Trolling does no harm? Think again

I’ve been reading a lot of anthropology recently. Not sure why, maybe because there’s something about the current state of the world that makes me want to know more about the workings of the pre-civilised mind.

Trolling does no harm? Think again

David Graeber’s excellent paper, “Toward an anthropological theory of value”, has a fascinating section about the ancient Maori and their world view, in which I found one item particularly provocative. That Maori custom of sticking the tongue out during their haka war dance, so familiar to all rugby fans, always strikes us as a gesture of cheekiness or insult, because that’s what it now means in most European cultures. However, this isn’t what it originally meant to the Maori: when aimed at an enemy during a battle it meant “you are meat, and I’m going to eat you”, and true to their word, if they defeated you they may well have done so. For some reason, this put me in mind of internet trolls.

Trolling is a form of politics, and to that same extent it’s a kind of terrorism

There’s recently been a surge of outrage about trolling on Twitter, sparked initially by rape threats against Labour MP Stella Creasy and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, then amplified by bomb threats against various female journalists, including The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman. This stuff plays directly into debates about internet censorship (Cameron’s anti-porn filters) and freedom of speech, all of which constitute such a moral quagmire that one enters it very cautiously indeed. I’ve always been largely in favour of the freedom to robustly criticise, in any medium at all, since to take the opposite view would mean to toe the line, to accept things the way they are.

However, in recent years this issue has become more complicated after various laws against “hate speech” have been enacted. These laws make certain kinds of speech – often racial insults – into prosecutable crimes, and that raises two, very difficult points: first, is it permissible to ban any form of speech, as opposed to action, at all (the pure freedom-of-speech argument)? Second, how do you gauge the degree of offensiveness of a speech act (necessary in order to decide whether it’s prosecutable or not)?

The argument for freedom of speech can be defended in abstract philosophical terms, but it always depends upon the old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”: that is, verbal threats aren’t the same as the actions that they threaten, and don’t cause the same damage. That’s certainly true: the threat of rape isn’t as harmful as the act of rape, and the threat to bomb doesn’t kill or demolish buildings.

However, that isn’t to say they cause no damage. One result of the recent revolution in neuroscience is confirmation that fear and anxiety do indeed cause physical damage to people. These primitive emotions are useful from an evolutionary point of view: fear keeps you from stepping off cliffs or picking up rattlesnakes, while anxiety forms part of the necessary binding force between mammals and their highly dependent offspring. However, both operate by releasing corticosteroid hormones that have all kinds of long-term effects if repeated too often – high blood pressure, hardening of arteries and much more. Like fire extinguishers, they’re necessary and welcome during an emergency, but make a mess of the furniture and aren’t to be played with.

Trolling is playing with the fire extinguishers. It’s meant to induce anxiety, fear or confusion in order to dissuade the victim from some attitude or action of which the troll disapproves. To that extent, it’s a form of politics, and to that same extent it’s a kind of terrorism, since both seek to achieve political ends by inducing fear. The crucial difference is that terrorists don’t just speak but act: they don’t merely stick out their tongues but really do eat you. None of this is news, since bandits, tyrants, robber barons and military officers have known for millennia that you can bend a population to your will by terrorising them.

In fact, there’s now a whole new discipline that views our efforts to manipulate each others’ emotions as the driving force of history. We manipulate our own emotions with music, dance, art and drugs: why else would alcohol, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco and opium figure so highly in the history of trade?

We manipulate others’ emotions with scary stories (religion), clever rhetoric and the threat of violence. Democratic governments insist we delegate the use of force to our police and army; whether or not they can demand we also give up the threat of force remains a fraught question, but never believe that threats do no harm.

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