Google's War on Trolls Could Help Save the Internet
As I've noted before, pretty much every day I receive emailed queries
(and sometimes phone calls) from desperate persons who have been
driven effectively largely offline for fear of retaliation from
anything that they might say publicly online.
I don't usually know them. They don't usually know me except perhaps
by reputation. They're taking a leap of faith anyway.
They almost inevitably begin with words to the effect of "I hope that
I can trust you" -- and the fact that they've been driven to tell a
total stranger some of the most intimate details of their lives is
heartbreaking beyond measure.
I do what I can for them in terms of offering advice, but the range of
options is in reality quite limited. Law enforcement is usually
uninterested in dealing with these cases even when they've risen to
obviously dangerous levels -- their typical response to concerned
persons is along the lines of "stay off the Internet."
And the fact is that nowadays it's a vast understatement to say that
you can't safely have a thin skin if you're going to make public
statements in most Net venues.
I've been at this game for a long time -- effectively since the
earliest days of the Internet -- so my skin is pretty damned thick by
But even I'm not completely immune to twinges of discomfort when I
survey the scope of attacks that I routinely receive.
Some of them are from trolls who make the mistake of incorrectly
assuming that I'm female -- the speed with which they retreat if I
direct them to my Harley profile shot can be awesome to behold. And of
course there are the usual antisemitic morons and other white
supremacist cretins, right-wing imbeciles, and all the rest. These
days they seem to almost inevitably be Donald Trump supporters. As we
know, he joyfully attracts them like flies to you-know-what.
Among the Internet's -- and so the world's -- most crucial questions
are ones of freedom of speech vs. privacy -- open communications vs.
trolling, threats, and hate speech.
It's an incredibly delicate balance -- how to limit hateful attacks
that drive people to desperation, without creating a social media
ecosystem that unreasonably limits free speech.
There are various ways to approach this set of difficult problems.
Over in Italy right now they're taking exactly the wrong path --
proposing a law that would fine "site managers" 100,000 euros if they
don't take action against posts that simply "mock" another person. The
proposal's standard is that a person simply "feels" that they were
insulted. Laughably insane, impractical, and unworkable. Pretty much
anybody could really rake it in under a law like that!
Back in the real world, Internet services with a sense of
responsibility have long used their Terms of Service agreements to
deal with posting abuse, with various degrees of success. Keep in mind
that these firms have the utterly appropriate right to determine what
they will permit and host -- this is reasonable editorial
responsibility, not censorship (I usually view censorship per se as
almost inevitably being repressive actions by governments against
It has long seemed clear to me that appropriately dealing with the
rising tide of trolls and other social media posting abuses would
inevitably require an intensifying partnership between automated
detection systems and human insights, each bringing different
strengths and limitations to the table.
This is why I wholeheartedly support the ongoing efforts of Google (or
more precisely, the "Jigsaw" division of Google's parent Alphabet,
Inc.) to leverage Google's sophisticated and powerful artificial
intelligence assets to help deal with the growing trolling and hate
I won't attempt to summarize the details of their project in this
post -- you can read about it here:
But I did want to take this opportunity to express my view that while
obviously we cannot expect any particular efforts to completely solve
the deeply complicated and significantly multidisciplinary problems of
social media posting abuse, I am convinced that Google's approach
shows enormous promise.
Through the efforts of Google and others working along multiple paths
of research and associated policy analysis, we have some excellent
opportunities to make seriously positive inroads against posting
abusers, and in the process making the Internet a better place for the
vast majority of its users and the global community at large.
Communications will be greatly encouraged when the "fear factor" that
holds so many wonderful people back from public postings is
And frankly, if these efforts also have the side-effect of reducing
the number of horrific posting abuse nightmares that fill my inbox
from desperate persons seeking help, that will personally be for me a
very welcome plus as well.
Be seeing you.
Care About Science and Tech? Our Job One: STOP TRUMP:
- - -
Lauren Weinstein (lau...@vortex.com): https://www.vortex.com/lauren
Lauren's Blog: https://lauren.vortex.com
Founder: Network Neutrality Squad: https://www.nnsquad.org
PRIVACY Forum: https://www.vortex.com/privacy-info
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: https://www.pfir.org/pfir-info
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently
doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
- - -
The correct term is "Internet" NOT "internet" -- please don't
fall into the trap of using the latter. It's just plain wrong!
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