Joshua Peter's Twitch stream, moments before he was swatted. (YouTube via Ars Technica)

Is There Any Way To Put The Trolls Back In The Bottle?

on Friday, Feb. 6th

Earlier this week I started to finally feel a tiny spark of hope that the reign of troll terror on these here Internets would be over in the not-too-distant. Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, straight up admitted that the social media service had a serious problem with harassment and that it was costing them in terms of public perception and users. Ahead of an earnings call, no less.

Costolo took personal responsibility for the situation, and while a plan for how to shut down troll was’t unveiled he made it clear that the cost of being a serial abuser should be higher than the cost of being the abused. We’ll reserve judgement on the approach to balancing the scales until for when it is revealed.

That good vibe pretty much evaporated today after reading the latest swatting story over at Ars Technica. It’s a little tale about a Twitch streamer with a modest following having the SWAT team sent to his house.

Here’s the thing: I’m no fan of how easy it seems to be to get a heavily armed police squad to show up to a private residence. You’d think that there would be some way to verify where calls are coming from before rushing a tac team out into the suburbs. Yet I also recognize the “firefighter” logic: what happens when the cops don’t take a call seriously and someone gets killed?

It’s a lose-lose proposition and that’s exactly what makes it so ripe for exploitation by those who are seeking “lulz”. Chaos creeps in where the stakes are high and bureaucratic systems rely on basic human decency not to be abused. The problem is that 14 year old boys and the mentally ill with violent tendencies don’t get basic human decency. Not because they are bad but because they are ill-formed. Either they haven’t finished baking yet or the soufflé fell somewhere along the way.

The thing is: there’s not going to be a magic pill that fixes all this. We can’t keep serial trolls from accessing the internet without incarcerating them all. We could demilitarize the police, but even then we’d still likely have armed officers responding to prank calls—just not “in force.” At least until we had an incident where regular beat cops got killed on one of those calls and the police unions raised hell until SWAT response was restored.

We could set up more surveillance, to corroborate calls: but then we’re smashing all over civil liberties.

I’m not even confident that a concerted effort to instill some sense of manners and ethical behavior online into children from early childhood education on would have all that great of an effect. The internet gives us all superpowers of a sort. Aspects of our personalities are magnified, and we start to play into the crowd’s expectations of who we are. Nothing could be more human than that. In the troll dens of the world those expectations are to cause the most chaos possible. When you don’t have the requisite empathy with other people—for whatever reason—there’s not much you can do to dull the desire to watch the world burn.

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