It’s Time Internet Trolls Get Exposed to Be Accountable

Pretty much every story these days have really inappropriate comments. Some are meant to do nothing more than to incite and get the poster some reaction which they thrive on. Others are just plain bad attitudes of the users. Most are made because the user knows they can get away with it behind a curtain anonymity of their online ID, and many will continue to be made as long as this remains allowed.

I’m all for free speech, but I’m also for accountability. I think it’s time certain people get called out for their online comments by being identified. It may seem hard, but it’s not. The technology is very available. I don’t have any doubt companies like Google, Twitter, Facebook and others can, too. For one thing, you know how you join and login via certain accounts on other platforms? That’s certainly one way, for example. They login to something using a certain account, you nail them for it and link their “anonymous” account to one of their real ones. Tie it to something more tangible, like a credit card transaction, to be sure, so it wouldn’t be easy to pretend to be someone and cyber-bully them. Then leave it online so that if that person tried to get a certain job, or volunteer, and those in the hiring position searches them, they’ll know. See how it’ll feel if you go for a decent paying job and your employer will reject you for making racist comments on the new Indian Miss America, for example.

The rest is what’s exposed, or can be exposed, say, on their Facebook account. Lots of people still accept random Friend Requests on Facebook, followers on Twitter, and such. It wouldn’t be hard to find out where they live, their employer, family, and such. Hey, you want to talk big and trash others and be bigoted and such? Well, get ready for some vigilante justice. You know, real backlash, not just words someone writes back and gives you a thrill you irked off someone. Much bigger thrill to be fearing for your life!

Now, I’m not thinking anyone who makes such a comment would be exposed right away. The technology isn’t there yet. But tracing can start. There’s IP addresses, emails used to register accounts, social media accounts, links from their profiles, blogs, etc. that could expose them. I don’t doubt if the top 20 big sites agreed to it, they would have no problem “triangulating” most people in no time. I’m talking Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon and so on.  When it is certain, then expose. No need to be hasty and risk being wrong. It’s not like there’s a lower standard to rise above at this point. There is nothing going on.

And imagine if that followed you everywhere you go. If you registered on CNN with that certain email, say, you’d be flagged. Sure, you can get around it by getting another, but there’s a small inconvenience with that. Have you ever tried getting all your friends and family and colleagues to change emails? It’s annoying! It’d be worse if it were found out you did it cause you were identified to be an utter racist!

And who would flag them? Hire some people to do so. It’d be the most fun and righteous job someone could ever have. I’m not talking about having to deal wit the “grey” issues, even. Leave those allowed. There are PLENTY out there that is just wrong you don’t even need to deal with the grey issues. Those clearly wrong comments are the ones most in need of being exposed. The rest, after what we’ve gone through recently, will be just fine.

Technology is exploding beyond  our general human capacity to be able to use it. As a species, we definitely don’t have what it takes to use it properly. Problem is a lot of us don’t realize that. How long before those who realize do something about it?

4 thoughts on “It’s Time Internet Trolls Get Exposed to Be Accountable

  1. Trolls are a menace. But you have proposed infeasible solutions.

    1) There is no financial incentive for the big companies to keep off the trolls. So they wont spend their resources in tracking the trolls.

    2) You said, “There’s IP addresses, emails used to register accounts, social media accounts, links from their profiles, blogs, etc. that could expose them.” Who cares about ip address exposure? Its just a bunch of numbers – another anonymous identity for the troll. All other things you said can also be made anonymous from the start without revealing his real name/identity/credit card etc.

    3) Your strategy can be misused. Keeping email accounts logged in is so common in workplace, colleges, schools and even at home. Anyone can send racist comments from my logged in email account, which will then be exposed with my real identity and sting in my @ss. How can i ever explain that I was not the one to make that racist comment? It will remain a shame forever.

    4) You said, “Have you ever tried getting all your friends and family and colleagues to change emails? It’s annoying!” But a troll can easily register with an anonymous email account in the first place, rather than having to shift later.

    5) Even supposing the 20 big companies you have in mind agree to flag trolls, the troll can easily register an account in one of the thousands of email websites. You cant make ALL such websites flag trolls, they dont have the resources.

    • Thanks for that detailed and thoughtful reply, Catherine. I would disagree, though I don’t think either one of us could say in black and white we’d be clearly right. There’d have to be an effort and it’s a judgment call on whether or not it’s worth the effort for the big companies. But here are my thoughts on your points.

      1. Maybe no clear incentive, but what if a site had a reputation for keeping off trolls? Like a food company that is clearly organic or a responsible retailer (without the added prices cause I’m talking about free sites for commenting). People will flock to that. Maybe CNN isn’t everyone’s favourite news site, for example, but more may go there or comment if there isn’t or limited trolling. I think the trolls are a minority. Losing them would be worth the gain of the additional good folks going there and attract their more thoughtful engagement.

      2. You can find and link IP addresses to people. WordPress even has a block IP address feature (even variable like partial IPs), and that’s minimalistic. It’s not meant for absolute success, but let’s say if you were able to block a troll from commenting at home. Well, s/he is going to have to make an effort every time now. That small “payment” or obstacle for their pleasure is going to deter them some of the time. They may not be able to afford nearly as much Internet cafe time as home time for trolling, for example. They can figure out Internet cafe IPs not to block them. You’d be shocked what they’re able to track and associate with people. There’s also cookies.

      3. If others hijack your account, write in and apologize and have companies undo things, if it gets to that. I prefer something like a 3 or 5 warning approach after deleting trolling comments. That way, if you know you got hijacked, do something about it. If you don’t, then you’re just as much a risk as the trolls and that’s your problem… though I suspect that would be the least of your worries if one got access to your accounts. Much worse damage can be done personally with people you know rather than an anonymous comment! It can definitely work.

      4. They can track trolls. If the police and FBI can track terrorists and other criminals through forums and such where those people work hard not to get identified, but only known and liked by establishing an online identity, the companies can find these people. I’m pretty sure the law doesn’t do it all on their own to find these people, but rather with the aid of the companies. The companies don’t need that second step to reach out and show up at anyone’s house, though. Just block and such. As for switching new emails all the time, sure, but again, it’s a small obstacle each time and it gets old. It’s also hard to establish an identity people can know and like, follow, respect, whatever, if you have to constantly change it. Really, these trolls may seem determined to wreck chaos, but I’d bet a simple obstacle each time would weed out a lot of them really quickly.

      5. And if the trolls had to type in a full email each time they commented rather than just one click FB login? Again, another obstacle, and don’t care where those emails come from, you can ban them. It’s not hard again, and again, one more little obstacle. Really, just try to think about it. Create new email account once or twice a week. Getting hit with bans and having to remember which email still works on which site. Having your comment removed so it’s not there for long so your efforts don’t last and you have to make another effort for the thrill. Having to log in often rather than being able to stay in and online all the time on all these sites. Never mind all the ultimate consequences of getting your name exposed. Just those little annoyances alone wouldn’t be worth the effort for most of these trolls. There’s a gain for effort factor here, and I bet it’s not there for most trolls if the ratio was more even.

      • 1) A website will try to keep off trolls only if they have a business to run – say Amazon or ebay. They have to sell stuff so they moderate comments for fear of losing customers. Not much trolls go to these sites. But when generating comments is itself the business, the companies wont moderate – like social media, news chatrooms. Some newschatrooms do moderate and remove abusive comments, but the number of comments found there is far less than in unmoderated news sites, a conservative estimate would be 1:10. People dont like their comments to be moderated (for any reason – trolling, racist etc) = less people commenting = less people visiting = less revenue for the host. Thus moderating the trolls has a negative impact on revenues.

        2) Say I have a family of 10 sharing the same IP, one troll can block commenting ability to 9 others. This gives enormous power to the troll, now he can block the other innocent users. Such abuse will happen in workplaces, colleges, schools, wifi hotspots etc. Unless the troll uses a dedicated static IP, this IP blocking method wont work. But most users are allotted dynamic IP, only websites have a need for static IP. Blocking a dynamic IP = next day the IP is assigned to a different user, he gets blocked now; and the troll is assigned a new unblocked IP. Blocking an IP may keep off one troll temporarily, but far more people are blocked.

        “You can find and link IP addresses to people.” No, you cant. Only the ISP knows my IP-real name pair, and they need a warrant to disclose it, only to the authorities. Google and social media can know my IP-name pair, but a troll can easily give fake names.

        No racist troll who doesn’t want to be identified as a racist but want to make racist comments, will ever comment with his real facebook account. Such a guy ALWAYS uses a fake account.

        If a racist troll who doesn’t care to be branded as a racist, he ll use his real account. Your proposal of exposing his real identity is not a deterrant, is it?

        Cookies, big deal. He can always clear his cookies in one click and start anew.

        3) “write in and apologize and have companies undo things” — This is so long drawn out process and annoying for a customer. This drives customers away towards other products which dont block them.

        4) “tracking the trolls like terrorists in a forum” — The crime of trolling is not worth spending valuable government and corporate resources. The resources are better spent tracking terrorists.

        5) So you are proposing that every website to have a troll management committee to find and block the trolls. Let us say facebook – a popular forum for trolls decides to block trolls based on their email id. Legitimate users are going to get banned, and I dont want any of my friends getting banned even if they troll. This will cause much annoyance and people will shift towards alternatives like Google+ who are eagerly waiting for a chance to attract facebook userbase.

        And trolling is not always undesirable, for example i allow some of my friends to troll off topic in my page. Its fun. How will facebook choose which kind of troll to block? There is no clear definition of a troll.

        Facebook generates millions of comments everyday, it will be such a gargantuan task for facebook to monitor all of them. Automated searching for keywords is not going to work, because the same keywords can be found in non-troll comments. The comments have to be read manually.
        If users are made to mark comments as troll, then minority opinions will always be marked as troll and suppressed.

        You have to first define what is a troll comment, this is most important. Does racist comment amount to trolling? Some of my friends make racist comments in my facebook posts. I dont want them blocked. It is my page and I give them full freedom. If they made the same comments in others’ page, others may (or may not) find that as trolling. Who is to decide? The solution is – Just let them be.

        • We’re talking about two different approaches here. You’re trying to eradicate the problem. I’m suggesting deterrents that if you make it cumbersome enough, some will drop out, whether because it’s no longer worth the effort, or chancing it might not be worth the effort (erased comment after thought to be provocative), or of a threat of being made an example of, or whatever. You’d be surprised how effective both of those approaches work. From a public policy perspective, trying to eradicate something entirely by forcing it and trying to control everything is the worst approach.

          The other thing is public situations. In your own Facebook profile, who cares. You can ban those you want. So I’m not talking about that.

          As well, it’s not all about effects on the trolls. It’s about effect on the rest of society. That’s a “cost” hard to measure, but changing attitudes spurred on by some people, or time/effort wasted to counter it, is a real cost.

          1. If moderation has credibility, people won’t be turned off. They can’t see what got moderated, cause that defeats the point, but if it never applies to them, then they’ll have nothing to worry about. So apply a liberal standard and be accountable, such that if the site moderators deem it offensive on certain grounds, they’ll moderate it. You can’t define a troll to no end. As for revenue, this isn’t completely an economic decision that a computer can process. It’s a decision that takes someone with a backbone to step up and do it. There may be some revenue loss, but if they’re relying on a small minority for their revenue, the company’s got more problems than trolls. The big companies wouldn’t see a dent.

          2. IP blocking could be a last resort, but you know what? Let there be consequences to the troll beyond the troll. Having someone real in their face about their actions is something they could really use. Lots of people use their real names with their account and IP addresses with it. I could tell you some from comments on my own site that if I wanted to, I could have blogged about it. Perhaps if you have to take them to court and such you’d need all that warrant. You can do enough without it if it’s just a matter of banning or identifying them on casual terms like me blogging about some of them. As for trolls not wanting to be identified so they use an alias, you’d be surprised how many aren’t that smart, or rather let their emotions get the best of them. I’ve seen lots of troll comments people have posted with pretty real names and accounts (i.e. lots of interaction using name, friends, that were public and would not be worthwhile to create to fake). Cookies, well, what if he had to clear it every time? Gonna get a little tiring after a while. It’s like instead of letting people run free, you make them go over a one foot obstacle every sidewalk block or something or risk falling flat on their face. It’s not going to stop everyone, but there’d be a reduction after a while. Are you getting the many and small deterrent idea?

          3. Make it easy to apologize, but have even 3 chances to apologize after several warnings to ban temporarily. Or just temporarily keep them off like a penalty in hockey.

          4. Just make it cumbersome for them. That’s easier. Only call out and identify the few. Write a few stories on how it affects their job search, or school discipline, and see how many others are still keen to take the risk. Crowdsource if necessary to identify potential trolls, so that if someone gets like 50 or 100 flags, have it then reviewed and be declared allowed or not. That way, the people can’t just gang up on others, just flag them.

          5. Certain big websites where comments are public. Don’t need to check everything no more than the NSA couldn’t track what everyone is saying. Identify some, or have people bring certain comments and such to the attention of others. A few extra staff for some big sites is feasible. I see comments moderated on CNN, the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp), various newspapers. They don’t have a problem doing it. Even the little newspaper where I live with several hundred thousand readers do it. Those sites would benefit if they’re known as a site where trolls are moderated rather than free speech being curbed. Let people make racist comments and such if they are using their real name. Provide a phone number in the check if people flag that person. Just make their comments prominent via SEO if someone searches and such.

          Bottom lines. Just make it less fun and more awkward for trolls to operate, with a threat backed by results of some people being exposed and their consequences chronicled. No need to be perfect or comprehensive. Do what you can and show there are consequences. The rest will take care of itself. You don’t need the world of resources to do this. There have been many bigger problems dealt with requiring a lot more efforts and with many more severe consequences, even if far from comprehensively and effective, like racism in America. This is a tech solution. Don’t give up so easily.

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