The Problem of Professional Trolls

The world of social media experienced a bit of an earthquake yesterday. personality (I will not refer to him as a journalist) Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter for harassing comedian and actress Leslie Jones, first over her performance in the new Ghostbusters remake, and later over her race and general appearance.  Yiannopoulos – who has been suspended for his abusive behavior before – received the lifetime ban for not only verbally attacking Jones and accusing her of playing the victim when she stood up for herself, but then encouraging his followers to attack and belittle her, as well, which they did.

And don’t let his denial of that last part fool you.  He didn’t have to directly say “go and do this.”  What he wrote was an incitement for the peanut gallery to jump in.  It’s not even within the realm of rational possibility to give him the benefit of the doubt on that.  Twitter confirmed in a public statement that they had suspended and forced the deletion of tweets from an untold number of people who participated in the fray.  The proof is in the pudding.  Or the bird droppings, as it were.

But, of course, it was Yiannopoulos’s banishment that drew the most attention, and that prompted his mini-horde of fellow Nazis to make the hashtag #FreeMilo trend for a while… which ultimately resulted in a hilarious hijacking of the hashtag from down under.  What’s not hilarious is the fact that this is giving even legitimate conservatives the idea that Twitter just banned someone for having a supposedly "conservative" point of view.

Let’s be absolutely clear: this was not censorship, political or otherwise.  This was punishment for abusive behavior.

And frankly, it’s both long overdue and needs to be the start of a serious crackdown on this type of bullying.  Because that’s all it is: bullying.  But unlike a couple of kids physically going at it in the schoolyard, this type of bullying can be deadly.

Take the GamerGate “movement” – in which Yiannopoulos himself has been involved – a small but vocal group of misogynists who took it upon themselves to rid the video game world of women.  They (unsurprisingly) engage in the exact same behavior that Yiannopoulos was just banned for, directing their wrath at female game creators.  Worse yet, they’ve taken it even further: they engage in a practice called “doxing.”  They run background checks and dig up personal information about their targets, then make that information public so that anyone can attack those targets in real life.  The women they have done this to have been threatened, stalked, and have even had to move out of their homes indefinitely for their own safety.  When the police or the FBI have been contacted, they’ve claimed there’s nothing they can do about it (which, given cases like Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server and Edward Snowden’s persecution, is clearly a lie).

There’s also the “Men’s Rights Activists” crowd (commonly referred to as “MRA’s”) who tend to gaslight their targets.  If you’re not familiar with the term “gaslighting,” it’s the practice of attacking someone, then questioning their target's mental stability when the target responds to the attack, continuing that insistence to the point of making the target believe that there is something wrong with themselves.  The MRA’s are the type who you’ll encounter calling men who stand up to them “betas,” claiming that they themselves are superior “alpha males,” and generally waving their shrunken social media genitalia at anyone who dares question them.

And what list of professional trolls would be complete without the TERFs?  “TERF” is the acronym for “Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist,” about which there is nothing radical, nor are they feminists in any way, shape or form.  They, against all reality, scientific proof and facts to the contrary, forcefully claim that transgender women are actually just mentally ill men attempting to invade women’s spaces.  They’ve made strange bedfellows with conservative “Christians” (being a Christian, I use the term sarcastically in regard to them) in that belief.  One prominent member of their “movement” has, herself, been banned from Twitter in the past for behaving in the same way as Yiannopoulos, and has attempted to sue at least one media outlet for reporting about her antics.

These are the type of people who claim dissent, then attempt to stifle anyone who disagrees with their dissent.  They have no sense of irony.

Personally speaking, I am currently on Day 1 of an unjust three-day suspension from Facebook for pointing all of these facts out in this exact context, because several of these types of people maliciously reported my post (not for the first time, either).  Facebook does not employ real people to verify such reports, their algorithm simply assumes that if so many people are reporting a post, it must be a violation of “community standards…” even though it isn’t in any way at all.

Not to make this about me.  I’m far from the only person they've done this to, and wrongfully reporting me on Facebook is nothing more or less than throwing a petty, childish temper tantrum.  In the grand scheme of things, I'll get my account back in a couple of days and go right back to saying the exact same things about them.  And I'm sure they'll report me again.

That’s exactly what needs to change here.  These professional trolls – who have made this behavior their entire purpose in life – only have their ability to harm others because the tools that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook currently have in place are either severely lacking or, in fact, favor the abusers.  Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey only got involved in this case because Leslie Jones is a rising star in Hollywood who was very active on his company’s platform, and as such, this incident got massive amounts of attention all around the media.  If we were to discuss the number of times this happens to people on Twitter and Facebook every day with no appropriate action taken by those companies in response, we would be here for the rest of eternity.

Twitter, to their credit, said in their statement (as they have in the past) that they agree: they have not done enough to protect their users from this type of attack, and they claim to be taking significant action to ensure that they do so from now on.  I can’t help but be skeptical, but I want to remain optimistic that they will actually build tools that allow for real reporting of actual abuses.

Facebook, on the other hand… well, I have yet to see Mark Zuckerberg come out swinging the way Dorsey did yesterday, and that’s a serious problem, because more people rely on Facebook for their everyday communication than Twitter (myself included), and it’s far easier to abuse Facebook’s reporting system.  Even worse, the reporting system does not work to protect people who legitimately need it.  I, myself, have reported people for threats of violence against others on the basis of race, religion, gender and orientation, and the repeated response is “this does not violate our community standards.”  That’s letting abusive trolls win, which is entirely unacceptable.

If Twitter steps up, maybe they can show that there is a workable solution here.  The very least these web sites can do is shut the professional trolls out.  I don’t hold out much hope, but maybe that earthquake yesterday will shake something loose.  Because people like Yiannopoulos, TERFs, GamerGaters and MRA's?  They’re intentionally using their voices to harm others for no valid reason.

What they do is not protected, it’s a crime, and it must be punished.