I am such an unintentional luddite. I turned up at a conference about the internet (NetHui) and started adding things to my To Do list by using a piece of paper and a pencil, being surrounded by so many ipads, netbooks, iphones, androids and other technical gadgets that make me feel old that the air was all but humming with wi-fi traffic. So I have decided to get a smart phone, after a very useful discussion with a tech.
I also learnt about internet trolls: those people who post comments on blog posts, anonymously or otherwise, that are beyond the point of generating healthy debate with sometimes passionate argument but instead fall into the category of disruption, sometimes extending into defamatory comments and damage to professional reputations without any genuine basis for the comments other than a blind belief they are right and any dissenter is wrong and should be punished. The people who are so convinced their view is correct that they will descend into personal name-calling and vitriole just to try to make their point.
Sciblogs and the Science Media Centre’s own Peter Griffin did a great job of hosting the session on this subject at the NetHui because he made the discussion happen rather than let people drift off-topic.
A good definition of what can be considered as comments from trolls came about from the discussion to distinguish between the ‘healthy debate’ group of commentators and the comments that start to pass into cyber bullying. I have been peripheral to a recent defamation case and have read, as part of research into that case, misinformed comments about me – apparently I gave shonky evidence about blood in the Scott Watson trial in 1999. Which is pretty impossible because a) I wasn’t a forensic scientist at that time, and b) I’m not a blood expert and never have been. So they had totally the wrong person, didn’t check their facts and were happy to say what they were saying without feeling the need to check those ‘facts’.
I accept the argument that self-regulation by web hosts and site administrators of website comments is preferable to legislation intervention, but that relies on the webhost or site administrator being fair-minded and recognising when comments fall beyond debate and into disruption/defamation. In the absence of the webhost removing offensive comments, I don’t think it is enough to say that people have the power not to look at sites that offend them. That may be true regarding discussion topics but when comments on blog posts are defamatory and could potentially be professionally damaging, there is a need to know what is being said which requires reading the comments that are out there. Then there needs to be some way to have those posts independently assessed and/or subsequently removed if the webhost doesn’t agree they could be defamatory.
Is legislation the answer? Maybe, maybe not. What about some form of mediation or independent reviewer process? Does such a thing exist? If so, should sites provide a link to the appropriate website?