Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Censorship by trolls

Here’s a thoughtful post by Anne R Allen: “Public Shaming, Cyberbullies, and the Hive Mind: Fighting ‘Censorship by Troll'”

I personally feel that you should suspect you are wrong to join in an internet mob if:

You didn’t read a reasonable chunk of the work somebody’s being mobbed for, but took a line out of context when you saw someone tweet it.

You didn’t check out the person at all, but assumed she was a bad person because that one quote looked bad and anyway, good people don’t get mobbed.

You feel that a person deserves to be fired from their job and rendered unemployable because they disagree with you about something.

You feel justified in joining an internet mob because you are so very righteous.

You feel justified in joining an internet mob.

I think Allen is essentially correct to say:

Once an individual joins in an attack on a designated victim, s/he becomes assimilated into the collective hive mind and seems to lose the ability to behave as an individual. . . . This means that trying to reason with an individual member of the hive is useless. Otherwise sane people will display a complete lack of empathy—behavior that’s usually seen only in a true sociopath.

It’s as if people are saying: “I’m not really a sociopath, but I play one on Twitter.”

Yes, a bit like the way normally polite, tolerant adult people sometimes scream insults at somebody who offends them when they’re behind the wheel of a car, only an order of magnitude worse.

I won’t say I always think a mob is wrong. Not about what they’re objecting to. But I don’t know that I ever think a mob is *justified*. You perhaps recall when Katherine Hale stalked a reviewer who gave her first book a one-star review. It was a horrifying incident. But it had *several* horrifying aspects, not just one:

1. Hale stalking the blogger = horrifying

2. The Guardian letting Hale publish this piece that looks to me like it is a first-person account of psychological disturbance contributing to illegal behavior for which Hale has to be criminally liable. The Guardian’s role in this whole situation is if anything even more horrifying than Hale’s.

3. The internet mob piling on Hale, who appears, on actually reading her piece in the Guardian, to be a disturbed individual. That is also awful.

People are sometimes going to be — gasp! — wrong on the internet. But even when they’re genuinely wrong, a mob is seldom going to improve the situation. It’s ugly. Too often it turns vicious.

Personally, my philosophy, which I haven’t always lived up to but which grows firmer every time I see a mob in action, is: if I see someone say something outrageous online, or even more if I see someone accused of saying something outrageous online, I will never regret it if I put off responding for a week.

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3 Comments Censorship by trolls

  1. Andrea K

    I agree with you strongly that if you’re going to comment about something on the internet, it’s a very good idea to have a fairly good grip of the context of the situation you’re commenting on. There are most certainly people who leap on a meme-like bandwagon because they’re entertained and “everyone else is doing it”.

    At the same time, the article you’re linking to is so problematic. Any time I see a person talking about “hive minds” and “mob mentality” and “censorship by trolls”, I hear “I disagree with this and so all of you are wrong”.

    I’m not a big twitter participator (I’ll occasionally comment about an issue I feel strongly about, but I sure as hell don’t direct those comments to the people involved), but I’ve seen “mobbing” happen and so am entirely aware that there’s not an amorphous connected entity out there called “the mob” that has “designated victims”.

    No-one is making a conscious decision to “unleash the mob”. Instead it’s often a progress like:

    1. Someone does something.
    2. People who have been injured/genuine critics point out problematic issues.
    3. A mixture of more genuine criticism occurs, along with people whose involvement is more about the mocking than issue at hand.
    4. Backlash occurs against the “trollish mob” and much finger-wagging is indulged in.

    At what point did the criticism become a mob? And at what point are you (a person genuinely injured or offended) unable to have a genuine reaction to the person who injured or offended you? At what point is your genuine reaction subsumed in this “hive mind” which apparently comes along and makes your own personal reaction irrelevant or invalid?

    I don’t think much of the people who join a conversation to just have fun with snark. But I think less of silencing informed or injured people who wish to point out genuine issues by telling them that they’re sociopaths, that they’re unreasonable, that they’re not sane.

    In other words, I really disagree with that quote of Anne R Allen’s. I would also find it horrifying to be subject to a tidal wave of criticism and mockery. But I’d hope I was able to consider the trigger for the criticism and address the reasons rather than just name everyone “bully”.

  2. Mike S.

    I’d say that there’s a transition between discussion and pile-on that’s always existed since the days when it involved actual torches and pitchforks, but that a lot of modern social networks facilitate. (Not least because they select for the <loudest and angriest things that confirm our priors.)

    In practice, somewhere between steps 3 and 4, the number of participants often tends to outstrip the number of people actually injured, the ratio of heat to light goes asymptotic, and consequences frequently seem to fall on individuals vastly out of proportion to whatever wrong they may have done. (If any.)

  3. Rachel

    Andrea, it’s not that I disagree, exactly. Or not completely. It’s certainly true that no one’s in control of the mob or necessarily sets one off deliberately, though I expect there are some people who do try to set them off. But wow, once the mob is underway, it is such a monster. At that point, there are so many people in it for the fun of it that I think you do get a mob mentality — what Allen is calling a “hive mind”. And I don’t think it’s “fun with snark.” I think it’s fun with actual no-kidding honest-to-God sadism.

    It’s tricky mostly because at the beginning it’s hard to see whether a mob situation is getting underway or not. But that’s what waiting a week is for. Waiting a week doesn’t mean you’ve been silenced, after all. It means you’ve taken time to think things through. Even a few days is probably enough so that you can see what’s going on. If the issue is real, by then it will be clear and very likely has already been thoroughly addressed. Or if not, you can address it more rationally yourself. On the other hand, if reasonable offence has turned into a vicious tidal wave, you can opt out. And if there was never any cause for reasonable offense in the first place, you have a chance to find that out, too.

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