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Letter from the Editor

The Cost of Trolling

  • This letter appeared in the January/February 2015 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • December 18, 2014

In “The Troll Hunters,” Adrian Chen writes, “Old-school hate is having a sort of renaissance online, and in the countries thought to be furthest beyond it. The anonymity provided by the Internet fosters communities where people can feed on each other’s hate.”

Jason Pontin
Jason Pontin

Chen reveals the scale of näthat (“Net hate”) in Sweden, a country known for its tolerance, where anonymous posters to websites nonetheless rage against immigrants who (racists believe) are destroying “Swedish culture.” As in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Internet trolls in Sweden also persecute women, often just for the strange satisfaction of frightening them.

This story is part of our January/February 2015 Issue
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Trolls must be moved by bitter resentments they cannot otherwise express and liberated by the heady unaccountability of anonymity. Harassing comments found on websites are sincere expressions of how a portion of humanity really feels. Some people hate other people, and technology amplifies the expression of views that (at least since the end of World War II) were mostly whispered in private or shouted at rallies of ineffectual political movements (see “Free Speech in the Era of Its Technological Amplification”). But what can be done about trolling in open societies like Sweden and the United States is a vexed question about which citizens ardently disagree.

Both the United States and Sweden have set high bars for criminalizing speech: speech is presumptively free unless it violates the “harm principle.” In America, speech can be banned if it is a “real threat,” either because it constitutes an incitement to hurt someone or (as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 2003) to protect people “from the fear of violence” and “from the disruption that fear engenders.” Citizens who value free speech and believe it necessary for democracy, individual expression, and a marketplace of ideas are mostly comfortable with such a limited constraint.

But others are not so comfortable (see “Q&A: Shanley Kane”). Threats are seldom prosecuted, because words are slippery things and anonymous trolls cannot be found easily. More, the harm principle is not simply extended to harassing speech that seeks to oppress or silence minorities and women. Activists would like to see a wider legal definition of harm, or broader intolerance for harassment.

Chen’s feature describes one controversial approach in Sweden, where “a group of volunteer researchers called Researchgruppen, or Research Group, has pioneered a form of activist journalism based on following the crumbs of data anonymous Internet trolls leave behind and unmasking them.” Research Group scraped the comments of a right-wing publication named Avpixlat, and matched the encrypted e-mail addresses of commenters against a database of publicly available addresses. The researchers gave the names of many of Avpixlat’s most prolific commenters to Expressen, a Swedish tabloid, which then reported that dozens of prominent Swedes, including politicians from the far-right Sweden Democrats, had posted racist and sexist comments. Some politicians and officials resigned.

Research Group’s public shaming of trolls was controversial in Sweden. MIT Technology Review readers may also feel troubled: they might want to distinguish between real threats to individuals and the expression of views that, however reprehensible, have a tenuous connection to immediate harm. But the data journalists of Research Group were responsible for an innovation: they put a cost to trolling. By stripping away the cloak of anonymity, they demonstrated that while speech is free, it is not always without consequences.

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