Monday, August 26, 2013

Trolling, Subtlety, and Lying on the Internet

People lie on the Internet? Why, that's simply insane!

Lying is an ancient concept, but every new interface of human communication brings new ways to deceive. From outright hoaxes to games around message intent, the Internet has brought us entirely new ways to be subtle and disingenuous. And, in a bizarre way, it's probably making us smarter.

The Internet has been a platform for a large number of hoaxes and scams to propagate. Online deception is a problem that plagues online advertising even to this day. Concerns about phishing and other scams have forced services and companies to increase network security and warn customers about suspicious links and emails.

Lying online has even changed how people celebrate certain holidays. April Fool's Day was traditionally a day set aside for pulling pranks on people, and the Internet latched onto that idea by conjuring elaborate lies whenever April Fool's day comes around. April Fool's Day may have a unique position as the holiday that the Internet has made more observed. You can't really say that about Christmas.

Well, it's about time!

When you first go online and start using services like social networks, you voluntarily start putting information about yourself on the Internet. You choose what information you add about yourself online, and are therefore indirectly in control of what information about yourself goes public. If you're lying about personal information, then you don't have to worry about things like tone and body language giving you away. You can rehearse your video content, pose for your pictures (or just take other people's pictures from the internet), and edit what you write as much as you'd like before going public, making lying easier than it's ever been before.

In 2007, a person on YouTube going by the name of DaxFlame started posting video blogs about his daily life. He was socially awkward, would recount cringe-worthy moments of his life, and would coin incredibly strange catch-phrases. Viewers would tune in to watch him make a fool of himself on camera. Most of them assumed that DaxFlame was some kid with a lot of social problems and very little self-awareness.

As it turns out, DaxFlame was a fictional character. The person that appeared in the videos was an actor who wanted to practice his skills to be a better performer while attracting attention to himself. He has since gone on to star in movies like 21 Jump Street and Project X. DaxFlame wasn't even the first person to fool YouTube viewers in this way; he was preceded by a YouTuber known as lonelygirl15, whose video blogs escalated in outlandishness until the user finally admitted that it was all fiction.

Sometimes these elaborate pranks take a more mysterious form. In the mid-2000s, a website called Eon8 launched, with a ticking counter set to end on July 1st, 2006. The website featured a world map, with red dots placed on heavily populated areas. No other information was available about the website or what the counter was for, so the Internet went wild with speculation.

People started getting panicky, wondering if Eon8 was going to be an international attack, or release of a virus. So many people visited the Eon8 website on July 1st that the website actually crashed from all the web traffic. It turned out that Eon8 was a social experiment by some college student, who wanted to see how the Internet would react to a lack of information.

Truth is, maps can freak people out.

Sometimes, these deceptions can get malicious. The suicide of Megan Meier is a famous example of this. Megan, aged 13, befriended a 16 year old boy on MySpace named "Josh Evans". "Josh Evans" was a hoax account made by the mother of one of Megan s classmates. The mother, Lori Drew, was frustrated with Megan spreading gossip about her daughter at school. so she made an account with intent to get information about Megan and humiliate her.

"Josh" strung along Megan for some time, exchanging messages on MySpace and presumably conveying romantic interest. Megan had a history of self-esteem issues, and likely welcomed the attention of a boy that she thought was attractive. When "Josh" suddenly started sending abusive messages to Megan, she decided to hang herself with a belt in her bedroom closet.

It's a tragic and infuriating story, especially when you consider that this was all caused by an adult (and neighbor, in fact) looking to harass a 13 year old girl. Her story has helped push discussion of cyber-bullying into public spotlight, and also offers a sobering lesson in what is possible with online deception.

The fortunate thing is that hearsay about online deception spreads quickly, and it influences our behavior online. We know that when we see a YouTube comment with the username of a famous person, it probably isn't actually them. When someone's gotten you to click on a shock site before using a misleading link, you begin getting wary of where hyperlinks may lead you. Being able to discern these things online requires us to be skeptical, which comes from understanding how things on the Internet work and from occasionally falling victim to a trick or two. In a way, being online trains us to become more skeptical.

We can consult legitimate sources to verify information that we distrust. Websites like Snopes function as the myth busters of the Internet, reporting on urban legends and hoaxes while - and this is crucial - citing their sources. Wikipedia gets some flak for being a collaborative project, but a discerning individual knows to look at the references of a given Wikipedia page instead of making a blanket statement about a page's claims. Checking references goes deeper than seeing if there's a bibliography section, as well - anyone can just put up a bibliography next to some nonsense text. We can independently investigate the sources that these pages give us.

On the Internet, authoritative and reliable sources are incredibly valuable. We have in fact talked about this before regarding arguing on the Internet. In that post, I talked about the ways that arguing online can be helpful and even better than traditional argument in some regards.

In fact, let's talk about arguing online again for a moment. What kind of deception can happen in online discourse?

I skipped over one particular scenario in that previous post about arguing online: Where the message of the argument is disingenuous. When the primary intent of the arguer is to disrupt conversation and provoke its readers into emotional responses, it is known as trolling.

And the people who troll are usually chubby and naked with unkempt hair.

Trolling involves a very subtle kind of lying. It's a deception of intent - a troll argues in order to get a (usually negative) reaction out of people. Successfully trolling someone requires them to believe that your statements are sincere. After all, if they don't think that you actually believe what you're saying, then why would they continue to react to you?

The act of 'trolling' can generalize past argumentation, but the goal of trolling remains the same - to get a reaction out of people. Scamming someone is not the same as trolling them, since the intent in scamming is to get their money or resources for yourself. Having a controversial opinion that happens to elicit strong reactions from other people is not the same as trolling, since the intent is to sincerely convey your point.

The term 'trolling' gets thrown around a lot, and the chosen examples tend to range from goofy behavior to organized harassment. Because the term only describes intent, the term 'trolling' ends up being very vague, and often misused. It is a term that has been heavily romanticized by online subculture as well, with terms like master troll coming into use and the 'trollface' becoming popular. As 4chan and /b/ rode out its wave of popularity, discussion of trolling entered into more mainstream circles.

Certainly, there is such a thing as being good at trolling and bad at trolling. People who indiscriminately spam profanity in order to disrupt a community aren't doing a very good job at concealing their intentions, and will probably get ignored or moderated. Eon8 is an example of a good troll act: the mystery behind the website did a good job in masking the user's intentions, and allowed people's own minds to (incorrectly) fill in the gaps of information.

The rise in popularity of trolling has led to interesting situations where trolls will often end up unwittingly trying to troll each other. When both people are trolling, the conversation develops several layers of irony. Each troll is attempting to deceive the other while simultaneously being deceived. Onlookers may not be able to discern if the conversation between trolls is sincere. Making sense of such encounters - let alone participating in one - can quickly become an endurance test.

Video not work safe (some profanity is spoken).

Depending on the level of self-awareness of our given online community, this emergent irony can be directly addressed and even built on. Since trolling is a matter of intent, and since intent is ambiguous if you aren't the speaker, conversational 'games' can emerge where you vary the intent of your message. SomethingAwful's "pink forums" operate like a giant inside joke, where people post messages, post meta-messages, and post meta-meta-messages as well. The forum aims to mock people on the Internet by posting like them, which entails posting like trolls, posting like people reacting to trolls, etc, completely out of parody.

It's interesting that despite online communication's lack of tone, we can still learn about subtle cues in communication online. Much like how we learn to be skeptical of information online, we also learn to be skeptical of people's intentions online. We've talked about how people will develop special characters and images to convey concepts that are difficult to express with text alone, but that doesn't mean that we don't still play around with the ambiguity of actual words.

In order to properly interpret words online, we need to look at context, word choice, and patterns in typing conventions. Even syntax plays a role in interpretation. If typing only in capitalized letters and with obscene amounts of exclamation points can convey yelling and anger, then typing exclusively in lowercase letters with minimal punctuation can communicate something else entirely - calm, nonchalance. What happens when you say something outrageous or serious in all lowercase? What happens if you contrast the lack of punctuation with use of a period or exclamation point in an isolated sentence?

These subtleties in the way you type online are a lot like the subtleties in the way you speak in real life, except they are not as widely intuitive or socialized. These cues have to be learned from observation, and are often in sharp contrast to what we learn about grammar and language in school. It's possible that the curriculum might have to change one day to reflect how people have developed online communication.

The kind of lies and subtleties that happen online can end up causing inconvenience - and sometimes real harm - to people. But for a lot of people passively reading content online without necessarily participating in it, this kind of online behavior is helpful and enriching. It encourages reading between the lines and asking questions about the information in front of you.

Since the Internet is a platform that allows us to deceive so easily, it also ends up being a platform that trains us in detecting deception. In 2013, where the Internet is intimately tied in with most of our daily routines, most people know that not everything online is to be trusted.  Perhaps as online usage grows, we'll collectively have a sharper eye for lies and subtlety. Trust me. I'm a doctor.

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