think consciously and compassionately about what it is we want to say.  Free speech doesn't mean careless talk.  There is hope, and as Pao pointed out, "In the battle for the Internet, the power of humanity to overcome hate gives me hope. I’m rooting for the humans over the trolls. I know we can win."


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