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Don’t feed the Internet trolls

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I remember a time before the Internet where if you wanted to share your views with someone, you either wrote them a letter, called them on the phone, or told them face to face what was on your mind.

In any of those scenarios, most of the time people knew who was talking to them. You could disagree and shake hands or exchange punches afterward. You were forced to stick to or ignore at your peril your mother’s advice: If you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything.

That’s not the way of the Internet.

The Internet, while allowing for discourse to flow more freely than it ever has in the history of mankind, is also a pretty inhospitable place. The free flow of discourse it affords is a double-edged sword — not only giving people some modicum of protection for saying what is really on their minds by hiding their real-life identities, but removing all accountability for making inaccurate or even downright defamatory statements for all the world to see. Anyone can post something on the Internet under a made-up screen name, or even under the name “anonymous” when it comes to blogs and other websites that allow readers to post something without giving your actual identity. And the people supposedly moderating these sites don’t tend to fact-check what others post or give a hoot about whether a particular post could be damaging in real life to someone else.

Being someone who remembers a time when you were held accountable for the things you say, if ever I do post a comment on a website, I post under my real name — first and last. I feel a moral obligation to own what I say publicly, even if people don’t like it, disagree with it or don’t want to hear it.

That being said, I rarely comment on anything online, mostly because I don’t want to feed the trolls.

For those who don’t know what a troll is, Wikipedia provides an illustrative definition: “In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, [1] by posting inflammatory, [2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response [3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. [4]”

Example: Poster 1 commenting on an article about flowers: I love flowers!

Poster 2: SHUT YOUR STUPID PIE HOLE, IDIOT!!!!!

In this example, Poster 2 is a troll.

The other day I found myself in a position where I felt a need to correct an inaccurate statement about our newspapers made by an anonymous poster on Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham’s blog.

I should have known better. I fed the trolls.

The statement to which I was responding was accusing us of giving unbalanced coverage to candidates in the 21st Congressional District race, specifically showing bias against Republican Elise Stefanik of Willsboro. I was outraged that such a ridiculous statement had been made because we have in our archives four solid months’ worth of coverage on Ms. Stefanik’s campaign, so I foolishly tried to set the record straight.

Within moments there was a barrage of comments attacking me personally. None of these posts had anything to do with whether people thought we were being unfair to Ms. Stefanik, and everything to do with how dumb and incompetent I am.

Of course, the authors of all these comments were “anonymous,” so it’s not like I can call them up and ask them why they felt the need to insult me in a public forum even though odds are none of them would know who I am if they met me on the street.

These anonymous posters are most likely campaign operatives whose job it is to post inflammatory comments on such sites, or basement dwellers with nothing better to do than pick fights with people sight unseen. And they can do that because they are “anonymous” and therefore cannot held accountable for anything they say.

I am by no means picking on Mayor Graham’s blog. Even our newspapers allow people to comment using a screen name. Pay attention to the comments on our stories sometimes — posters start out making a comment relevant to a particular story, but it pretty quickly turns into vicious comments about other posters that have nothing to do with the story that started the conversation.

It is unfortunately what the nature of Internet discourse has always been. I might think it’s wrong and that people by and large should show a little integrity by putting their names on what they have to say in a public forum, but my view, alas, does not reflect the reality of the Web.

I have pretty thick skin, so what was said doesn’t bother me. It’s the cowardice of posting anonymously that gets my goat.

Those who post anonymously should grow a set and start owning what they say to the world rather than hiding under bridges. If you feel the need to say something, take responsibility for it and take your praise or lumps accordingly, or keep it to yourself. Heed your mother’s advice.

As for everyone else, take care not to feed the trolls. You never know under what bridge in a dark corner of the World Wide Web they might be lurking.

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