Never give in to the trolls

NDP MP Charlie Angus. (Chris Roussakis/QMI Agency)

NDP MP Charlie Angus. (Chris Roussakis/QMI Agency)

William Wolfe-Wylie, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:07 PM ET

Nobody likes trolls. They're the people who lob racist bombs into comment strings, call out otherwise intelligent replies for mild grammatical errors, compare everyone to Hitler and pretend to be smarter than everyone else.

Trolls are all over the Internet, and concentrate in spaces that amplify individual voices: comment boards and social networks. But their hate and anger is starting to force out some big voices, hurting what is often touted as a big democratizing service for the masses.

Canadian NDP MP Charlie Angus wrote that he was quitting Twitter because "Being on Twitter is like being badgered by a drunk on a 24-hour bus ride."

CBC journalist Neil Macdonald wrote a lengthy column explaining his decision to leave Twitter, noting that "Twitter is a candid medium and, as such, a bit of a honey trap for journalists. Send out a thoughtless thought after a glass of wine, and beware."

Then, just last week, TSN hockey writer Bob McKenzie went on a rant on Twitter against the "parasitic" troll who "creates Twitter wars to be in centre of action." He wrote that "people here getting increasingly vile, vulgar and out of control.

"Opinions (esp on Twitter) are like anal orifices, everyone has one and some are larger than others. If you want outrage, anger, vitriol, you're in the wrong place. You have plenty of other options. Plenty," he wrote to his 340,000+ followers.

But these kinds of sideline snipers, the hateful minority, are neither new, nor the product of new technology. New technology has simply afforded them a more visible platform.

Stephen Dubner, author and radio host at Freakonomics, recently told listeners that "under ordinary circumstances, we find that a relatively tiny group on Twitter wield most of the power. Does this remind you of any place else you know? Like, the offline world?" He later interviewed Duncan Watts, a researcher at Yahoo! who focuses all of his energies on social networks.

"There's a remarkable concentration of attention," Watts said. "But what happens in democracies is that everyone pays attention to the same people. So I think it might change our views of democratization."

Twitter, it turns out, is just a smaller, digital version of the same crap we deal with every day in the real world: we all pay attention to celebrities and we all learn to put up with jerks. That's the key: learning how to deal with it instead of running away from it. Calgary Sun court reporter Kevin Martin -- a man who, by the very nature of his job, routinely tweets controversial material -- found his own way to deal with it: he doesn't answer @-replies. Ever. And, in so doing, he never feeds the trolls what they're looking for, which is angry retaliation.

"I feel the best way to maintain the professionalism necessary to properly represent my employer is to ensure my tweets are concise, stand-alone news bulletins," he wrote in an email.

"Mentions often ask me to express an opinion on something I'm writing about which, as an impartial journalist, I feel is inappropriate. If a mention does pose a question which I feel justifies an explanation, I will post a follow-up, but not in direct reply to the questioner."

If readers want a little more, his email address is included in his Twitter bio, and they're free to use it.

The loud and hateful will always find a way to amplify their voices. Whether the rest of us choose to listen is another matter entirely.

 


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