What to do about autoadmit/internet trolls?

I am, as those who know me well realize, something of a free speech absolutist. I think that the government can restrict publication of military secrets that are immediately tactically useful to an enemy army in the field, and perhaps kiddie porn, though I’m less sure about the latter. (Not because I’m not against kiddie porn — of course I think those people should be flung into jail — but because I’m not sure whether the laws we have against conducting sexual acts on children aren’t enough to punish kiddie porn makers without having an extra law about the filmed result.)

Yet my free speech absolutism is tinged with a concern for individual privacy. Privacy is a necessary precondition for the best things, and, in particular, for our being free from social pressures to find our best lives.

So for a while, I’ve felt like I ought to chime in on this autoadmit debate,** and, generally, the debate about what to do about people who do really horrible things on the internet, by, e.g., revealing people’s personal information, spreading really horrible lies about others, etc. etc. Cf. Dan’s post, including links to Dave Hoffman’s detailed investigation of AutoAdmit.

But I think the debate is being conducted on entirely the wrong terms. The question should not be “what should the law do, or not to, to punish these people.” The question should be “what has gone wrong in our society to create these people, and how can we fix it?” Belle comes closest, I think, in talking about community norms, and asking how we fight bad norms (troll norms) with good ones.

That is, I think the problem of the internet trolls is isomorphic with the problem of the terrorists: for various reasons, force is likely to be ineffective or problematic (for the terrorists, because force just creates more terrorists; for the trolls, because of first amendment problems and unintended consequences), but both are indications of something seriously wrong with our society. With respect to the internet trolls, this is true on several levels.

First, the most extreme behavior (the death threats and so forth) seems to be evidence of severe untreated mental illness. Normal, healthy, sane people do not go off one day and threaten to shoot people at U.C. Hastings, or gleefully discuss the violent sexual assault of their classmates. I think we have to ask, as a first pass, why those who do have serious mental illnesses are going untreated.

Second, I think we have to ask what is going on in the lives of those who don’t have some organic brain malfunction, such that they’re moved to engage in such horrible conduct. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that something very bad must have been done to these people, to bring about the kind of rage and irrationality that drives this behavior. By doing this, I don’t mean to deny that there are wicked people in the world — simply that we can so easily dismiss wicked behavior as the result of some kind of sui generis evil. This is doubly the case when the wicked behavior is personally irrational. Recall that people on these internet sites often have their identities “outed,” and thus are running extreme personal, social, academic, and economic risk by posting their horrible diatribes and threats. This isn’t wicked behavior for personal gain. It’s pure outburst. And I don’t see how we can explain it without appealing to some kind of stunting of the human spirit, to something that happened to these people to kill their senses of empathy or inflict some kind of horrible bitterness and anger on them.***

Third, I think we have to ask why they’re getting into our communities of trust. I think it’s safe to say that the sort of person who is disposed to post horrible racial slurs on an internet messageboard is a person with very terrible character. Regardless of whether autoadmit or sites like it exist — regardless of whether the opportunity exists to act on that disposition — even having the disposition ought to be a disqualifier from being admitted to law school, and certainly from ever practicing law. So how is it that our screening methods are failing?**** Let’s remember that one of the plaintiffs, who was being stalked by her classmates, was at Yale Law School. It’s not easy to get into that place!

That is, like a good liberal, I think that the only way to take care of the problem of the internet trolls is to look to the root causes.***** Diseases like autoadmit don’t arise out of nowhere — things have to be going wrong with society as a whole in order to create groups of people who do such horrible things. And only by fixing society as a whole can we avoid the costs and unintended consequences of solving social problems with legal rules.

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* For complicated reasons, I’m doing some light research on the economic/legal/church history of Medieval Ireland at the moment. One absolutely fascinating thing I’ve learned is that even commoners there had strong privacy rights — there are legal tracts from the period before England’s conquest that specify the fine to be paid for looking in someone’s house, for example. Privacy isn’t just a contemporary American obsession.

** For those who are fortunately innocent of the whole story, autoadmit is a website where a bunch of horrible law students would do things like take pictures of female classmates in the gym and post them, along with details of the rapes they’d like to commit against them, racial slurs, etc. etc. Also threats of mass murder.

*** In this context, I think the following 2 paragraphs, from a NYT article on the subject, are revealing:

A flat-screen HDTV dominated Fortuny’s living room, across from a futon prepped with neatly folded blankets. This was where I would sleep for the next few nights. As Fortuny picked up his cat and settled into an Eames-style chair, I asked whether trolling hurt people. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, God, please forgive me!’ so someone can feel better,” Fortuny said, his calm voice momentarily rising. The cat lay purring in his lap. “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.”

“Like what?” I asked. Sexual abuse, Fortuny said. When Jason was 5, he said, he was molested by his grandfather and three other relatives. Jason’s mother later told me, too, that he was molested by his grandfather. The last she heard from Jason was a letter telling her to kill herself. “Jason is a young man in a great deal of emotional pain,” she said, crying as she spoke. “Don’t be too harsh. He’s still my son.”

**** This is why I think that it’s entirely appropriate that the creator of the autoadmit.com message board got a job offer revoked when it all hit the media. Not to punish him — but because we ought not to have lawyers — or anyone in a position of trust — who have such severe failings of character and judgment.

***** However, I really wish people wouldn’t use that phrase. It’s a redundancy as well as a cliche.

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7 Responses to “What to do about autoadmit/internet trolls?”

  1. Mike Says:

    Why do people feel the need to comment on trolls? Trolls only exist if we allow them do. We allow them to exist by validating them.

    Are we not complicit in the trolls’ misconduct?

    Have you seen “Untraceable”? If not, at least check the Wiki entry. It provides for an interesting thought experiment.

    In “Untraceable,” no one would die if people did not sign onto the murder site. Aren’t people who sign onto murder complicit in the victim’s death?

    Aren’t people who respond to trolls, similarly, complicit?

    Why are people too stupid to recognize trollish behavior for what it is? Why are people so self-righteous that they *must* comment on the troll’s post?

    Why can’t people simply pass over the post in silence?

  2. Amber Says:

    The Hastings thing was obviously a joke, not a true threat–a joke in terrible, terrible taste, but nevertheless unserious. As soon as it became apparent that people had interpreted it as a threatening remark, it was explicitly disclaimed.

    Who among us has not, in a moment of frustration, made a remark about “going postal” or similar? It is hard to convey tone online, which some learn the hard way.

    I’d be interested in your research on privacy. My impression from secondary sources was that even if a family had a degree of privacy, individuals still had effectively none. Untrue?

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Amber, I’m relying on (extraordinarily well-supported) secondary sources for this particular point about privacy — specifically, T.M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pg. 105:

    The distinction between private and public was matched by strong laws to protect privacy. A commoner was entitled to his honour-price, ‘the value of his face,’ when someone entered his les, the enclosure around his house and farm-buildings, without permission. He was entitled to a milch-cow in compensation when someone looked into his house. At the centre of this private sphere lay the relationship between husband and wife: if one told tales about the other, especially if they were stories about their sexuality, the injured party could divorce the other, even if the wife ‘had been bound [to her husband] by binding-surety and property-surety.”

    That seems to suggest at least some individual notion of privacy, connected with personal honor. And, of course, for those household connected rights, those would basically be rights of the male running things.

    Mike, I think part of the issue is that the trolls are better psychologists than the rest of us. And it’s pretty hard to ignore some of this stuff — I mean, how do you ignore it if someone is taking pictures of you and posting them on the internet, along with their desire to rape you?

  4. Mike Says:

    Paul: Did you read that awesome NYT article on trolls? David Lat linked to it on his Facebook. It’s incredible. Your point about their being superior psychologists is spot-on.

    If someone posted pictures of me, threatening to rape me, I wouldn’t ignore it. I’d handle it. But you might diagnose *me* as a psycho if I elaborate, so I’ll stop trail off. ;)

    Re: mental illness. Who knows why people (like Hastings/Boalt guy) have such a morbid sense of humor? Maybe that’s how he deals with tragedy. Could be self-protection rather than signs of psychopathy.

    or gleefully discuss the violent sexual assault of their classmates

    How do you know those people were serious? The market for snuff films is ridiculously small. Extreme Associates (the people being prosecuted for obscenity) does pseudo-snuff, and sure, it makes some money. But that’s only because they are nationwide. It’s a very small niche market. It just gets a lot of attention. (Availability bias, anyone?)

    For the (way, way, way) most part, people are not into “rape pr0n.” Heck, go onto any big free pr0n site and compare the # of b0ndage vide0s v. the number of As1an flicks. Way more guys are into As1ans doing consensual things than they are into all b0ndage vids. And that’s just As1an women. Add in every other race of women, and you see that consensual sex is 99% of pr0n.

    (I am NOT defending pr0n. I think society would be better off if there weren’t a demand for it. I’m just pointing out that the AutoAdmit guys, probably were not serious with their posts.)

    If more guys wanted the sick stuff, there’d be more of that online.

    So, again, I think most of the AutoAdmit trolls just had a warped sense of humor. I don’t think that makes them mentally ill. Non-reflective? Sure.

    Re: Privacy. Telling lies about somewhat is not a privacy violation. I’m sure you’d agree, but that distinction got lost in your post. The privacy/Solove-Taylor debate concerns whether it should be legal for people to widely disseminate true facts about people.

    My take is that privacy restrictions are elitist. If you wanted to know information about me, you’d be able to look me up on Lexis-Nexis. Or you’d pay for the background check. It’s not hard to do – once you’re elite. (By having a law degree and being a lawyer, you’re elite compared to 95% of the population.)

    So why should information be limited to people with the educational or monetary capital? Shouldn’t the poor schmuck about to do a business deal be able to find out if his future business partner plays with little girls? Or that he was convicted of embezzlement?

    You and I (or Solove) would check someone out before doing a deal with them. Why shouldn’t the plebians be able to do the same thing?

    As if often the case with liberalism, there’s an element of elitism to data-privacy laws. The plebians simply cannot be trusted with so much information. So we’ll just keep it away from them.

    I wonder if Solove would be in support of eliminating criminal background check databases? How about eliminating any mention of criminal conduct from Lexis-Nexus databases?

    I’ve never heard Solove go that far. And, of course, it’s because he’s elite. He still wants information. He just doesn’t want the plebs to have access to it.

    I agree there will be abuses. But that’s just availability bias again. How many people won’t get raped, or people who won’t get taken in business deals if information is more widely available? Who knows?

    Again, that’s the problem with availability bias. We only know what we see. If we see something that leads to bad results (AutoAdmit trolls), we think lax privacy laws are bad. When, on balance, it could be good. (Hell, it’s the same thing with guns. We know guns are bad because people die from them. But what of the people who don’t die because they had a gun to protect themselves? We all too often act as if events we did not see do not exist.)

    On an entirely different note: How do you reconcile your equivocal support for child pr0n restrictions in light of your views on privacy? The child who has been filmed has had his or her privacy violated in the most fundamental way. If you’re willing to restrict some free speech on privacy grounds, how could you not be whole-heartedly in favor of child-pr0n restrictions?

    [Damn, dude, sorry for the long post. I shouldn't leave such longs posts on other blogs. Also, I tried to fool the spam bots with misspellings. I apologize in advance if you get some "unusual" visits due to my comment.]

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Mike, the only problem with your long comment is that I’m unable to (too busy/lazy to) do it justice.

    So, very briefly…

    On the elitism of privacy regulations: but I think it’s a problem that it’s so easy for the elites to get that kind of information on people. So I, at least, can’t be charged with elitism. Our society has become less and less forgiving of mistakes people make — everything people do shows up in a credit record, a driving record, a background check… and I’d like to see some of that stop.

    There’s obviously a need for SOME background checking — obviously, convicted thieves ought not to be getting jobs handling cash. And criminal records are, I think, importantly different from other kinds of information, in that publicity is an important part of the workings of the criminal justice system — there’s a strong normative idea behind the system that the state’s justice is public.

    So I’d say that serious criminal records (like, felonies and malum in se property crimes — not drug possession, not the kind of sex crime involving consenting adults, like prostitution) of everyone ought to be available to all, with liberal opportunity for expungement after a given amount of time. Available to the plebians as well as to the elites, and expunged with respect to the plebians as well as to the elites. But access to the records of other kinds of foibles — social, financial, etc. ought to be severely restricted to cases of actual need. I think that’s a fair balance. It would be a lot less elitist as well as more privacy-protecting than our current system.

    Interesting points re: availability bias, worth more thought. However, even if there was no market for the rape fantasy, etc., surely you agree that there’s something deeply wrong, and sick, and injurious about targeting it at a specific, named and photographed, person. Even as a “joke.”

    re: kiddie porn restrictions (I do hope my own comment won’t hit my spam filters), on reflection, I think you’re right — I ought to be whole-heartedly in favor of those restrictions, reservations about their necessity aside, and I think my position is revised accordingly as of now.

  6. Mike Says:

    But access to the records of other kinds of foibles — social, financial, etc. ought to be severely restricted to cases of actual need.

    I feel this. One thing I wonder is: Who defines what other people need? Whenever we have others defining what’s “needed,” I get a little nervous.

    After all, those in power will always be able to obtain whatever information they want. Why shouldn’t the powerless have the same access?

    That said, I see your point. I don’t know what my best friend’s credit score is. It could be high or low. It’s not relevant.

    If that information were publicly available, man, I’d be awfully tempted to look at it. Would I judge that person differently?

    Could more information be too much? People do suck. We just are not good thinkers, we ignore relevant evidence in favor of irrelevant evidence. Some paternalism might be a good thing.

    Incidentally, there’s a really good database out there now with criminal records. (Hit me up on Facebook or e-mail if you want the link.) It’s not NCIC, but it’s damned good for a public database.

    On the board I saw it linked to at, one person commented: “Now I have dirt on a co-worker.” That co-worker relationship was fine before that database. Now a person wants to abuse that information. Is that a good outcome?

    At another blog, a person said, “I just looked up all of my friends. I feel like a peeping tom and wish I hadn’t learned about the database.” I don’t want to watch people do private things. Yet databases will make leerers of all of us.

    OTOH, what if you had a hot date planned but found out your date had a few stalking convictions? That’d be pretty good information to have, right?

    What if David Motari volunteered to puppy sit for you? It’d be sort of nice to know what fate might befall your loyal pooch.

    Tough issues. And though I usually argue fervently for less restrictions, I’m not nearly as confident of my position as my arguments would suggest.

  7. Uncommon Priors » Broken people, part 2. Says:

    [...] question here is the same as my question with respect to the autoadmit.com maniacs: what breaks these people? The creepy stalkers — what has happened in their lives such that [...]

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