Once you get over the weirdness of middle-aged internet innocents delving into web slang without a safety net, The Anti-Social Network is an interesting and quite disturbing insight into the horrors of the bowels of cyberspace. Personally, I tend to abide by the ancient proverb, “Only read the top half of the internet” as it’s abundantly clear that letting every Tom, Dick and Sally mind-vomit all over the comments section of web is one of the true monstrosities of our age.
Step forward, Richard Bacon. He wants to explore “trolling”, which, for the purposes of this programme, has been narrowly defined as “being an abusive shit online” (with the more general definition being “internet tomfoolery”). Bacon has his own personal troll who, across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, seems to enjoy hating Richard Bacon for reasons I can’t fathom as the dude seems as middle-of-the-road as they come. I always knew people on the internet were shit, but I don’t think I was quite aware of just how shit they were.
Bacon interviews the family of a fifteen-year-old boy who was so utterly harassed online by his shitty schoolmates that he killed himself. It’s truly horrible hearing the tale recounted by his father but unfortunately the utter shittiness of the story doesn’t end with the boy’s suicide. Not content with having driven the boy to suicidal despair, the shits on the internet decided that the boy’s Facebook RIP page was the perfect place to start telling shitty, horrible jokes about his death and writing shitty fake anecdotes about getting high and having gay sex together. This isn’t even an isolated case, but some shit obsession for the shitty dickheads on the internet who, Bacon learns, actually scour the news for high profile child deaths in order to find their RIP pages and shit all over them. Bacon happens upon a video some shit made in which the shit dances around in a mask singing “Lol, you died / I’m dancing on your grave”. Bacon takes this all pretty well; he’s got the good, calm head one needs for diving into hell.
In a scene which could only possibly come across as absurd, Bacon actually meets with a “troll hunter”. Of course, it doesn’t help that the troll hunter is dressed exactly as the title character of the film Troll Hunter and his voice is dubbed by a terrible actor in order to protect his identity. This troll hunter is the Morpheus of the cyber-world. He knows exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes and his speech about the danger of trolls is reminiscent of the ‘Woman in the Red Dress’ scene from The Matrix in which Neo is warned that the Agents guard all the doors and hold all the keys. The trolls change identity at will, the troll hunter tells Bacon. They swap accounts, steal others from ordinary people, steal your identity and troll under your name and if you shut them down they’ll only appear somewhere else. Fighting them only makes them stronger, and running away means they’ve won. Is anyone else starting to suspect this “troll hunter” is actually a troll trolling Bacon to make the trolls look super awesome?
See, internet anonymity allows people to be their true, horrible selves without the mitigating leash of having to deal with your victims face-to-face. Very few people, in sobriety, will be able to unleash a full, shitty torrent of abuse, violent language, threatening insults, unbridled criticism and generally wankerish behaviour in the presence of their targets. But the depressing reality is that the internet allows these shits to show us who they truly are; they’re given the freedom to shine as they always wished they could. These are the people we pass in the street, whom we smile to and make small talk with in the office, over coffee. These are our friends, our neighbours and our families and they are utter, utter shits without being forcibly restrained by society. A common rebuttal to people who say that God is required for people to be moral is, “Oh so you’d go around raping and murdering then if you weren’t worried about hell, would you?”. Well, it seems the answer is yes. I’m starting to get very worried about us as a people.
On the flipside of the coin, you might argue that the cyber-spatial world gives people a video game mentality. Shooting the crap out of people on Call of Duty or mowing down grannies in Grand Theft Auto can be done without a second thought because we know it all exists in a fantasy world. We wouldn’t really do these things in real life, would we? Well, as coincidence would have it, I was involved in a conversation with a philosopher at the weekend about the future of war. He said to me that he didn’t think he could go out into combat and actually shoot to kill – he’d find it far too morally difficult. However, he continued by telling me that he believed if he was remotely in control of a killer robot soldier from a computer console, he would find it much easier to kill and be violent, even though the consequences were identical. What is it about the middle-man of the computer interface that allows people to be such shits, I wonder?
So what advice and ideas can Bacon glean? Clearly the shits aren’t going away any time soon and appear to have no interest in being anything less than utterly shit, but there must be hope for potential victims of abuse. The parents of the 15-year-old who committed suicide want to see more government intervention and laws created to stop the trolling. As Bacon points out, this is a tricky area where finding the right balance between freedom of speech and preventing abuse is not at all easy. Look at the Westboro Baptist Church (the shits that picket funerals with signs like ‘God Hates Fags’). What they do every single day is appalling and shitty and completely fucking reprehensible, but it is legal and a free expression and should not be legally suppressed. The question is: how far can you go with your shitty behaviour before it crosses into illegal abuse and harassment? Writing shit on someone’s RIP site? Incessantly tweeting hate at someone (as with Richard Bacon’s troll)? Let me tell you about David Markuze. For years he constantly tweeted and emailed abuse at members of the scientific and skeptical community (including me). It was a near-constant rambling of incoherent threats and Bible verses. He changed his email address and Twitter name up to fifty times a day; it was like playing a shitty game of whack-a-mole all day, every day. It took a journalist to collate 3000 individuals who had been targeted and present them to the police to get him stopped. He is now being treated for mental illness.
Back to the programme, a psychologist reminds Bacon and the viewers of the risks of anything you do online. She actually says “think very hard about whether you should make an RIP page”, which is the most bullshit thing I’ve heard on this whole programme. What a case of victim blaming. I should be free to make an RIP site if I want, for friends and family to gather and express their feelings without having to worry about some shits being complete cocks to mourners. Fuck you, Emma the psychologist. She goes on to say, “there’s a phrase on the internet: “Don’t feed the trolls””. Well, this is all well and good, Emma the psychologist, except, as Stephanie Zvan beautifully explains, that’s total bullshit, too. Trolls exist in an environment in which they are encouraged by fellow internet shits. It’s not a one-on-one situation in which you can ignore them and they’ll feel stupid; if you ignore them, you’ll only encourage them. Tell them it’s unacceptable behaviour and that anyone who isn’t a complete moron can tell they are shitty, twatty, shits.
I guess I should mention that the whole point of this programme was that Bacon was going to track down some trolls in the real world and grill them. But that part of the programme didn’t really work out very well as, of the three troll targets, one refused to answer his questions, the second just lied to him in an interview and he couldn’t even find the third. Nonetheless, thank you Richard Bacon for exposing just how shit everyone really is.
The word troll has lost all meaning, by the way.