Would the Real Activists and Trolls please stand up?

How do you regulate the internet? No team of human moderators would be large enough or have enough time to deal with the volume of traffic. Coders can build bots and programmes that identify and block dodgy content, but these are crude instruments that are simply triggered by taboo words and phrases or by unfortunate correspondences of the two. They risk removing perfectly innocent content, even content that is challenging hatred and intolerance. This amounts to censorship and the stifling of free speech and debate. Certain topics can’t be discussed.  

Bots lack understanding and so presumably can’t deal with nuance or context. Fat-shaming and calling out unconscious bias, for example, must look confusingly similar to them: both draw attention to an individual’s flaws and errors with sanctimonious disapproval. The tone of stern disappointment, of telling hard truths, of exhorting the degraded to improve themselves, must seem almost identical.

Which begs the question: what is the difference? I mean, clearly there is a difference between the objects of these diatribes, but what is the difference, in words, attitude and behaviour, between a fat-shaming troll and a moralist?

The true, unaffiliated trolls consider “shaming” and “calling out” just to be trolling without the courage to admit what it is; trolling with a hypocritical, veneer of self-righteousness and self-pitying grievance. Trolls are perfectly happy to masquerade as the righteous to wreak their havoc, because they realise that all statements on the internet are performances. The sincerity of any online statement is (literally) questionable: it can’t be properly corroborated. 

True trolls, like the Alt-Right, think of themselves as free-thinking philosophers, cutting through cant and hypocrisy. (Actually, I imagine trolls largely ARE the Alt-Right.) Though we know they are lonely psychopaths, so lacking in empathy that they need extreme reactions to recognise a human connection. 

Still, I suspect scientists, tyrants, trolls and fascists have the most healthy and robust attitude to the digital world. They see the internet as a tool, not a habitable universe.  Even if they spend all their time online and are addicted to it, their concept of existence is firmly rooted in the physical world outside the flickering screens. That’s where their goals lie, ultimately. (Getting a real, live girlfriend is the cliché!) 

Trolls enjoy the power of hurting people. They know you are never going to actually change minds by abusive, verbal pitched-battles. The only people activists can reach, on whom they can see their blows fall, are those of us who already, fundamentally, share their values. We also believe in free-speech. We are willing to engage with them because we believe in dialogue.This leads to the strange phenomena of the Internet Warriors and Activists all turning on each other, while (presumably) the fascists laugh at us from the side-lines.

“We should be rising up against the common enemy.”

“The Judean People’s Front!”

“No, no, the Romans!”

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