The trolls under the bridge

I read a lot of online news, and one of the lowlights is reading the reader comments at the bottom of every story. It's really unbelievable what people will say when they're protected by a veneer of anonymity.

People who go to online forums and spew hate and garbage add nothing to the dialogue but bile. They call people names, disguise opinions as fact, get off-topic, and generally drag the discussion into the gutter.

For example, this summer I read an article in the New York Daily News about a mother who was asking the city to remove black, rubberized mats from playgrounds after her child badly burned the bottom of both of his feet. In the heat of the day, the mat warmed to 70 degrees Celsius.

Instead of sympathizing, angry writers blamed the mother for letting her child's shoes fall off, or blamed the child and called it Darwinism. Some defended the parks department on the grounds that there were signs telling parents and children not to take shoes off - ignoring the fact that the child was four, that the mother didn't know he took his shoes off, and that kids can and will fall on their hands, knees, faces and bums. Short of putting your child in a head-to-toe silicon suit or taping oven mitts to their bodies, these mats are obviously an accident waiting to happen.

I advise you to do a Google search for the story and read the comments if you want a quick peek at humanity at its worst.

Websites do have software that scans comments for swear words and offensive phrases, and some have live moderators as well but it's impossible to monitor every comment on every website. Even if you could it would be considered censorship to ban certain comments or commentators, no matter how stupid, mean or wrong they are.

In the computing world, these people who go to websites to vent are known as trolls. Not all are mean - some are harmless, some are defensive, some are trying to be funny, and some are just conspiracy nuts trying to wake up the people. But one thing is clear and that is trolls are ruining the web experience for the rest of us.

Some trolls focus on a single website, while others might go to dozens of websites on a regular basis. Wherever they go they slowly drive all the other legitimate forums users away until only the trolls remain, hitting each other over the head with poor grammar.

Because of trolls, you usually have to register to comment on websites, which stifles the dialogue to some degree. Who, besides trolls, has time to register for every website that posts a story they might want to comment on?

It's a serious issue with serious financial consequences. Websites are finding that people are reluctant to comment on web stories to avoid troll attacks. People may also choose to avoid websites entirely because of the comments, judging a publication and its readership by the trolls.

It's the same issue with online gaming. I love playing Halo 3 online, but I hate all the racist, bigoted, offensive and ignorant garbage I have to listen to. Some 70 per cent of World of Warcraft players (according to an article on trolls at stay in single player modes where they don't have to interact with others to steer clear of trolls.

It's hard to put an economic figure on the impact of trolls, but companies invest heavily in websites and online games and the damage could easily add up to billions of dollars.

The good news is that companies are working on enterprising new ways to shut the trolls up.

One way, according to an article at, is anti-troll software. Different programs scan language and look for troll memes (e.g. the three F's of trolling - Fail, First!, and F#*!tard). Another piece of software audibly reads your post back to you before you can submit your comment, which studies show makes people feel stupid enough to rewrite their comments before they post.

Another solution to the troll infestation is a system that allows other users to vote comments up or down to generate a "karma score" for trolls. Every registered member with a lot of down votes is instantly discredited to other readers, and have their comments relegated the back pages.

Another solution put forward is to strip people of their anonymity. Studies show that nice people will do and say horrible things in certain situations, one of those situations being anonymity.

Every person would be given a persistent Internet ID assigned by an ISP that will be used for everything. People might not know it's you personally making the comments or where you live, but a website can know that bigasstroll_44 has been banned from six other sites for off-colour comments and deny them the ability to post.

You can't stop people from being angry, offensive or full of crap, but you can make it so they'll have to be civil and somewhat thoughtful when making comments or risk that they won't be heard at all. Free speech doesn't give you the right to yell "fart" in a crowded chat room.

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