Those who hide behind an anonymous online name are known as ‘trolls’ – waiting beneath a bridge with their laptops, ready to hurl vitriol disguised as opinion at any passing target.
Their insults, rants, threats and name-calling show up in the comments section of blogs, articles and Facebook walls, sometimes with lightning speed, on a daily or even hourly basis. Who are these virtual haters, and what drives them to such heights of spite?
It’s the combination of anonymity, access and audience that brings out the worst in people, writes Lisa Selin Davis in Salon. As for who they are, nobody knows. Anyone with an e-mail account can hit “send” and express their deepest, darkest biases for all to read, without fear of reprisal. It’s what psychologists call the “disinhibition effect,” and it can make for a very toxic online environment.
But should that be allowed? The internet promises personal privacy along with a platform for democratic discourse, but does that make online trolling fair game? Does the First Amendment protect online commentary to the point of threats, slander or worse? Would those who indulge in the practice be as free with their language if their names were public as well as their insults? Have you ever left an anonymous comment that you wouldn’t voice in person?
Karen North holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is the Director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
Kevin Bankston, Senior Counsel and Director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting democratic values and constitutional liberties in the digital age