what good are norms in the internet?

First, read this article about horrible, sociopathic internet trolls who delight in terrorizing and defaming others. Read the whole thing. Feel outrage and shiver at the pictures of the trolls who look like sociopaths even without the context-providing article.

Well, okay, here’s some excerpts:

Jason Fortuny might be the closest thing this movement of anonymous provocateurs has to a spokesman. Thirty-two years old, he works “typical Clark Kent I.T.” freelance jobs — Web design, programming — but his passion is trolling, “pushing peoples’ buttons.” Fortuny frames his acts of trolling as “experiments,” sociological inquiries into human behavior. In the fall of 2006, he posted a hoax ad on Craigslist, posing as a woman seeking a “str8 brutal dom muscular male.” More than 100 men responded. Fortuny posted their names, pictures, e-mail and phone numbers to his blog, dubbing the exposé “the Craigslist Experiment.” This made Fortuny the most prominent Internet villain in America until November 2007, when his fame was eclipsed by the Megan Meier MySpace suicide. Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself with a belt after receiving cruel messages from a boy she’d been flirting with on MySpace. The boy was not a real boy, investigators say, but the fictional creation of Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends. Drew later said she hoped to find out whether Megan was gossiping about her daughter. The story — respectable suburban wife uses Internet to torment teenage girl — was a media sensation.

He proceeded to demonstrate his personal cure for trolling, the Theory of the Green Hair.

“You have green hair,” he told me. “Did you know that?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I look in the mirror. I see my hair is black.”

“That’s uh, interesting. I guess you understand that you have green hair about as well as you understand that you’re a terrible reporter.”

“What do you mean? What did I do?”

“That’s a very interesting reaction,” Fortuny said. “Why didn’t you get so defensive when I said you had green hair?” If I were certain that I wasn’t a terrible reporter, he explained, I would have laughed the suggestion off just as easily. The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

Weev, the troll who thought hacking the epilepsy site was immoral, is legendary among trolls. He is said to have jammed the cellphones of daughters of C.E.O.’s and demanded ransom from their fathers; he is also said to have trashed his enemies’ credit ratings. Better documented are his repeated assaults on LiveJournal, an online diary site where he himself maintains a personal blog. Working with a group of fellow hackers and trolls, he once obtained access to thousands of user accounts.

I first met Weev in an online chat room that I visited while staying at Fortuny’s house. “I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money,” he boasted. “I make people afraid for their lives.” On the phone that night, Weev displayed a misanthropy far harsher than Fortuny’s. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. . . . We need to put these people in the oven!

Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It’s tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. Cases like An Hero and Megan Meier presumably wouldn’t happen if the perpetrators had to deliver their messages in person. But while technology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.

So far, despite all this discord, the Internet’s system of civil machines has proved more resilient than anyone imagined. As early as 1994, the head of the Internet Society warned that spam “will destroy the network.” The news media continually present the online world as a Wild West infested with villainous hackers, spammers and pedophiles. And yet the Internet is doing very well for a frontier town on the brink of anarchy. Its traffic is expected to quadruple by 2012. To say that trolls pose a threat to the Internet at this point is like saying that crows pose a threat to farming.

That the Internet is now capacious enough to host an entire subculture of users who enjoy undermining its founding values is yet another symptom of its phenomenal success. It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural. But how do we deal with cases like An Hero, epilepsy hacks and the possibility of real harm being inflicted on strangers?

That’s just a taste of the outrage, by the way. Do read the article. As always, there’s interesting legal issues raised–free speech, debatable computer crimes laws, etc. etc. I’m actually less interested in those. I’m interested in norms. And, you, my real sociologist friends, are experts on norms, such that you have an entirely different definition of “normative” from the political/legal definition (ours means proscriptive rather than descriptive w/r/t arguments). If Kieran wasn’t so busy at ASA, I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about norms.

The reason why I’m not interested in the legal issues, even though that’s my thing, is that there’s very little where to go with such debates about free speech. Also, people far smarter than me can tell you a lot more about First Amendment balancing tests, the torts of defamation and libel, etc. etc. Also, most of this internet trolling is legal–most trolling is limited to caustic, vituperative attacks–speech, not credible threat–and so the proper response is to delete and ban. Unless you are the government, you can tell anyone to shut up and deny them a forum for speech, whether your restriction content-based or viewpoint-based. If someone insists that they have a right to speak their mind, point them at the public square and tell them to look up zoning laws. That doesn’t generally stop the attacks, but it does empower you to know that speech is best countered with more speech, and one way to exercise your expression is to ignore it and refuse to hear it. I find it tiresome to argue with trolls who will never be convinced that I am anything but a bothersucking bother of a bother. Whenever I write a feminist post, I get a “go down on your knees and suck” type of email or comment. They used to really bother me, and for a while I stopped writing posts on feminist legal theory. But now I write, and I delete and ban by ISP. If such attacks escalated to a credible, physical threat–well, then enters criminal law. Thus, most of the very severe trolling, as described in the article–the stealing/posting of personal data, credible death threats, hacking into the National Epilepsy Foundation site to bombard the viewers with flashing lights—those are covered by extant laws.

That’s one of the points of this article, really–the laws are not enough. Law professor Dan Solove has a very good book on this very issue. (I reviewed it here.) Privacy laws are not enough, and neither are defamation laws or tort laws.   And sometimes, overreacting laws enacted the wake of some terrible incident are just plain bad ideas. As the NYT article states, the limits of the law are very real–you’d have to track by IP address to get the real perpetrator, which is hard to do technologically (imagine posting using borrowed wi-fi) and hard to do legally (you have no idea how hard it is to get a subpoena for an ISP). So what’s left? Even though there’s now a case of successful subpoenaing, there are valid arguments for over-enforcment if such internet-privacy cases laws are enacted.

So, what to do? The article makes a sort of panglossian argument that the vastness of the internet will absorb and survive such attacks from within and without. Great. Way to be. But will community norms win the day if the internet is such a diffuse, disaggregated community? There is no agreement about norms of internet civility, not even among the trolls–apparently, terrorizing the daughters of CEO’s is fare game, but you should not try to trigger attacks for epileptics. Originally, I wanted to believe in law prof Deven Desai’s recommendation for internet ed., as if it would make a difference. I even sort of toyed with the idea of one day writing an article on behavioral norms in the blogosphere. But all of these anecdotes about rather sociopathic, anomic individuals who delight in destroying norms and people’s lives–well, they send a chill down my spine. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ argument for the marketplace of ideas basically says that bad speech is best countered by good speech. That’s the classic laissez faire First Amendment argument, and one that I do agree with (even if I delete trollish comments on my own blog rather than engaging them, as is my prerogative, since there’s not much to say back to arguments that you do certain sexual acts that you do not want to do). But tell me, sociologist friends, how does one counter bad norms? Not merely the violation of generally accepted norms, but bad norms from another community of trolls? Will good norms win out over bad norms the way good speech supposedly wins out over bad speech?

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