Allan Brauer, the communications chairman for the Sacramento County Democratic Party, rightly resigned after an inexcusable tweet he sent to a Republican rival: “May your children all die from debilitating, painful and incurable diseases.”
Unfortunately, Brauer is not alone in his use of social media and the Internet for hate speech.
Popular Science announced this week that it would no longer allow comments on new stories because “trolls” were diminishing their ability to foster intelligent debate. They also referenced a University of Wisconsin-Madison study that showed uncivil comments not only polarize readers, but skew peoples’ interpretation of news stories. In other words, in addition to being uncivil and disrespectful, trolls were harming scientific knowledge.
But Popular Science isn’t the first website to try to get a handle on trolling. Pick a YouTube video at random and peruse the comments. It won’t take long to find the trolls in a feeding frenzy.
This past summer, the Huffington Post eliminated anonymous posting in an effort to combat the often mean-spirited, hateful comments that find their way online.
Twitter has been in the news lately for a torrent of hateful tweets. When Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American, was crowned Miss America, Twitter exploded with tweets such as “Miss America is a terrorist,” “Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11,” “Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.” Beyond the racist and homophobic tweets that often clog cyberspace, there are hateful, misogynist ones that threaten rape and death.
The Daily Republic website has seen racist trolling in the past. Though not every comment is reviewed, there is a mechanism to report abusive posts. The goal is to allow for vigorous debate without descending into name-calling and flaming like so many online comment sections do.
If people only could post under the real names, it might cut down on some of the hate speech, but not all. In fact, much of the sleazy Miss America comments were posted under people’s real identities. It seems that with the election of the nation’s first African-American president, women’s shattering of the glass ceiling in so many fields and gains in gay rights, bigots have let their ids run wild in a mean-spirited backlash.
What we’re seeing online is the Internet version of road rage. The same person who flips you the bird in the safe confines of their vehicle feels even more secure cussing and threatening on a keyboard in the privacy of their home.
Anonymity online has its place. Parents would probably rather have their children use pseudonyms online to protect their identities. Sometimes people discuss personal, sensitive experiences online and wouldn’t feel free to participate if their identities were disclosed.
But too often, the freedom to anonymously and instantaneously post one’s opinion online leaves normally rational people devolving into playground bullies.
So what to do about this incivility and hate speech online? Some have resorted to public shaming and fighting fiery rhetoric with fiery words. But the age-old advice still applies: Don’t feed the trolls. Ignore them completely. Attention is what these lonely souls crave. On Facebook, delete or report hateful comments. Debate, not debase. Peace.
Kelvin Wade is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Fairfield. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.