Space for Rent: Of Spirits, Trolls and Online Vigilantism

Tweet of the Day: No Thank You, Miss


In early October 2010, Canadian teenager Brittany McMillan promulgated the observance of a new commemoration called Spirit Day, the first observance of which took place on October 20, 2010, in which people wear the color purple to show support for LGBT young people who are victims of bullying.[1] Promoted by GLAAD, many Hollywood celebrities wore purple on this day to show their support of this cause[2][3][4], and many websites added a prominent purple shade to their design.

The name, Spirit Day comes from the purple stripe of the Rainbow Flag, defined by Gilbert Baker, creator of that flag, as ‘representing “spirit”‘.

The observance was inaugurated in response to a rash of widely-publicized bullying-related suicides of gay school students in 2010, including that of Tyler Clementi.[5]

Over 1.6 million Facebook users signed up for the event globally.[6][7][8]

One of the rules of the Internet, if not the first rule, is Do Not Feed the Trolls.  But that implies that the mere act of not responding to trolls is enough to keep them at bay.

If only….

As the case of the outed Gawker troll and the Amanda Todd suicide show, the reality of online harassment is far more complicated than a few foul mouthed individuals. It starts with the structure of on line communities. First and foremost, your free speech rights stop when you go into somebody else site.

Full stop.

For an example, see this blog. Anyone who comments here is subject to moderation, I get to chose what comments are posted, deleted or even modified. The last point might be sketchy at best, but it is within my rights, not the person making the comments. Screaming “Censorship!” or “Freedom of Speech!” won’t change a thing, since this is my site (and wordpress.org who serve as hosts/service providers) not the random stranger who wonders in. On the flip side I am also responsible for all content, not only what I post but the response to it within these pages. I control the “openness”  but once something is allowed in, I become responsible over it. So those services that claim that they have no control over what is posted are lying. They have, and with that control comes a modicum of responsibility.  Redditt knows this, but chose to encourage trolling in order to boost its popularity.  If you want to exercise your right to free expression, then create your own site/service/blog where in YOU will have the right to spew whatever you want and control (or not) the environment as you see fit.

That gives trolls a feeding ground, but as crowd behavior in the links above also serves to protect and embolden this kind of behavior.  Trolls lair where they are comfortable and once a troll settles in, other will follow.  Social media brings people together, but like any social activity, any crowd can turn into a mob in a matter of seconds. What made “Violentacrez” so powerful was a combination of protection by the Redditt staff and the bolstering of thousands of fellow users who cheered him on and celebrated his disgusting behavior. Same thing with the Amanda Todd case. Had it not being for Facebook failure to moderate plus other teens who continued the bullying behavior that led to Todd’s suicide.

Finally you have on line vigilantism. Since authorities figures (be they site moderators, parents, peers, schools or police) seem unable to stop this, others such as Gawker’s Adrain Chen or members of the Annon community to go after them and expose them. But that creates opens a new can of worms. First, is the sense of entitlement the vigilante gets for doing the same thing as the target, bullying.

“This guy is an asshole and deserves what he gets, lets go get him!” sounds no different from, “This girl flashed her boobs, she is a slut, lets make fun of her!”

I believe Chen’s goal was the right one, expose the seedy side of Redditt, for which Redditt and its mods are both incensed and panicked about, with good reason. But by focusing on the individual, he may have gone to far. This person was not a politician or celebrity, although he may have flaunted his position on line. But the answer to this problem is not to strip all anonymity from the Internet (less bosses, and government exploit it to do some bullying of their own). The answer lies with us. We can and should stand with the victim and we should not create nor foster dank underpasses for trolls to fester in.



4 comments on “Space for Rent: Of Spirits, Trolls and Online Vigilantism

  1. Great write up. Many times I think silence makes us complicit. No one deserves to be treated poorly and if we claim even a small amount of Christian duty, we are responsible for protecting others to a certain degree.


  2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.


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