Do We Feed the Trolls? A Fascinating Summit Discussion

At the Global Voices Summit this year, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of experts, though expert for perhaps the wrong reasons: Each person on my panel had the unfortunate experience of being trolled online. The panel, crafted by GV editor Sahar Habib Ghazi and entitled “Do we feed the trolls?”, featured Arzu Geybullayeva (GV Caucasus Author), Lina Attalah (Editor in Chief of Mada Masr), Kevin Rothrock (RuNet Echo Editor), and Noemi Lardizabal-Dado (“Mom” blogger from the Philippines). I encourage you to watch the panel in full.

Each of my panelists came to the table with a different view on the subject. Noemi, who spoke first, shared an excellent presentation that highlighted the different types of trolls she faces, many of which will seem familiar to social media users. She concluded that she learns from her trolls: Some make her a better blogger, while others remind her that she's doing something right. Kevin, who gets trolled by both Russian social media users who think he's a spy and Americans who think he's too pro-Kremlin, said that he thinks we should feed the trolls “until they choke on it.” He often trolls back. Arzu's story was a bit more harrowing: Her trolls have taken it to the next level, threatening her and calling her out on television in her home country of Azerbaijan. And while Lina says she hasn't experienced much trolling personally since she's not very active on social media, she knows the effect it can have on Egyptians, who often have to deal with multiple threats as well.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things that happened at the panel was when we opened the floor for questions. Often, you will hear panel moderators remind those queueing at the mic to “make sure to ask a question,” but in this case, after the first woman at the mic shared a powerful personal story of how she deals with trolls (37:49 in the video), I decided not to push…and as a result, several people from various countries shared their personal encounters with trolling as well. It was really powerful, and the audience was rapt.

I didn't realize it when we were planning the panel, but this is a hot topic these days. NPR's This American Life recently covered the subject, and one of the stories featured in the podcast is making the rounds: Writer Lindy West, who confronted her cruelest troll, has written about the encounter for the Guardian as well.

Of course, there's trolling and then there's harassment, and sometimes the line between the two is fuzzy and grey. My organization, the EFF, has recently written about that subject and the different challenges that come with tackling it. But it's going to take a whole lot more, diverse, voices, to figure out the answer to these challenging questions.

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