Catching internet trolls

Posted: October 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: human rights, law, philosophy, politics, thoughts | 7 Comments »

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.  John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

In the memokraat blog, the Short Guide to Catching Trolls (Lühike trolliküti käsiraamat ehk ettepanekud online diskussioonitehnoloogia arendamiseks Eestis) was posted discussing the issue of trolling at the reader comment sections of Estonian online news media sites. I briefly participated in the debate, but now will provide here an overview of some issues and questions that I have been thinking about since then.

1. Defining the troll. The Guide defines troll as someone who posts insulting comments in an online environment with the purpose of provoking others and disturb the discussion. What constitutes an insult, provocation or disturbance is subjective to a certain level and depends on the cultural and social background of a person. My comments for the Guide as posted in the comment thread could be considered trolling as at least some people thought that part of my arguments were arrogant (when I suggested that people who are so thin-skinned that they could not tolerate hostile commentary should not read it), the style I write and express my opinions is usually a little provocational and some people might think that it disturbed the discussion. Thus in a wide reading of the definition I am a troll and so is nearly anyone who does not conform to a certain subjective criteria defined by the owner of the site. The banning of such trolls as myself results in discussions that are perhaps non-insulting and uncontroversial, but at the same time also rather valueless in terms of expanding the scope of discussion and bringing in alternative views.

2. Defining the problems? The trollhunters claim that the problems are caused by the technology used for commenting at Estonian online news sites. They claim the technology used is to blame for the exclusion of certain other people (who in a bizarre twist are claimed to be unable to freely use their freedom of speech because they are afraid of others also using it but critically), that this leads to radicalisation of public opinion and intolerance and distorts public opinion. All these claims lack evidence, studies or any research: we are expected to accept these premises as self-evident, when they are actually not.

The biggest unsupported assumption the authors of the Guide make* is that the root of all evil is anonymous commenting, which may or may not be the case.

3. Freedom of speech in an online setting. It is true that freedom of speech is not absolute and the exercise of it also requires responsibility for one’s opinions. However, for acts that bring criminal liability there already is a possibility to identify almost anyone online so the anonymity is only superficial. Thus it is possible at least in theory to make people accountable for their words also now.

50 years ago internet did not exist and therefore the human rights standards we have need to be adopted to the internet era. Certain principles remain the same, but the internet might change the content of certain rights subtantially, including freedom of speech. Offline analogies do not always work in the global unregulated internet with low barriers to entry.

4. Self-regulation is not always best when dealing with human rights issues. The trollhunters state that the least they want is state intervention or regulation. They propose a system of self-regulation, whereby the parties who control the commentary space make an agreement which is then adopted and implemented. In my mind it is dangerous when private entities make deals that involve limits to freedom of speech, because questions of accountability and transparency rise. I also believe that this might be even worse than state regulation, because the state is much more bound by international human rights obligations. So in cases that involve human rights I think it is preferential to have state regulation, rather than allow for private parties who control substantial public discussion space to make their own agreements to limit certain aspects of online activities. In many many spheres self-regulation is possible and works very well, but I am not sure if this is it.

In general terms there is another fundamental point why I think any regulation of online commentary space is not beneficial. Net neutrality means that content providers should not restrict specific parts of the internet depending on subjective criteria. The internet has flourished partly because of the freedom it provides and the abscence of walled gardens. What the trollhunters want to create is a walled garden, admittedly with very low walls, but still access to commenting would become more limited.

I also disagree that this discussion should be framed in terms of media freedom. Online commentaries do not constitute media or journalism in my opinion, it is a separate issue and therefore references to media and press freedom indexes do not really matter. The public debate in the matter has also included mostly people from the media sphere and not other areas who have framed the debate in their own terms.

Short rebuttal of the trollhunters critique of anonymity online:

1. The whistle-blower effect. The trollhunters claim that an anonymous tip option might be sufficient cannot be accepted because it is media-centric and would require an interested journalist to pursue the topic and lack of self-censorship in the media. Anonymous hints cannot replace anonymous commentary, they are different things. The trollhunters agree that certain levels of anonymity might be necessary for informing the public, I say it is essential.

2. Balance between insulting and constructive comments. This depends on the topic, but in most cases I would say based on my experience that insulting comments do not prevail over more insightful ones. Again, there are no studies made or statistical data available other than Delfi claiming that insulting comments are only a fraction of the total body of comments. Even if the majority of comments would bring nothing to the debate, is it worth not having the few that do?

3. Censorship. The trollhunters here refer to the right of newspaper editors to choose what to publish. The commentary space is not in my understanding part of the newspaper and can function without it. The fact that newspapers have always edited their stories have been due to physical lack of room in the paper and the need to provide a concentrated overview. The internet does not have these physical limits and there is nothing lost with adding to concentrated overviews and officially sanctioned opinions other stuff as well. The claims of this leading to mob censorship are speculation.

4. Impact of insulting anonymous comments. It is true that some people are more sensitive to criticism and insults than others, but again, there is no need to censor everyone because of this. Some views are controversial and people get offended. If I want to claim that there is no god, then this is offends people and I will be branded a troll. I believe that online commentary space must allow for expression of those less conformist views, which are not published by newspapers. I disagree that it is right to take away the freedom of expression from one group for the benefit of another.

5. Strength or importance of message. See above. I still refuse to accept the approach that it is somehow justified to prefer one group of people to another in terms of who may or may not express their views.

6. Vox populi, vox dei. I agree with the trollhunters that there needs to be no correlation between general public opinion and views expressed in comments, but I think it also depends on the topic. Likewise, I have seen no statistics which confirm that people believe that views expressed in online commentaries represent the general views in the society.

7. Video game violence argument. The idea is that people can insult others virtually so they will not do it offline. I think there is no correlation here, but no studies have been provided saying one thing or the other. The anger people have is in my own opinion a consequence, and not a cause of the processes in the society.

8. Moderated comments loses valuable discussion. This is subjective. If in some specialist finance related forum it works and likeminded people can express themselves better and feel good about it then fine. I do not think that discussion space for general public should work the same way (the danger to stifling of dissent and danger of conformism).

9. Too many comments to moderate. I think the notice and take-down system works pretty well.

10. Topic already discussed. Nothing to say here. Everything should be open for discussion.

11. Notice and take-down. Probably the system could be improved, I think it is disproportional to ban all anonymous comments due to imperfections of the notice and take-down system.

12. Turn to police. In case there is no real threat police should not be involved. If a person says to another that go jump off a cliff then this obviously is not a real threat. Again, in those cases where there is real threat police should be involved. It does not mean that all anonymous comments need to be banned because police does not do their work.

13. Economic factor. I am not sure if the commenting option is ecnomically beneficial or not, but of course that should not be the prevailing argument for or against limiting free speech online.

14. Freedom of speech is why comments are kept. Not a convincing argument, I agree. But I do think that once they have been introduced, stopping the ability to comment wold be problematic as it has almost become a service of general public interest.

15. Historical perspectives. There has been no time like this and therefore parallels with the past might or might not provide insight into dealing with the issue at hand.

* As pointed out by Daniel, I have put words in the mouths of the trollhunters that they think that anonymous commenting is the root of all evil. The trollhunter guide does not state this and it was an exaggeration on my part. However, I still think that the general tone of the Guide seems to connect anonymous expression with the existence of insulting and derogatory comments. I guess it would be fair to say that the authors consider it as a not an insignificant part of all evil 🙂

7 Comments on “Catching internet trolls”

  1. 1 Daniel said at 9:58 on October 4th, 2009:

    Hm, may I point out that you are making several errors in a really fundamental issue here. By claiming that ” at least some people thought that part of my arguments were arrogant” you make quite a stretch when you say that this has something to do with trolling.

    As I was the one pointing out in the thread that the argument that “people are not obligated to care what is written about them in comments” itself is superficial and rude to many people, I did not make the point that your opinion itself is trolling, your opinion was considered valuable as were the others.

    Why is this a mistake? Because you push the judgment issues to the straw man level of saying that any opinion that is not liked or is considered unwishful is “trolling” in our opinion. That has never been the case.

    Without wanting to go into too much argument, my second comment is – what about New York Times that is moderating comments and what about Helsinkin Sanomat that is actually pre-moderating comments. Are these newspapers threatening freedom of speech in their respective countries? I could suggest that you seem to mix different venues and levels of freedom.

    Another error is obviously due to the lack of reference. It is NOT an unresearched fact that radicalisation can happen in conditions where opinion of some is supressed and the trollhunter paper gives also quotes for that. Also you might want to read “The Banality of Evil” by Hannah Arendt or other such works that show the baby-step logic of radicalization.

    And finally one claim which I definitley need to oppose – you say that according to the authors, anonymity itself is the root of evil. Thus you are ignoring manyfold assurances, both in the document and also in the commentary thread, that this simply is not our claim. It is quite fascinating that you still find yourself able to put it this way.

  2. 2 Kari said at 10:17 on October 4th, 2009:

    I wanted to point out with “stretching the definition” that what constitutes trolling is a subjective matter, and although something may not appear to fall under this category now, there are no guarantees that later when someone else interprets this it will not change. The same thing could be said about the Bronze-night laws: the current government probably would not use them to stifle freedom of association, but there are no guarantees that someone else in the future might also not.

    The NYT and HS are different in my mind. They have never provided commenting in such a large scale (you must even register to read NYT articles only, if I am not mistaken). In the area of internet I do not think these newspapers are to be set as some sort of examples how things should be. I think that in Estonia these comments are more than simply few readers voicing their opinions about newspaper articles, that they have become larger than the newspaper hosting them and therefore there is a special duty that the NYT or HS might not have.

    I completely agree with the notion of radicalisation, I just have not seen that this happens in this case. I still refuse to agree with the argument that there is a suppression of freedom of speech. The fact that some people feel it is so does not make it so. I doubt that any court would accept it as a valid argument.

    Most of the trollhunter document seems to me to be dedicated to fighting against anonymity, but if that is not the case then I stand corrected.

  3. 3 Daniel said at 10:51 on October 4th, 2009:

    Thanks. But the point of the Bronze night legislation is exactly the wrong one. The Bronze night issues are about the state regulation, we on the other hand, are offering an analysis of online cultural dynamics, followed with some recommendations for good practice and flexible rules that allow more rather than less (the solution part is actually open for discussion and as you know, several quite good ideas have been sent to the blog). We are stressing that this should never be the state issue.

    Further, well, yes, it is totally agreeable that the matter of insult is subjective, therefore to be handled with care.

    And we have pointed out the other side of it, what happens if there is total lack of both, handling and care and we have not invited anyone to go to the other extreme. What we pointed out was that, if you do not have good practice, there is actually a threat that some new Rein Lang will come up with a regulation that no one would like.

    Finally, I can not help but ask one question – has reportedly taken down 14 721 insulting comments in August 2009 and in all likelihood is continuing to be more strict, rather than less. is moderating comments and so is also

    So, do you consider this development a threat to the freedom of speech in Estonia?

  4. 4 Kari said at 11:21 on October 4th, 2009:

    I think that there is a threat that they might go over the line in some cases. While their policies are available and quite precise, there is no way of appealing the decision of the moderator nor is there ouside scrutiny. They might censor comments that are negative towards their business for example or due to pressure from outside and there is no checking this.

    The way I understand it, the service provider has a legal duty to remove content that is illegal. What constitutes illegal content is questionable as there is no significant body of cases or guidelines on what is and what is not allowed under the incitement to hatred on racial grounds for example (§ 151 of the Penal Code has rarely been used). Outside of criminal law, there is definitely a margin of appreciation for the siteowner on what kind of comments to allow, but it should not become a tool for discrimination or suffocation of freedom of speech. It is open to debate where the line should be drawn: you seem to advocate a cleaner, moderated, and more quality-oriented discussion space, whereas I also see the value in low barriers of entry and wider participation.

    One solution would be to create an independent appeals body (similar ot ASN or Pressinõukogu), where one could appeal the moderator’s decision and from which certain common practices could arise, which would also create legal certainty in what can and what cannot be deleted.

  5. 5 Daniel said at 11:33 on October 4th, 2009:

    I agree that creating an option or system for appeal is quite a good idea.

    And as you know, the case with Estonian online comment system has been that xenophobic and other -phobic stuff was never moderated either. So, the level where this would be moderated would already be a huge step.

  6. 6 Paul said at 12:42 on October 5th, 2009:


    first off, I do not understand why we need to discuss this in English. As fas as I can tell all active participants of the discussion are Estonians. For that reason I will continue in Estonian. If you do not understand Estonian I recommend that you use and pray that they do good enough job at translating from Estonian to English. Or Kari can exercise his right as the owner of this blog and censure my commentary. 🙂

    Tahtsin anda ka oma väikese panuse sellesse diskussiooni enne kui pühapäeval sellest näost-näkku räägime.

    Murray Rothbard ja mitmed teised libertaalid väidavad (minu arvates küllalt veenvalt), et kõik vabadused (negatiivsed vabadused) on taandatavad eraomandile. Sõnavabaduse puhul tähendab see seda, et minu omandusel oleval maal võin öelda mida tahan ning teised (kellele see maa ei kuulu) võivad seda teha ainult minu loal. Ma loodan, et see on suhteliselt mitte-vastuoluline seisukoht – kui keegi tuleb minu koju (algselt minu kutsel) ja hakkab mind või mu peret mõnitada on mul õigus teda välja visata. Sama kehtib ka minu poolt välja antava ajalehe/TV/raadio ja online väljaande (blogi) kohta. Sellist printsiipi järgides saab tsensuuriks olla ainult riiklikult kehtestatud piirangud minu vara kasutamise kohta sõnavabaduse kontekstis. Minu enda reeglid selle kohta mida minu väljaandes avaldatakse ei saa olla tsensuur, vähemalt mitte üldise sõnavabaduse kontekstis. See, et minu poolt välja antav päevaleht/veebisait on kõige loetavam, ei tee sellest automaatselt ühiskondlikku omandit, see on ikkagi minu eraomand ja seal info/arvamuste avaldamise reeglid kehtestan mina. Kaudseks põhjenduseks on kasvõi väljaande ülalpidamisega seotud kulud mida kannab väljaandja. Kui võib jääda mulje, et “internet on ju tasuta” siis tegelikkuses on veebisaidi pidamisega seotud kulud ning mida suurem sait seda suuremad on need kulud (serverimaht + traffic).

    Praegusel kujul saab siis antud diskussioon käia ainult selles osas, mida võiksid meediakanalid oma äranägemise järgi avaldada ning mida mitte. Kõrvaltvaatajatena saame teha neile ainult soovitusi, mida ka memokraat on teinud.

    Riiklike reeglite kehtestamine oleks kindlasti tsensuur. Me peaksime iga hinnaga vältima sellise pretsedendi tekitamist. Kui praegu võivad meil võimul (või isegi parlamendis) olla erakonnad kelles me ei näe ohtu sõnavabadusele ning loodame, et nende kehtestatud reeglid piiravad väheste õigusi siis ei saa me olla kindlad, et tulevikus ei tule võimule keegi kes arvab, et vastu võetud reegleid võiks laiendada “tagamaks rahva õiglustunde puutumatust” või “demokraatliku diskusiooni puhtuse tagamist”.

    Loodan, et kedagi sellega ei solvanud.

    P.S. Rakendasin selle kommentaari kirjutamisel enesetsensuuri – ei kirjutanud sellest kes ma arvan, et te tegelikult olete ega seda mida ma arvan teie arvamustest. Selline väike näide tsensuurist. Sue me! 😉

  7. 7 Delfi vs Estonia ECHR judgment | Kari's journal said at 16:05 on October 10th, 2013:

    […] have previously written that anonymous comments are not evil in themselves and removing the possibility is too severe […]

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