Flaming and Trolling: Pointless Slurs or Free Speech?

What is trolling? What is flaming? Is there a difference? Probably not, but that’s not the point. What’s significant is that the practice is crude, malicious and categorically not constructive.

For those of you who either don’t know or need reminding, ‘flamers’ or ‘trolls’ are like leeches.  They append themselves to topical content from articles dealing with controversial issues to heartfelt social media posts. Their intention is to either grossly offend or doltishly insult the author or another commenter. There is rarely, if ever, any value added to the debate at hand.

Consequently, most troll comments are rightfully reported or blocked by their authors.

But does censoring ‘flamers’ or ‘trolls’ undermine the moral principle of free speech? If so, then what are the rules? To what extent should we allow free comment on our own content?

As a blogger, I’ve had to deal with disagreeable comments on a few occasions but never anything more than petty mudslinging remarks like “What a load of bollocks” or “You know f*ck all mate”. This, I can put up with. In fact, I usually like to bark back. I’ve never been properly trolled online, but I know plenty of other bloggers who have, and it ain’t pretty.

What is Trolling: News Media Sites

But what about the national press? Where do they stand on ‘flaming’?

A few months ago, The Guardian published a very interesting article detailing ‘the dark side of Guardian comments’, in which it set out to test the theory that the majority of their most abused writers were women. It found that 8 of their 10 most ‘trolled’ writers were female, that the two men were black, three were gay and two were from ethnic minorities. The 10 least abused writers were all men.

That’s quite the insight.

It also explained very clearly the criteria for blocking comments – that if a comment is either abusive (from degrees of feeble-minded mockery to more extreme insults) or disruptive to the conversation (off-topic or not constructive), it will be blocked. I’d say that’s fair enough.

This is just The Guardian’s approach to dealing with troll comments. It would be great if many other news media sites followed suit. The problem, however, is that smaller publications often have less staff, older software and therefore weaker moderation.

What is Trolling: Social Media

What can’t be controlled are Tweets and Facebook comments. Sure, we can report them as abusive, but given the speed and scale of their appearance the damage is often done before a moderator can do anything about the situation.

Mindless, bandwagon-jumping social media trolls are the worst breed, in my opinion. The perceived obscurity and anonymity offered by the internet provides the perfect playground for them (I found this post on the Psychology of Trolling quite insightful). The obscurity makes them feel faceless; unlikely to offend people they personally care about. The anonymity disinhibits them, making them feel impervious and more likely to say things they wouldn’t get away with in real life.

There is a fresh wave of it every time a terrorist attack or gun crime in the US is carried out. People condemning “all Muslims”; claiming that lives could have been saved if any citizen of any country were allowed to carry a firearm. It makes me sick.

Sometimes it can be less direct yet more deplorable. Last week I was, like so many others, shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the death of Jo Cox. Predictably, a massive online discussion about its ramifications on the frenzied EU referendum debate we currently find ourselves in, took place. But what angered me were the (admittedly few) insinuations that her death had been part of a ‘false flag’ attack on Brexit supporters.

This might not be trolling in its traditionally explicit sense but is nonetheless a vile and contemptible thing to suggest. It completely demeans her and the loss of an exceptionally courageous woman.

Now, on the eve of the EU referendum and therefore probably the most significant British political decision of our lives, I can’t even begin to imagine the extent to which despicable insults will be anonymously traded online in the aftermath.

Call it flaming. Call it trolling. Call it free speech. Call it what you like. Because at the end of the day, it’s all just vile. Sadly it’s here to stay.

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