This past week our theme was trolling online, with a focus on theplight of marginalized groups--namely women--who participate in online culture. I call this post "trolling 2.0" because I believe the issue of trolling isn't something that has emerged in a digital age. Trolling exists in our offline culture, stemming from the root issues of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc), which have a long, deep-rooted history of plaguing our society. These plagues have now spilled into digital spaces. In our digital age, trolling and harassment can be more rapid and far-reaching through technology. That being said, many people to rush to blame technology for trolling and harassment… but let us not forget that technology is just a tool; oppression is the real weapon… the real underlying societal issue. My classmate, and good friend, Kristina Boutilier, echoes this in her blog as well.
To take a step back for a moment, I think it is important to explore what trolling is and what it is not. I think there tends to be some confusion about this as well. Trolling is not someone disagreeing with a viewpoint of another. I think occasionally, when someone comments on another's blog post or social media post and the commenter disagrees with the original poster, the original poster is quick to claim it is trolling. We have to be okay with the fact that not everyone will agree with our views, and if we post them on public platforms open to comments, that others may disagree. So when is it trolling? I think it becomes trolling when the person neglects to respectfully disagree. I think it becomes trolling when the person throws insults, threats, oppressive undertones, or becomes relentless. It is certainly trolling when a person is virtually cyber-stalking someone. I think it is also important to consider that sometimes the "trollees" can become the "trollers"… which can evoke a vicious cycle of venom that doesn't belong in online or offline spaces. Essentially, two wrongs don't make a right. It is up to us to create positive spaces online, even if others are intent on the opposite.
How do we address trolling? Perhaps my thoughts differ from the norm on this. First of all, I think we have to behave ethically and model this for others. If we have a problem with what someone has said online (i.e. Twitter), I think the best way we can respond is by talking to the source directly. This can be done by direct messaging (if possible) the person one is in disagreement with. Much like our STF code of ethics calls upon teachers to speak directly to the person they have an issue with before involving others, arguably, the same should be followed online. Sometimes (and in speaking from previous experience), the issue can be resolved by chatting 1:1, as opposed to having an audience. If you can't directly contact the person, then I think good digital citizenship is to respectfully disagree with a person, no matter how infuriating their comment may be. Fighting fire with fire and spitting venom back and forth, I believe, is immature and counterproductive. If the trolling is serious and relentless, perhaps the best course of action is to report it online (if possible) and/or consult knowledgeable authorities instead of taking "justice" into our own hands.
One strategy suggested in our readings this week, is to respond to trolls by exposing and shaming them… calling for a "culture that shames the perpetrators". While I respect the writer's viewpoint, I'm not in agreement that shaming is a productive way to address trolling. I'm a pretty firm believer that socially shaming others is wrong, as it rarely ever carries context with it, and in a way, it is a form of bullying as well. This shaming can spread so rapidly with the simple tap of a share or retweet button… the receiving person gets upset, and the cycle continues. Furthermore, I'm not an advocate of shaming others because, again, we can't possibly know the full context… their story. How did this particular person grow up? What belief systems was this person raised with? What was modelled for them? Was this person afforded opportunities to challenge their thinking in safe spaces? I think educated people, particularly those that can afford post-secondary education, must not be ignorant of their privilege, and the fact that they have had the opportunity to get educated and expand their thinking about these issues. Perhaps some trolls are trapped in their own unrecognized filter bubble. This is NOT excusing trolling behaviour, but rather, just adding some context if we are to ever get past being infuriated by them, and instead, advance change.
So what really makes a difference? Well, I believe that if someone posts something online that you find offensive, and respectfully disagreeing does not work, then write and post something on an alternate space (i.e. your blog, your social media, etc) that highlights the issue you are passionate and want to raise awareness about. We can be activists without stooping to a trolling or social-shaming level. This does not mean that I believe in inaction--quite the opposite, actually. I think each situation needs to be uniquely assessed, and one ought to ask themselves, "is this particular space a cesspool where my comments wouldn't make a difference anyway… and if so, can I find another space where my thoughts could have a greater effect?"
It is understandable that people (particularly marginalized groups) tend to feel nervous or scared to post online. In all honesty, I do too at times. I mean, who wants to receive a deluge of negativity, insults, and/or threats? What makes it even worse, is that the internet is still largely misunderstood by many authority figures (educators, law enforcement, parents, etc) who can help protect and/or guide those who find themselves trolled. As John Oliver states, it is woefully unacceptable for the response to be "what's Twitter?" or "what's trolling?". We need to continue to educate those in positions of authority about the web and how to protect others in online spaces.
If you feel comfortable speaking out publically about any issue, then I commend you! Being a mother, a teacher, etc, I feel that I sometimes have to weigh the cost/benefit to being public on the web with my opinions. Essentially, I'm reflective on what I feel comfortable with to battle outright and what I feel comfortable with to battle from behind the scenes. It's up to each individual's conscience. So... how can we reclaim space on the internet and exercise our voice, while taking extra precautions to protect ourselves from trolls and their harmful effects? I think finding the best space for our voice is often a good start. As stated above, posting our voice in a comment section that is contaminated with hate and/or oppressive rhetoric would not be as effective and far-reaching as creating a blog or posting on our personal social networks. If trolls find their way to our blog, then I believe it could be okay to moderate the comments, so that the we can have some control as to what the tone of our space will take. I think we should approve comments that respectfully disagree and engage in meaningful, productive dialogue, but I don't think we should even give the trolls a platform on our space to purge their hate. One may find that exercising their voice in their own social network, wherein they approve their friends/followers is the space where they feel most safe/comfortable, and that's okay too, as they are still getting their voice out there. Or, one might personally find that online is not the right space for a particular subject/issue to be voiced for whatever reason… that is okay too. We can still exercise our voice offline too.
Ultimately, we must address the offline, deeply-rooted societal issues of racism, sexism, classism, etc if we are to ever see it disappear from online spaces. When it comes to addressing online harassment and trolling, it also comes down to digital citizenship. It is imperative that youth learn how to engage with technology and the web ethically, so that they may develop good habits in the future, creating a web where everyone is welcome and treated with dignity.
Teacher & Tech Coach with Regina Catholic Schools. Passion for EdTech, 21st century student-centered pedagogy, connected learning & differentiated instruction. Grad student.