How not to reclaim the internet…

The new campaign to ‘Reclaim the Internet‘, to ‘take a stand against online abuse’ was launched yesterday – and it could be a really important campaign. The scale and nature of abuse online is appalling – and it is good to see that the campaign does not focus on just one kind of abuse, instead talking about ‘misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia’ and more. There is more than anecdotal evidence of this abuse – even if the methodology and conclusions from the particular Demos survey used at the launch has been subject to significant criticism: Dr Claire Hardaker of Lancaster University’s forensic dissection is well worth a read – and it is really important not to try to suggest that this kind of abuse is not hideous and should not be taken seriously. It should – but great care needs to be taken and the risks attached to many of the potential strategies to ‘reclaim the internet’ are very high indeed. Many of them would have precisely the wrong effect: silencing exactly those voices that the campaign wishes to have heard.

Surveillance and censorship

Perhaps the biggest risk is that the campaign is used to enable and endorse those twin tools of oppression and control, surveillance and censorship. The idea that we should monitor everything to try to find all those who commit abuse or engage in sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia may seem very attractive – find the trolls, root them out and punish them – but building a surveillance infrastructure and making it seem ‘OK’ is ultimately deeply counterproductive for almost every aspect of freedom. Evidence shows that surveillance chills free speech, discourages people from seeking out information, associating and assembling with people and more – as well as enabling discrimination and exacerbating power differences. Surveillance helps the powerful to oppress the weak – so should be avoided except in the worst of situations. Any ‘solutions’ to online abuse that are based around an increase in surveillance need a thorough rethink.

Censorship is the other side of the coin – but works with surveillance to let the powerful control the weak. Again, huge care is needed to make sure that attempts to ‘reclaim’ the internet don’t become tools to enforce orthodoxy and silence voices that don’t ‘fit’ the norm. Freedom of speech matters most precisely when that speech might offend and upset – it is easy to give those you like the freedom to say what they want, much harder to give those you disagree with that freedom.  It’s a very difficult area – because if we want to reduce the impact of abuse, that must mean restricting abusers’ freedom of speech – but it must be navigated very carefully, and tools not created that allow easy silencing of those who disagree with people rather than those who abuse them.

Real names

One particularly important trap not to fall into is that of demanding ‘real names’: it is a common idea that the way to reduce abuse is to prevent people being anonymous online, or to ban the use of pseudonyms. Not only does this not work, but it, again, damages many of those who the idea of ‘reclaiming the internet’ is intended to support. Victims of abuse in the ‘real’ world, people who are being stalked or victimised, whistleblowers and so forth need pseudonyms in order to protect themselves from their abusers, stalkers, enemies and so on. Force ‘real names’ on people, and you put those people at risk. Many will simply not engage – chilled by the demand for real names and the fear of being revealed. That’s even without engaging with the huge issue of the right to define your own name – and the joy of playing with identity, which for some people is one of the great pleasures of the internet, from parodies to fantasies. Real names are another way that the powerful can exert their power on the weak – it is no surprise that the Chinese government are one of the most ardent supporters of the idea of forcing real names on the internet. Any ‘solution’ to reclaiming the internet that demands or requires real names should be fiercely opposed.

Algorithms and errors

Another key mistake to be avoided is over-reliance on algorithmic analysis – particularly of content of social media posts. This is one of the areas that the Demos survey lets itself down – it makes assumptions about the ability of algorithms to understand language. As Dr Claire Hardaker puts it:

“Face an algorithm with messy features like sarcasm, threats, allusions, in-jokes, novel metaphors, clever wordplay, typographical errors, slang, mock impoliteness, and so on, and it will invariably make mistakes. Even supposedly cut-and-dried tasks such as tagging a word for its meaning can fox a computer. If I tell you that “this is light” whilst pointing to the sun you’re going to understand something very different than if I say “this is light” whilst picking up an empty bag. Programming that kind of distinction into a software is nightmarish.”

This kind of error is bad enough in a survey – but some of the possible routes to ‘reclaiming the internet’ include using this kind of analysis to identify offending social media comments, or even to automatically block or censor social media comments. Indeed, much internet filtering works that way – one of the posts on this blog which was commenting on ‘porn blocking’ was blocked by a filter as it had words relating to pornography in it a number of times. Again, reliance on algorithmic ‘solutions’ to reclaiming the internet is very dangerous – and could end up stifling conversations, reducing freedom of speech and much more.

Who’s trolling who? Double-edged swords…

One of the other major problems with dealing with ‘trolls’ (the quotation marks are entirely intentional) is that in practice it can be very hard to identify them. Indeed, in conflicts on the internet it is common for both sides to believe that the other side is the one doing the abuse, the other side are the ‘trolls’, and they themselves are the victims who need protecting. Anyone who observes even the most one-sided of disputes should be able to see this – from GamerGate to some of the conflicts over transphobia. Not that many who others would consider to be ‘trolls’ would consider themselves to be trolls.

The tragic case of Brenda Leyland should give everyone pause for thought. She was described and ‘outed’ as a ‘McCann troll’ – she tweeted as @Sweepyface and campaigned, as she saw it, for justice for Madeleine McCann, blaming Madeleine’s parents for her death. Sky News reporter Martin Brunt doorstepped her, and days later she was found dead, having committed suicide. Was she a ‘troll’? Was the media response to her appropriate, proportionate, or positive? These are not easy questions – because this isn’t an easy subject.

Further, one of the best defences of a ‘troll’ is to accuse the person they’re trolling of being a troll – and that is something that should be remembered whatever the tools you introduce to help reduce abuse online. Those tools are double-edged swords. Bring in quick and easy ways to report abuse – things like immediate blocking of social media accounts when those accounts are accused of being abusive – and you will find those tools being used by the trolls themselves against their victims. ‘Flame wars’ have existed pretty much since the beginning of the internet – any tools you create ‘against’ abuse will be used as weapons in flame wars in the future.

No quick fixes and no silver bullets

That should remind us of the biggest point here. There are no quick fixes to this kind of problem. No silver bullets that will slay the werewolves, or magic wands that will make everything OK. Technology often encourages the feeling that if only we created this one new tool, we could solve everything. In practice, it’s almost never the case – and in relation to online abuse this is particularly true.

Some people will suggest that it’s already easy. ‘All you have to do is block your abuser’ is all very well, but if you get 100 new abusive messages every minute you’ll spend your whole time blocking. Some will say that the solution is just not to feed the trolls – but many trolls don’t need any feeding at all. Others may suggest that people are just whining – none of this really hurts you, it’s just words – but that’s not true either. Words do hurt – and most of those suggesting this haven’t been subject to the kind of abuse that happens to others. What’s more, the chilling effect of abuse is real – if you get attacked every time you go online, why on earth would you want to stay online?

The problem is real, and needs careful thought and time to address. The traps involved in addressing it – and I’ve mentioned only a few of them here – are also real, and need to be avoided and considered very carefully. There really are no quick fixes – and it is really important not to raise false hopes that it can all be solved quickly and easily. That false hope may be the biggest trap of all.

17 thoughts on “How not to reclaim the internet…

  1. indeed nearly all our whistleblowers first make contact via the Internet
    and som elf the only places to scream about mistreatment some of it long past any hope of legal redress is online.
    I think maybe the solution is reporting of offenders by their victims added to the idea of social redress such as the programs that bring vandals and other offenders face to face with their victims in a controlled enviroment – much of our present rehabilitation of offenders takes place with young middle class psychologists in prison trying to instilling shame in offenders who have been repeatedly offended against by others- which may well,explain why recidivism rarely falls but that’s a different story for a different day

  2. Good article. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding weaponisation of tools designed to prevent abuse such that they’re used to bully – we see that all too often.

    I also worry that in specifying the types of abuse that are unacceptable we’re missing the point -just because an alleged incident is not racism, misogyny, transphobic etc. we risk not taking it seriously at all. Ask any cyclist who has taken online death threats to the police how seriously that is taken.

    As ever I think a good starting point needs to be an assessment of the scale and types of abuse, but studies thereof are frequently contradictory. There are some articles that analyse this well, if I find them I will tweet them over at you.

  3. I’m glad that this campaign is taking place. The discriminatory and venomous abuse that occurs on social media and on comments sections online is not only deplorable but can be hypocritical. An example of this is of people who attach trigger warnings onto articles they post online, yet will write comments in such a bitter and aggressive tone that they can become a trigger themselves.

  4. I might be reading the press release wrong, but it looks like they found 5000 UK tweets per day using their two rude words in 2014 and only 450 tweets per day using those words in 2016. So by Demos’s own methodology, I guess online misogyny has actually decreased by 90%??

  5. Hi Paul and posters
    When I watched “reclaim the internet” I was, like yourself, filled with dismay. The first thing that came to mind was conspiracy, but maybe it’s just stupidity. Again, playing into the hands of those who would impose censorship. Prohibition does not work.

    I used to spend half my life on forums, often a victim of tolling and insults. Not because I did anyone harm or insulted anyone, I just didn’t agree with their opinions. But this was par for the course. The worst trolls were the “skeptics” who were prepared to use-up a complete page writing trash in order to lose the thread. Very annoying! However, I took it all in my stride and ignored the attacks. The Internet is a rough, tough place and I always treated it as such – that was part of the fun. Making youngsters aware of what to expect is something not mentioned…warnings, education, they are more than likely going to be trolled, insulted or worse.

    I rarely write on forums these days after various bad experiences culminating on Quora. They, bless em, have a system where posters can vote a post down. What happens in reality is that groups vote you down and blot an unwanted poster out of existence. I tried various methods to get around this one, but one day having clicked a link to another page my broad band hub shut down followed shortly by my computer. Someone had sent me a virus. This happened several times and I decided to call it a day – fifty quids-worth of security down the tubes. This is the worst kind of censorship I have personally encountered and it’s not in the remit of those who wish to reclaim the Internet. But interestingly Quora admin still Email me asking why I no longer post.


  6. I would agree with most of the article. One thing that would definitely be worth expanding on is the term “trolls”, as a lot of people abuse the words. By definition, a troll isn’t being serious. They can be jesters, pranksters, agents of chaos or sadists. But they’re not critics, dissenters or just angry people.

    Poe’s Law may say it all. Any sufficiently advanced troll becomes indistinguishable from a genuine nutjob. Likewise the reverse: genuine nutjobs can easily be mistaken for trolls. And one might add another reverse, that to a sufficiently advanced nutjob, sane people are indistinguisable from trolls.

    We’ve long come to see those voices seeking to censor opinions they don’t like. To a sufficiently advanced ideologue, dissent is an intolerable sin, a blasphemy. Ridicule in particular is something they cannot endure… and that’s exactly why it is necessary. Ridicule has always been a tool for the weak to stand up to the powerful, to keep the mighty “down to earth”, to instill humility and an ability to laugh at your own follies.

    What’s new about the internet is that millions of people have the ability to see you, to talk to you, to scrutinize you in an instant. Combined with the anonimity and distance to say what we really believe, without needing to fear a punch in the face. It is exactly the inherent safety of the internet, that allows “abuse” to those who don’t learn to shrug it off – especially those who feel themselves superior and above criticism.
    Add quantity, and sure, that can be overwhelming. Nature didn’t “design” us with the internet in mind, and we have to take the good along with the bad.

    Let us be mindful of what is really happening in many of these cases: people demanding a platform to millions, and then being upset about being responded to honestly by those millions. And when people wish to “reclaim” the internet, make no mistake. That word is nothing more than a euphemism for “conquer”.

    Just ask them whether they want equality, or an end to all “abuse” against women online. If they say equality, show them that most abuse targets men. If they say the latter, you’ll know that they won’t rest until they have absolute dominion to suppress every dissenting voice, anyone who may make a woman uncomfortable by telling her that she is wrong.
    (And the same is true for other similar movements)

    1. Good post Lou Edi
      This is what troll reminds me of, the old TV program:
      “I’m a troll fol-de-rol, I’m a troll fol-de-rol.. and I’ll eat you up for supper!” ~ Troll
      The Troll is the chief antagonist of the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairytale and was a monstrous troll whose greedy nature ultimately became his downfall – like many monsters in fairytales.

      I was reminded of my dream of Internet some months ago when I first logged on to TOR, a wonderful random confusion of links and pics but full with ideas. It was like back in the day, returning to the nineties, but now sadly even that’s gone, all Googled up and sanitised. Now that is to me something well worth reclaiming, but I fear it’s gone forever. The Internet has been stolen by those who hate it and they will do their damnedest to destroy it. Multinational corporations don’t think like human beings.

  7. I was intrigued by “The XY Problem” something I seem to have missed on your blog in the past.
    The XY problem is used by politicians on a regular basis – a kind of convoluted circular reasoning. You don’t want to answer or solve the X problem so you use the Y problem and solve that instead.

    The biggest and best example of this is the economy: What most people fail to understand (and this includes economists) is that we have two economies: The first is the real economy that tends, if left to its own devices, to be quite stable. It is supported by those who manufacture value added goods from metal, plastic etc. and those who grow things using seeds and earth, not forgetting their service industries like transport for distribution, sales and others.

    The second economy is the Ponzi pyramid economy and this is the one we hear about on the news because it involves banks and investment. The ponzi economy consists of banks who print money from thin air, money traders who buy and sell money that has no existence in reality, gold and silver traders who buy and sell gold that only exists on a computer screen, traders in mortgages and so on. It’s no coincidence that these people have 99% of all the money because they suck the life-blood from the real economy. They have to because they have no real money of their own. They do nothing of benefit to society only themselves.

    Politicians tend to support the Ponzi economy because they are involved, either by directly profiting from it or they are in danger of loosing the support of those who do. They may be afraid of the press barons who can destroy their political careers, so they ignore the X problem, the real economy and go-along with the Y problem that looks good but does nothing for their constituents but make them poor.

    And so, as a result of this, the only economy we hear about in the media is the Ponzi, the stock exchange, the value of the pound and so forth. The real economy that concerns and supports ordinary people is never mentioned. This is no secret, you can read about it on the Internet and watch it on YouTube, usually listed under conspiracy theory – ignored. How stupid can we all get?

    The obvious answer to this is to make it illegal for anyone but the government to print money or create money from the air, but they will not do this because of the fear that someone will bring their sad careers to an end.

    If you want to solve the crime, follow the money and this includes ‘Internet Connection Records‘


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