Should journalists expose trolls?

March 3, 2015

Public humiliation is never more entertaining than when it’s justified. That probably explains the success of Swedish TV show Trolljägarna, or Troll Hunters. It follows journalist Robert Aschberg as he tracks down so-called “trolls” who have posted hate speech in social forums or abused individuals online and then confronts them on-camera.

The entertainment value is evident from the show’s first episode (and in its spread to neighboring Norway, Denmark, and Holland with a similar production being considered in the UK, according to Henrik Stenlund, former CEO of production company Strix Television). When Alexander, 20, walks across a parking lot in Sweden to greet Aschberg and his TV crew, the young man thinks they’re about to discuss a potential new show.

But Aschberg is there to confront Alexander with a self-posted Facebook video in which he aggressively rants against a young woman who has openly talked about being raped. In the video, which provoked a storm of abusive comments directed at the young woman, he calls her a liar, along with various other words that would have likely been bleeped on American TV. All of it is documented in the printed transcript that Aschberg pulls out and starts reading.

Alexander, appearing baffled and confused, looks from the transcript to the camera, denying that those words were his. But Aschberg keeps pressing, and Alexander’s reactions start shifting between denial and justification. “Well, calling an innocent person a whore is over the line… But if she is a whore, then I guess it’s okay,” says Alexander, whose Facebook page, Hult Hatar, or Hult hates, is dedicated to videos in which he spews vitriol against anyone with whom he disagrees. The page had about 30,000 likes when the show was recorded.

By the end of the encounter, Aschberg hands the man a note stating that he is legally bound to pay approximately $1,200 in damages to the woman within three weeks.

Online abuse is a serious issue, but there’s far from any kind of consensus on how to deal with it and what journalists’ roles are. Aschberg says his show reflects traditional journalistic values of investigating social ills. “I certainly see [exposing trolls] as being in the public’s interest. It’s a huge problem, and its no different from exposing, lets say, corrupt politicians, or thieves.”

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But it’s more complex than that. The trolls range from dedicated, organized harassers to people who seem to be letting off some steam at the expense of public figures, and their reactions to being exposed are equally varied. While denial is a common first reaction, some end up apologizing to their victims. Real names are not always publicized and, in some cases, the show blurs the faces of the trolls based on editorial evaluations of the severity of each individual case.

This is one approach to an issue whose scope is increasingly troubling and for which there aren’t yet real solutions. Law enforcement too is often at a loss as to how to deal with anonymous online harassment, as described by Amanda Hess in her Pacific Standard story about internet harassment against women, and several other writers. Social media platforms, where trolling of women and minorities is rampant, have long been criticized for lax policies. In early February, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo took responsibility for the service’s poor management of such problems, writing on an internal forum, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.”

There is nothing that quite compares to Troll Hunters on this side of the Atlantic, but there is a growing genre of stories that unmask trolls, most famously freelance journalist Adrian Chen’s 2012 Gawker story in which he outed the infamous Reddit troll violentacrez as IT worker Michael Brutsch, who later lost his job as a result.

“I predict in the next five years, we’ll have a US version of Troll Hunters,” Chen told the CBC in January. In an interview, however, Chen said he isn’t sure that’s the case, considering the outcry caused by his own story, which some criticized as an attack on free speech and the right to online anonymity.

Troll Hunters, too, has received these sorts of critiques. Some have argued that rather than fighting online abuse and hatred, the show is actually causing more trolling when the so-called trolls have become victims of online hate messages themselves after being exposed. “In a networked society, who among us gets to decide where the moral boundaries lie?…The hard moral conundrums are just beginning,” social media scholar danah boyd wrote, following Chen’s outing of violentacrez.

To Chen, part of the rationale behind outing violentacez was the fact that Michael Brutsch’s online activities were well-known and even supported by his platform of choice. ”Violentacrez was instrumental for Reddit. That to me is more important. It’s not about this horrible person but the system encouraging him,” Chen says. Further, the Reddit user had made himself into something of an internet celebrity, giving anonymous interviews. “He was a public person. That’s totally fair game,” Chen says.

Not all trolls have Brutsch’s high profile, but doxxing isn’t the only solution open to journalists. A 2014 study showed that discussions around news articles on social media improved in relevance and civility once a journalist got directly involved in the debate. Trolling was reduced once a real-life person related to the story or news organization in question inserted him or herself into a conversation.

But that has yet to become common practice, and due to the shortage of solutions to trolling, groups and individuals outside of established companies have turned to more creative solutions: The top prize at this year’s New York hack-a-thon went to the creators of a new tool, TrollBusters, designed to prevent trolling of female journalists, while individuals like classicist Mary Beard and writer Lindy West have taken it upon themselves to deal with their harassers directly.

And the past few years have seen the rise of several vigilante groups that, similar to the Troll Hunters, track down and expose alleged sex offenders and online bullies or people who post racist content. Unsurprisingly, such vigilantism is imperfect, sometimes leading activists to doxx an innocent person—or to focus attention on the wrong issue altogether. Ryan M. Milner, a scholar in mediated subcultures and assistant professor at the College of Charleston, believes that the focus on trolling as a phenomenon risks overshadowing social problems related to power, privilege, bullying, and inequality.

“I think the whole ambiguous shorthand we’ve developed around the word troll, can be detrimental, because it whitewashes these more substantive social ills. We’re acting like we’ve got a new and discrete thing with ’trolling’ and ’trolls,’ but it’s neither,” he said. In other words, exposing trolls is not going to cure the root causes of online harassment, such as misogyny or racism.

But maybe it can change the perception that online actions have no real consequences.

“People view things on the internet as not real,” says Chen. “That’s a norm that should change.”

The perception that anything goes online clearly prevails among many of Aschberg’s trolls too. When he goes troll hunting, he doesn’t just encounter hardcore harassers who defend their actions or flatly reject responsibility for their own comments. Quite a few of those who make it on the show seem genuinely ashamed when confronted with a printout of their own offensive language, admit that their behavior has been unacceptable, and even extend apologies to their victims. Aschberg presses for explanations, which are hard to come by, but in these cases tend to be some version of I didn’t really mean it that seriously.

So while it’s easy to disregard Troll Hunters as nothing more than a ratings ploy, it could actually serve the public’s interest as a wakeup call to start taking the issue seriously and acknowledging that online actions should have consequences too.

After Alexander was exposed on the show, he shut down his Facebook page, though either he himself or someone else later created a replacement with the same name, promising new video material that would prompt another visit from Aschberg. But the new page has hardly been updated since it was created about a year ago and only has around 3,000 likes. Based on judgements about moral boundaries that journalists make all the time, Aschberg decided to shine a light on a social ill that he believes is in the public’s interest.

But Aschberg’s take is unlikely to be final word on the matter, if the writing on Hult Hatar’s new Facebook wall is any indication of broader sentiments on the internet: “Can’t handle it? Then get the fuck out.”

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.