Google’s War on Trolls Could Help Save the Internet

As I’ve noted before, pretty much every day I receive emailed queries (and sometimes phone calls) from desperate persons who have been driven effectively largely offline for fear of retaliation from anything that they might say publicly online.

I don’t usually know them. They don’t usually know me except perhaps by reputation. They’re taking a leap of faith anyway.

They almost inevitably begin with words to the effect of “I hope that I can trust you” — and the fact that they’ve been driven to tell a total stranger some of the most intimate details of their lives is heartbreaking beyond measure.

I do what I can for them in terms of offering advice, but the range of options is in reality quite limited. Law enforcement is usually uninterested in dealing with these cases even when they’ve risen to obviously dangerous levels — their typical response to concerned persons is along the lines of “stay off the Internet.”

And the fact is that nowadays it’s a vast understatement to say that you can’t safely have a thin skin if you’re going to make public statements in most Net venues.

I’ve been at this game for a long time — effectively since the earliest days of the Internet — so my skin is pretty damned thick by now.

But even I’m not completely immune to twinges of discomfort when I survey the scope of attacks that I routinely receive.

Some of them are from trolls who make the mistake of incorrectly assuming that I’m female — the speed with which they retreat if I direct them to my Harley profile shot can be awesome to behold. And of course there are the usual antisemitic morons and other white supremacist cretins, right-wing imbeciles, and all the rest. These days they seem to almost inevitably be Donald Trump supporters. As we know, he joyfully attracts them like flies to you-know-what.

Among the Internet’s — and so the world’s — most crucial questions are ones of freedom of speech vs. privacy — open communications vs. trolling, threats, and hate speech.

It’s an incredibly delicate balance — how to limit hateful attacks that drive people to desperation, without creating a social media ecosystem that unreasonably limits free speech.

There are various ways to approach this set of difficult problems.

Over in Italy right now they’re taking exactly the wrong path — proposing a law that would fine “site managers” 100,000 euros if they don’t take action against posts that simply “mock” another person. The proposal’s standard is that a person simply “feels” that they were insulted. Laughably insane, impractical, and unworkable. Pretty much anybody could really rake it in under a law like that!

Back in the real world, Internet services with a sense of responsibility have long used their Terms of Service agreements to deal with posting abuse, with various degrees of success. Keep in mind that these firms have the utterly appropriate right to determine what they will permit and host — this is reasonable editorial responsibility, not censorship (I usually view censorship per se as almost inevitably being repressive actions by governments against third parties).

It has long seemed clear to me that appropriately dealing with the rising tide of trolls and other social media posting abuses would inevitably require an intensifying partnership between automated detection systems and human insights, each bringing different strengths and limitations to the table.

This is why I wholeheartedly support the ongoing efforts of Google (or more precisely, the “Jigsaw” division of Google’s parent Alphabet, Inc.) to leverage Google’s sophisticated and powerful artificial intelligence assets to help deal with the growing trolling and hate speech scourge.

I won’t attempt to summarize the details of their project here — you can read about it at the link just above.

But I did want to take this opportunity to express my view that while obviously we cannot expect any particular efforts to completely solve the deeply complicated and significantly multidisciplinary problems of social media posting abuse, I am convinced that Google’s approach shows enormous promise.

Through the efforts of Google and others working along multiple paths of research and associated policy analysis, we have some excellent opportunities to make seriously positive inroads against posting abusers, and in the process making the Internet a better place for the vast majority of its users and the global community at large. Communications will be greatly encouraged when the “fear factor” that holds so many wonderful people back from public postings is significantly reduced.

And frankly, if these efforts also have the side-effect of reducing the number of horrific posting abuse nightmares that fill my inbox from desperate persons seeking help, that will personally be for me a very welcome plus as well.

Be seeing you.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!