Living with trolls
THE ELECTIONS are over and many netizens have “refriended” each other on Facebook. But, alas, the hate-filled online exchanges and black propaganda continue. The demonstration of the political power of social media in the past few months will doubtless encourage politicians and people with vested interests to keep mobilizing it to advance their own agenda, and people who have found a voice online will be emboldened to keep articulating their opinions. No longer about candidates, these discourses will focus on the issues of the day—as well as the newly-elected officials, most especially the President-elect.
This brew of politics is to be expected in a 21st-century democracy, and to a certain extent should even be celebrated as a sign that people are getting engaged in national affairs. But netizens have to brace themselves for a harsh bit of reality: The trolls are here to stay.
It is hard to say where exactly the term “troll” came from. Some say that it came from Scandinavian folklore, where trolls figured as demons or creatures that spelled trouble; others suggest that it came from the French troller which means to ramble around. True to these possible etymologies, trolls seemingly loiter around the internet, causing nuisance to netizens by flooding their social media posts with hateful, provocative, threatening, or profanity-laced comments—or taking down posts by reporting them as offensive or even hacking them.
Trolls have different motivations. Many trolls do things “just for fun”—thereby becoming the contemporary iteration of the practical joker. Others consider trolling to be a form of activism, rationalizing their provocations as ways to highlight certain issues—or humiliate people or organizations they deem worthy of punishment: from annoying celebrities to oppressive governments. Political trolls, as their name implies, target political posts or news articles—and many of them act in concert: “The effect created by such Internet trolls is not very big, but they manage to make certain forums meaningless because people stop commenting on the articles when these trolls sit there and constantly create an aggressive, hostile environment toward those whom they don’t like,” says Russian opposition activist Vladimir Volokhonsky of his government’s “online comment propaganda army.” And the same can be said of the Philippines.
The ubiquity of trolling can have the effect of desensitizing some people—particularly the youth for whom the internet is “first nature”—to its effects. When I posed the scenario of someone trolling his Facebook account, Paolo Gonzalez, a college student from De La Salle, replied that it’s no big deal; “they’re just words on a screen.” But to many others, a hurtful comment will be taken as if it were a real-life utterance and can cause many a sleepless night.
Moreover, even if people were to get accustomed to trolling, trolls can up the ante by using even darker tactics. Just as Isis resorts to even more dramatic methods of murder to keep attracting media attention, it would require even more hateful speech for people to get provoked or affected. During the election season, online death threats became a badge of courage for the opinionated—until it got so common that most everyone who were vocal about certain issues and candidates got death threats. None of these threats, thankfully, seem to have materialized—but in a country where journalists are not safe, such threats are like a dark cloud that cannot simply be dismissed or wished away.
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Living with trolls involves recognizing, first of all, that not everyone who disagrees with your opinions is a troll, and dismissing them as “trolls” is not helpful. We saw this during the elections, when labels like “Dutertard” and “yellowtard” only exacerbated the polarization between various camps. Comments that threaten violence and heap swear words or insults may be considered “trolling,” but others may simply be very angry—or have a different world view.
Living with trolls is also about learning about the alternative realities that people inhabit. Though some trolls are obviously paid (and you can spot them for their lack of actual friends and posts in their Facebook profiles), we should also look at the contexts that gave rise to the views of real people who feel strongly for their positions. We can learn many communications lessons, too, such as the power of juxtaposition (i.e., martial law vs. “Yolanda”) that flattens context. Or the potency of images in galvanizing people’s emotions—and the (misplaced) importance of headlines in the age of free Facebook.
Finally, living with trolls entails putting up a bold face in the face of hate, refusing to be intimidated by threats of violence, and spreading positivity amid negativity.
When Parokya ni Edgar’s Chito Miranda got trolled for voicing his hesitation about who to vote for president, he used his response as an opportunity to educate his wide audience about the need to study one’s choices carefully, saying: “Kasi chong, napaka-importante ng gagawin nating pagboto.”
When journalist Ed Lingao posted a think piece about martial law, it was taken down, but he kept reposting the same message—as did many others—and it kept going viral. Perhaps there were many who wanted his message taken down, but there were even more who wanted it to remain standing.
And so we shouldn’t lose hope about political discourse in social media: Trolls are here to stay, but so is the rest of the world.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.
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