Mike Jackson

Mike Jackson

By Professor Mike Jackson – Birmingham City Business School

Let’s be absolutely straight about this, it isn’t acceptable to make threats of violence, it isn’t acceptable to publish untruths about someone. In fact it’s illegal and it should be punished. But does this mean that all trolls should be locked up and their trolling days ended?

A troll is “One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument”.

I have used the Internet for many years, for longer than most. I used the Internet long before the World Wide Web was invented, before anyone had any idea what a browser might be and when it really was like being in the Wild West. In those days discussions took place on something called Usenet and you had to be really thick-skinned to participate. Anyone posting on a Usenet group could expect to be “flamed” at some point. A “flame” tended to be a comment which questioned not only your views but your competence to express an opinion. Flames tended to lead to flame wars where insults were bandied backwards and forwards.

Nowadays, the Internet experience can be very different. When you post to Facebook, I, as your “friend”, am invited to “like” your posting. It’s the only option I have. I can’t express disinterest, mild boredom or minor irritation. I can simply “like” what you say. This reflects the sort of discussions we have in our non-virtual world where we meet with like-minded individuals from similar social backgrounds with whom we tend to agree.

The point is that the Internet isn’t a community of like-minded folk; it is a worldwide community of people with disparate beliefs. So when you post to the Internet it is more than likely that someone somewhere will find your posting disagreeable. Most of the time they will let it go but once in a while they may respond negatively.

In our modern world we worry about negativity. We encourage people to be positive towards one another. Actually we do need the people who will offer differing viewpoints. We know that if you get a group of outgoing like-minded folk together to discuss a task, they will enjoy the experience. They may well give positive feedback and even express a wish to repeat the experience in the future. The chances are, however, that they won’t arrive at a workable solution to the problem that was set. Our understanding of the way groups operate tells us that for real success you need at least one member to be sceptical about the group’s initial solutions and to question the group’s consensus. This individual won’t be the most liked person in the group but they will be vital to the soundness of any outcome from the group.

The troll can be the sceptic of the Internet. Trolls can cause us to question what we consider to be absolutely fundamental beliefs and whether those beliefs have any currency in the wider world. We just hope that they will do this is a gentle and civilised way.

I had a friend, now sadly gone to meet his maker, who was an avid contributor to the Usenet group alt.atheism. Generally speaking this group had very little to talk about as not believing in things generates very little discussion. It was kept alive by trolls who would visit the group to assert that some aspect of life had a spiritual dimension. Such an assertion could then be roundly dismissed by all the regular members of the atheist community.

There are two messages I want to leave. The first is to the average Internet user. Remember that the Internet is worldwide and is not just limited to your friends. There will be people out there who are different from you and may not like what you say. They may not have the same social niceties that you experience in your regular contact with other people.

The second is directed at trolls. Sometimes you do a good job and make a useful contribution to a debate. Maybe some of you come from an environment where it is normal and natural to issue worthless threats of violence. It would be good for you to learn not to do this but if you can’t at least learn not to do it on the Internet.

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Mike Jackson

Mike Jackson

Director of Academic Quality & Enhancement Birmingham City Business School