The shifting, sifting sands of what is normal on the internet

Reading the Cranmer blog this evening, I find that the good archbishop has been obliged to place some limits on who can comment.

His Grace is now forced to devote more time each day trying to stem the tide of offensive and irrelevant comment than he is able to dedicate to each morning’s missive. When one is forced to spend the first hour of one’s day not in the crucial contemplation of religio-political issues but in the cleansing of the temple, it is evident that something must change. …

His Grace has attempted to make his blog a bastion of free speech, but there are those who are intent on hijacking every thread for their own malignant and malicious purposes. When he has directly emailed the perpetrators and politely asked them to desist, he receives insult, invective, and condemantion that he is not prepared to tell ‘the truth’. …

His Grace has therefore decided to ban all ‘anonymous’ comments, thereby forcing all communicants to register a Google account (pseudonymous, if preferred) before they may contribute to a discussion thread. Should individual accounts thereafter prove irritating or offensive, it is easier to identify the individuals (who sometimes post under a plurality of ad hoc identities) and ban them. …

His Grace will hereafter monitor any progress and prays that it will ameliorate his happiness and general well being. Should there be no improvement, he will not hesitate to take more drastic action, however terminal: he is not averse to silence or cessation.

This is a sad day, but evidently a necessary one, and “His Grace” has acted with moderation and restraint.

We have all been used to presuming that everyone on the internet is basically a decent human being.  In the past, being smaller in number, this was largely true.  Even the hackers really meant no harm.

But the internet has grown to include all sections of society.  And in every society known to man, there are criminals.

A pedant might say that a criminal is someone who breaks a law which a powerful man has chosen to impose on a society.  But this is to get things backward.

A criminal is a man who preys on his fellow men.   He is the kind of man who will do whatever he likes, regardless of the injury caused to others, simply because he wishes, or it gives him advantage of some kind, or for any other reason.   Such human beasts have always existed, and any society tries to protect its members from them, by various means.  They are destroyers, creating nothing and wrecking for any purpose and none.

Perhaps the time has come to recognise that the criminals are now well-established on the web.  We have all tolerated the troll; although trolling is clearly a moral wrong in most circumstances, as it violates the principle of “do not do to others what you would not like done to you”, in that it causes upset at the very least. 

But this tolerance of wrong-doing is now being used by much worse people.  There have been vulnerable teenagers driven to suicide by campaigns of bullying and harassment online.  I myself experienced a vicious assault of the same nature, designed to seize control of the Mithras article in Wikipedia, evidently without the slightest concern for right or wrong or anything but the culprits’ own base wishes.  Fortunately I’ve been online a long time, and maintain emotional detachment; but that these people meant to do me injury, to hand out a beating in order to steal the fruits of my labour, is not remotely in doubt.

Perhaps we need to stop thinking about “harassment”, about “trolling”, about “bullying”, and start thinking of this as what it is — assault.  It is a form of battery, exploiting the most powerful and engaging form of communication known to man to inflict pain and misery.  It is a criminal act.

One obvious cure for it is to require everyone using the internet to register, and to write and post under their own name.   Few of the criminals above would care to have their conduct under their own name. 

At present the effect of allowing the criminals to rampage unchecked is that using your own name online is becoming rarer and rarer.  In Wikipedia fewer and fewer people do so, because it disadvantages them so, when faced with trolls who frequently change their identities or post under different names.  The same is true in nearly all the fora known to me.

Yet which of us would trust a politician with the power to control who has access to the internet?  To control what may, or may not be said?

These are difficult times.  I hope that some middle path may be found.  But that the criminals need to be dealt with … that is becoming ever more urgent.

UPDATE: A couple of hours later, I see a news report on Sky. An academic study reports that 35% of teachers have suffered some form of online abuse; and in a quarter of the cases, parents are responsible. 

One of the most prevalent types of abuse was through the creation of a Facebook group to be abusive about a particular teacher.

The report said there was evidence of pupils trying to establish fake Facebook pages in a teacher’s name, posting videos of teachers in class on YouTube, and setting up whole websites to be abusive about a single or group of staff.

The BBC version is here, and offers some horrifying details:

“Some parents view teachers as fair game for abuse,” Prof Phippen said.

“They use online technologies to hide behind while posting lies and abuse about their chosen victim.”

Intimidation, harassment … enough.  We’re talking about violence, and those doing it are criminals.

7 thoughts on “The shifting, sifting sands of what is normal on the internet

  1. Thank you.

    I think that we need to stop seeing this as individual instances, as something that only happens to a few, and recognise that it is a technique, used as coldly and deliberately as a gangster might order a beating.

  2. Yes it is a deliberate technique used to derail and take over.

    I love free speech and was gutted when I had to begin censoring comments, but I was left with no choice.

    I became overrun with atheists and liberals etc and they chased the good folk off.

    I realised I had a duty to protect the good folk and keep them free from abuse.

    The stats went down and it’s taken about 6 months to recover, but I’ve got a nice little community now – including you.

    I’m also tougher in my comments to some, taking then to task and referring them back to the points raised in the blog post. I’m quite tough now and don’t care if folk are offended and never come back.

    I really look after my regular commenters now and won’t tolerate nasty stuff said about them. Period.

    It got to the point where I dreaded my own blog and it should never be allowed to get to that point.

  3. Very well stated, and I can see the bruises that you took. All very nasty.

    Yes, why should we let the wreckers take over? What I do, with doubtful cases, is delete the wrecking comment, write an email to the commenter saying how sorry I am to have to do that; but I always then put the guy on “moderate” so I get the chance to see what might come next. Of course out-and-out trolls I just block regardless.

  4. Some hurried comments:

    In a personal space – such as a personal blog – one need not apologise for setting whatever rules one wants for commenters. Cranmer isn’t under obligation to publish any comments and as long as blog authors don’t maliciously alter any published comments, all is fair in love and war.

    But there is another way to deal with the abusers: good old-fashioned ridicule! I have seen this done very effectively on some popular blogs (and it’s the popular blogs like Cranmer’s which seem to attract the real vitriole). People who deliberately set out to abuse someone or derail a blog thread aren’t exactly displaying any reason, so trying to reason with them is a waste of time. Engaging them is to give them credibility they don’t deserve (everyone can have an opinion of course, but there is no obligation to accept every opinion as worthy of consideration; some opinions are just plain stupid). Good old fashioned mockery, parody – by the blog author, but especially by the regular commenters – generally works because it deprives the abusers of their power. And the more people who laugh at them the better. Just keep it above the belt.

    I’ve seen this done on social media sites like twitter as well (and twitter can get REALLY boisterous and filthy).

    One can’t manufacture this of course; it requires a certain loyalty to whatever websites you frequent, a willingness to give back to the author(s) in the form of some support; a willingness to take on the uglies and not take things personally, and not get hung up about being ‘nice’. But if one or two regulars at a website which is under attack show themselves willing to take on any abusers with sharp humour, other regulars usually join in, and once this norm is established, the blog essentially becomes self-policing.

    I am not saying one should run around trying to correct everything wrong on the internet, but merely to be willing to defend those who run the sites we frequent and appreciate, and to do so with a bit of verve and humour.

    Of course some comments are beyond humour and need a very sharp and public slapdown. impersonating someone else or using their name for malicious purposes – as in the case of abusing teachers above – hacking, etc. should not be ridiculed; such people should feel the full force of the law.

    I am however uncomfortable with blaming idiots on the internet for other people’s suicides. Mitigating factor maybe, but not wholly responsible. I also sharply disagree with registrations and forcing people to write under their own name. This will deprive some of the only voice they have (how many Saudi bloggers can write freely under their own name?) or make others more vulnerable (e.g. children).

  5. I should add that my last comment on registrations goes to ‘public’ websites – e.g. newspaper blogs.

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