Anonymous Trolling: How Does Online Racism Affect Broadband Adoption?

by Latoya Livingston and Kenneth Mallory on May 13, 2012

Part II: Breaking the Barriers

The rise of the Internet and its accompanying forums, message boards, and comment areas has brought with it Internet trolls.  While some trolls post inflammatory remarks for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of other users for “lulz,” others do so simply because the Internet grants them the anonymity that allows them to express their most offensive and racist views without consequence.  Most alarmingly, the behavior is a reflection of mindsets we thought were in the minority in our “post-racial” society.  Unfortunately, it is far too common to see tweets, comments, and forum posts riddled with racial epithets.

Who’s Doing This?

Some contend that the most recent incidents show that the Internet, which allows a higher level of anonymity than face-to-face interaction, can enable racism in a manner never seen before.  And that is true.

A 2010 article by the Associated Press explored this phenomenon and concluded, “Internet anonymity has removed one of the strongest barriers to the type of language that can ruin reputations and end careers.”  The article pointed out that racist language online was ubiquitous and something perpetrated by whites and blacks alike.

Most disturbing of all are the racist Twitter and Facebook postings that do not appear to be anonymous at all, complete with real names and pictures.  What does it say about society when people are not even ashamed of their  racist views?  How can minorities, especially parents, shield their families and their homes from such insidious intrusions?

How Can We Fix This?

Several have called for the policing of sites to search and remove racist comments, along with the censoring of racist users online.  However, many maintain that these strategies can run afoul of free speech guarantees and “chill” Internet use.

For instance, in his article about The Hunger Games tweets, Forbes contributor Erik Kain tended to support Vincent Cerf’s assertion about how the Internet reflects society and raises implications about free speech.  According to Kain, “[One] thing about the Internet is that at times it can really show off our societal demons in garish detail….The lesson for me in all of this is just how important free speech is even when that speech is hateful.  In some places, anti-Semitic commentary is grounds for arrest and imprisonment or at least a fine and censure. But here we let our bigots speak freely. This is a good thing.”

While one can understand the desire to reject the chilling effects that censorship invariably has on speech, what can’t be ignored is the quality of speech that should be protected.  Yes, quality is a subjective determination, but if a society or community can determine what type of behavior is decent, why shouldn’t an online community determine what type of speech is decent for their digital society?

Hate Speech and the Digital Divide

Perhaps the most disturbing part of what is being ignored is the most substantial negative implication of online racism: that it might deter users from going online or to particular websites because of fear of exposing themselves or loved ones to offensive language.

The nation has already witnessed the deleterious effects brought on by societal fears of racism and prejudice – they indeed relegate many Americans to second-class citizenship.  And if Cerf’s remarks are true, the potential exists for the same to happen online.   Some websites have responded by deleting or closing their comments section, or allowing readers to report offensive posts.  But is that the answer?

Many contend that fear can be a barrier to broadband adoption.  However, digital literacy education is a powerful weapon to help combat any fears users have about going online.

The solution to circumventing negative effects that online racism poses to broadband Internet adoption lies not in “fixing” the Internet, but rather, fixing any misconceptions that exist about it in the real world through education about what is online.

The fact that racism exists online should not shock the conscience, but be regarded as yet another unfortunate occurrence in the world we live in.  Indeed, the tremendous power and benefits conferred by broadband Internet should never be disregarded because of fear or feeble ignorance brought on by racism.  Fear should never be a deterrent to adoption.  Racism should never stop progress.

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  • Sima23

    Great series, but it would’ve been great if you guys provided maybe some specific steps on fighting the problem as individuals. All you really say is “fixing any misconceptions that exist about it in the real world through education about what is online.” And we all know most of those trolls we encounter in forums just really can’t be taught.

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