When a telephone and a stamp were the social media of choice, smacking down trolls was pretty simple: hang up and toss it in the trash can. It could have been that simple in the wicked web world.
Today, it’s easy to troll. A handful of keystrokes, dump, run, repeat. The anonymity, the ease of posting, the absence of censure combine in a heady rush of “wow, look at me.” And, when that gets tiresome, reinvent oneself for another foray elsewhere. An army of trolls wanders the web world, sticking noses into not-their-business, ambushing any website allowing comments.
We know them as web trolls, but they are also the playground/workplace/parking lot bullies. They’re the angry men who wear sheets, burn crosses and turn children back at the border. They are the disenfranchised and disenchanted, the powerless, the puppets of power. And, although the web has multiplied their offspring and concentrated their voices, they’ve been around forever.
Ask any journalist, politician or celebrity. I spent four decades in a newsroom. I had three letters files: Crazy, Really Crazy and Call-the-Cops Crazy. I answered my own phone and wasted no time with anyone who cursed, screamed or made accusations anonymously.
Before the days of kinder-gentler customer-centric scripts, we’d just hang up on the crazies. We didn’t publish anonymous letters to the editor. We tossed most of the hate-filled letters — signed and unsigned — and occasionally called the cops when a certain letter threatened a little too specifically.
There was no such thing as “free speech” when it came to crazies. It was, instead, free press, which meant those who owned the press got to decide what got published.
A recent New York Times’ headline reads: “Web Trolls Winning as Incivility Increases.” I beg to differ. Web trolls are winning because the rest of us won’t smack them down. We should have done that back in the 1990s, when commenting and posting were a novelty and not a First Amendment “right.”
It is not, however, too late to act responsibly. The models from traditional, old-fashioned newspapers will work just fine.
1. My house. My rules: If I wouldn’t invite you into my home for a discussion, you can’t post on my column.
2. No name. No post: I don’t give two figs that you think the Internet is all about free speech anonymity. If you’re not willing to reveal who you really are, I’m deleting your post.
3. Pass the sniff test: As with the U.S. Supreme Court decision decades ago on pornography and community standards, I know out-of-line, inappropriate comments when I read them. If they stink, they’re gone.
4. No rambling: No, you do not get to co-opt the entire site by posting everywhere, responding to everyone and generally being a bully.
5. Hang ’em up. Encourage web content owners to just “hang up the phone” on the crazies. Delete with abandon.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a project management and social media consulting company in Key West, FL.