High Ground

One example of a portrait used by online trolls in opinion sections such as Disqus.
One example of a portrait used by online trolls in opinion sections such as Disqus.

Before the Internet became available to the consumer, there was a chapter in cyberspace history where companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix did not offer products and services online, videos took hours instead of minutes to download, and bulletin boards offered a spartan text interface instead of the flashy mouse-click animation and icons our tech-savvy young generation enjoys today.

It was also the Wild West days of cyberspace. If you were computer savvy and had a modem and a phone line, off you went in search of files to download or message bases to post on. It was an online adventure in an era where you truly had the freedom to do anything you wanted and say what anything you had on your mind without consequences. With the exception of some local Sysop (short for system operator of a bulletin board) enforcement, there were no limits to what you could do online. Those were heady times and I admit I miss those days, even though the Internet offers far more than what I had available back then.

This freedom was a double-edged sword, however. While it laid the foundations of an open and liberal exchange of ideas and opinions that exists today on the Internet, it also allowed participants to say and do things that would get themselves arrested if not beaten up in the real world. This freedom gave birth to the “troll”, not to be confused with the original definition of the word. Trolls were those who delighted in starting arguments or upsetting people by posting inflammatory comments or images online. Why they do this is beyond my understanding, but psychology experts agree that most trolls share common traits of sadism, narcissism and psychopathy.

Just as the real Wild West disappeared with the advent of large urbanized centres such as towns and cities, cyberspace became mainstream and the need for personal accountability for online behaviour became important. Law enforcement agencies got caught up in their understanding of the sociological and technological workings of cyberspace and those who committed crimes online such as child porn distribution and fraud were arrested. When companies established an online presence, they had to adhere to the same consumer protection laws that existed in the real world. The days of safeties-off, open-season, take-no-prisoners freedom of expression disappeared.

The trolls, however, did not. They adapted by understanding how far they could legally go and by using technology that would make them harder to find. On the other hand, they had no problem finding me.

Quite a while ago, I posted in this blog the reasons why I made my job search visible. While it has helped generate supportive comments and gave me interviews for job openings, it has also given ammunition for those to attack me with, all from behind the cloak of anonymity that cyberspace still offers. This has been the case on Disqus where I post not only to offer my two-cents worth about the news, but also to draw some attention to my job search. Trolls there have called me a bum, lazy, not wanting a job, a drunk (interesting since I rarely drink alcohol) and those are just the nicer terms I get called. Some comments have also been racist and homophobic (because of my last name).

When I find myself in a situation like this, I try to remember that the insults and remarks hurt me if I let them. In other words, if I were to respond, “You’re a liar!” or “How dare he says that about me!”, I’m also creating the emotions that come from that remark. The technique I use to not get sucked into an argument with a troll (an argument no one can ever win) is to rebuke with the closing line “Conversation terminated”. This states that I’ve ended the argument even before it has a chance to devolve into a flame war, depriving the troll a source of sadistic gratification and attention. They can post a reply to that or find another post I’ve made to reply to, but my response will remain the same: nothing.

It’s a necessary step not just for my peace of mind but also because employers check social media for comments a job applicant has made that describes what that person’s character is like. While I’m not always successful in following my own advice, I like to think my conduct in dealing with trolls is professional, as well as showing ownership and accountability by showing my real name and photo along with my posts.

That’s something no troll can ever take from me nor something I will willingly hand over.

Thanks for reading!



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