This Sunday’s N.Y. Times published an article titled: Malwebolence – The Trolls Among Us. The term ‘troll’ is internet slang for someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Malwebolence is a newly coined word that hacks together mal (bad), web and violence. The people who engage in this behavior operate anonymously and usually cannot be traced, much less interviewed. But the Times author was able to find, then meet and interview several of them.
[note: I stand corrected on the word 'malwebolence'. See here. A better emymology is 'web malevolence']
The result is a fascinating, yet ethically disturbing read. Trolls keep ‘score’ by provoking an individual or net community and then generating (for themselves) ‘lulz’ (i.e. LOLs, where LOL is the web acronym for Laugh Out Loud). As one put it: “Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh”. Another, when asked whether trolling hurt people, replied: “Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone’s life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I’ve been through horrible stuff too.” And another said: “Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards … We need to put these people in the oven!”
Read the entire article for yourself. The focus is, of course, on the most extreme end of a disturbing internet behavior and ethic that ranges from simple discourteousness through superiority, mocking, harassment and even violence.
Which brings me to the Ring of Gyges.
This is a famous story found in Plato’s Republic. Here Glaucon re-tells the well-known myth to Socrates:
For he was a shepherd laboring for the then ruler of Lydia and some part of the earth was shattered by a violent thunderstorm developing along with an earthquake and a chasm appeared at the place where he was pasturing. Seeing this and wondering, he went down and the fable says that he saw, among other wonders, a hollow bronze horse having openings, through which, peeping in, he saw that there was a corpse inside, as it seemed, greater than is usual for men, and wearing nothing else but a golden ring at his hand, that he took off before leaving. When time came for the shepherds to hold their customary assembly in order to prepare their monthly report to the king about the state of the flocks, he came too, wearing this ring. While he was sitting with the others, it chanced that he moved the collet of the ring around toward himself into the inside of his hand ; having done this, he disappeared from the sight of those who were sitting beside him, and they discussed of him as of someone who had left. And he wondered and once again feeling for the ring, he turned the collet outwards and, by turning it, reappeared. Reflecting upon this, he put the ring to the test to see if it indeed had such power, and he came to this conclusion that, by turning the collet inwards, he became invisible, outwards, visible. Having perceived this, he at once managed for himself to become one of the envoys to the king ; upon arrival, having seduced his wife, with her help, he laid a hand on the king, murdered him and took hold of the leadership.
-- (The Republic, Book 2, 359d-360c)
The point Glaucon is making – and he hopes Socrates has an answer – is this: if someone had the power of invisibility, wouldn’t they use it to cast off moral restraint? Does anonymity bring out the worst in us?
Now apply this story to an internet world. Here each of us who participate in any on-line community does so – necessarily – removed from physical proximity. We don’t have to see each other at church or school. We don’t have to be held accountable for flippant words or over-quick judgment – with anywhere near the social consequences there would be in a flesh and blood community where we have to look each other in the face tomorrow. It’s a bit like our computers and this ‘magical’ internet link is some ethereal Ring of Gyges that buffers us somewhat from the full consequences of our actions.
Well, the medium is morally neutral. It is what it is. Environments like the Spectrum website provide a wonderful opportunity for exchange across the entire world. We can hear and learn from each other in ways and at speeds that could not be possible in just a local setting. And, this unavoidable semi-anonymity can even allow us to be more open and vulnerable. Which can heal and nurture each of us. But how dangerous this Ring of Gyges is to wield. We are invisible here, detached from our physical and social worlds. And an invisible person has an even greater obligation to operate with the very highest ethical regard for others.
Rich Hannon is a software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. His reading interests focus on philosophy and medieval history.