The Ugly Truth About Internet Behavior

It’s getting ugly out there on the Internet.

And it looks like it’s only going to get worse.

“A new report by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center suggests that technologists widely agree: The bad guys are winning,” writes Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic.

LaFrance is referring to Pew’s research that finds that more than 80% of the tech experts, scholars and leaders Pew polled think that harassment, trolling and other bad behavior online are going to continue or get even worse.

“Not only that, but some of the spaces that will inevitably crop up to protect people from trolls may contribute to a new kind of ‘Potemkin internet,’ pretty façades that hide the true lack of civility across the web,” says Susan Etlinger, a technology industry analyst at the Altimeter Group, a market research firm quoted by LaFrance.

It’s a tricky problem. On the one hand, there’s freedom of speech. On the other hand, there’s a person’s right to experience the Web in anonymity and sans harassment and abuse. There are no easy answers.

“Researchers have already used technology to begin to understand what they’re up against. Earlier this month, a team of computer scientists from Stanford University and Cornell University wrote about how they used machine-learning algorithms to forecast whether a person was likely to start trolling,” LaFrance explains. Using their algorithm to analyze a person’s mood and the context of the discussion they were in, the researchers got it right 80 percent of the time.”

And the news media, he notes, can’t be counted on to raise the level of discourse.

“The rise of formats like cable news—where so much programming involves people shouting at one another—and talk radio are clear departures from a once-higher standard of discourse in professional media,” LaFrance continues. “Few news organizations are stewards for civilized discourse in their own comment sections, which sends mixed messages to people about what’s considered acceptable. And then, of course, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter serve as the new public square.”

The challenge comes in finding the right balance between anonymity and enforcing appropriate behavior. And for many platforms, it seems that they don’t care as long as they get the eyeballs. And nothing draws eyeballs like a good flaming thread.

I keep going back to my analogy that the Internet is going through its infantile stage. It doesn’t yet have the social skills to keep up with its impressive growth in technical ability. So it runs into coffee tables and bites the dog’s tail.

For our part, we can do three things:

  1. Be aware of our own inclination to feed the trolls; things escalate awfully quickly out there. Don’t fan the flames.
  2. Consume digital content with discrimination; don’t fall for the bait.
  3. Hope that our civil discourse evolves before our technology runs roughshod over all things decent.