An Anarchist Ethic for the Treatment of Trolls

This post is in response to hearing Tarleton Gillespie’s AoIR plenary talk on SNS’ responses to trolling.  First, a nod to Lisa Nakamura’s point that when we talk about discriminatory acts as trolling, it potentially deescalates the real harm engendered by racist, sexist and demeaning behaviors. This in fact reminds me of boyd and Marwick’s arguments that teens use the term “drama” over “bullying” because it allows them to acknowledge a behavior without taking sides. At the risk of not doing what Nakamura suggests (usually not a good idea when talking about the Internet) I’ll continue to use the term trolling here, in fact bringing it into an offline context. In listening to Tarleton’s talk, I started thinking about two incidents at last year’s Anarchist Book Fair in NYC.  I want to look at how these two incidents were handled within the anarchist community and then consider how they differ from those of mainstream SNS policies.

I should preface this with the request to take anarchism as a legitimate political ideology – it’s only been in the past year that I’ve recognized my own deligitimizing prejudices against anarchism, having previously accepted the widely-held belief that anarchism represented nihilist, violent anti-politics.  I credit Anarchist Pedagogies as a text that helped me recognize my own failure to learn about anarchism as a belief system, which is pretty embarrassing given that the dismissal of anarchism (like the dismissals of feminism) as a viable set of practices is one of the most effective tools of maintaining hegemonic, capitalist norms.

The ABF provoked two kinds of trolling, one that arose ahead of time and the other during the actual book fair.  I was attending the ABF as a member of Radical Reference, which has often tabled at the fair to promote our activities.  As the bookfair neared, I learned that a number of organizations were threatening to pull out because a provocative figure (I’ll call him Horace) in the local anarchist community had signed up to attend.  As I learned about the stakes of Rad Ref attending or not attending the book fair (ultimately, Horace either wasn’t granted or didn’t apply for a table), I was struck by just how procedural the response to Horace was, involving a series of conversations, documentations and investigations. As a counter-example to assumptions that anarchist ethics are pure chaos, Thadeus had in fact been subject to a number of adjudication and accountability processes, as a result of violence, abuse, disruption and snitching. Anarchist ethics for managing disruptive behaviors are fundamentally centered on collective processes and accountability, holding people to a particular set of group-centered ideals. This process reminds me of the TOS processes in a lot of counter-cultural sites online. Since the early 2000s, I’ve been a member of an online community for people interested in body modification.  The TOS violations process has changed significantly over the site’s history, but for a long time, the procedure involved a TOS forum, where complaints were vetted as to whether someone had violated the site’s clearly articulated ethics of tolerance and diversity. The message board also provided documentation of users’ removal from the site, such that if you logged into the site one day and realized that a user no longer “existed” you could check the TOS forum and see if and why that person had been removed.  

Contrast this to the flag approach of sites like Facebook, YouTube and (more recently) Twitter.  Tarleton and Kate Crawford have a forthcoming paper that points out the incredible range of flagging technologies, and questions whether flags can bear the weight of contesting online content. Perhaps the thing that makes comparison so impossible is the fact that Thaddeus had run up against defined communities bound by shared political ideologies, whereas Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are platforms for an effectively infinite array of beliefs and norms. Yet how interesting that in a community frequently derided for lawless chaos, there are clear mechanisms for managing violations of standards and ethics, whereas sites like Facebook are in fact far more inchoate and chaotic.

A second form of trolling emerged at last year’s ABF, and many ABFs before. The National Anarchist Tribal Alliance attempted to attend the ABF last year, which might sound like an unremarkable thing if you’re not aware that NATA are white supremacists.  Throughout the book fair, tablers and attendees had voiced strong disapproval of the venue’s insistence on hiring a private security force to screen bags and monitor behavior, provoking ire for violations of person and property. Yet this same security force was responsible for keeping NATA folks out of the ABF, heading off a direct confrontation and probably keeping a number of my friends out of jail.  My own thoughts on whether or not the security force should have been there are mixed, but in the context of trolling, I’d like to note two things – first, note the similar Trojan Horse tactics by NATA and, as Mark Dang-Anh pointed out in his AoIR talk, the appropriation of tags to confuse and disrupt counter-protest actions. Second, the conflict in this case cannot be understood on an individual level, and only makes sense in terms of group behavior.

The biggest takeaway for me from this thought experiment – considering how offline approaches to handling trolls within anarchist communities could play out on mainstream social media platforms – is the need for collective rather than individual means of assessing offensive online behaviors. This is important for two key reasons – first, there isn’t just one Internet, there are many, and a single policy cannot hold water in all of them.  I think ABF’s treatment of Thaddeus worked because it reflected local norms and values, and moreover documented the process.  I am in a way reminded of Sara Ahmed’s work on the way that difference produces a physical marker of deviance – there’s something to be said for the production of an artifact (a flyer, a blog, a report) that documents a wrong, especially in contrast to the invisible process of flagging, the disappearance that leaves no trace or explanation of protest.

Second, as Nakamura pointed out during the plenary Q&A, it’s dangerous to assign responsibility for monitoring hateful content at the individual level. Partly, this is because a user-versus system process of adjudication makes no sense if the system lacks community level ideology; although Facebook phrases its policies as “community standards,” it is ludicrous to think of Facebook as as having an identifiable sense of community ethics. Moreover, the notion of community dissolves as soon as it becomes incumbent on the individual user to report behavior. As well, the example of NATA demonstrates the extent to which trolling isn’t always individual, and is instead collective.  Anarchist ethics for managing disruptions of community norms underscore the extent to which these processes need to be collective not only in terms of grassroots procedures for adjudication, but also a conceptualization of disruption that accounts for collective rather than individual violations.

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