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Troll With It: How Radio 4’s The Digital Human shone a light on online hate?

We humans are settling into this digital life and its new norms of hate and anger – but listening to The Digital Human, Robin Ince finds reason for hope

“We are the unfortunate guinea pigs in the evolution of the online space,” Aleks Krotoski told us on The Digital Human’s recent episode about offence online.

Anyone who has found themselves trolled, threatened or just bleakly questioning the nature of humanity after spending an hour or so on social media might take heart from this. Perhaps it’s not that humanity’s character is utterly doomed, it’s just that the space we are exposing it on is not fit for purpose and gives us a skewed vision of what we have become.

Spite, facetiousness and petty vindictiveness have all been elevated and monetised by social media.

Academic and activist Loretta Ross talked of a time before the internet where she was called upon by a mountainside quilting club. Under the guise of making a quilt, a group of wives of Klu Klux Klan members called on Ross to help them work out a plan to prevent their sons joining their racist partners in the KKK.

Well-intentioned and wishing to move further from race hate, they nevertheless used language Ross found inappropriate, calling her “a well-spoken coloured girl”. Ross found herself questioning whether she should respond to their inappropriate language or whether the priority must remain the anti-racist training.

Krotoski questioned how we deal with the way we offend and are offended online – can it ever be productive?

Sociologist Bradley Campbell talked of the birth of the concept of microaggression at the super-liberal arts college Oberlin in Ohio, which also happens to be the alma mater of Krotoski. A microaggression is described as a brief verbal hostility that may well be unintentional. In the social media world, the unintentional may well be so energetically leapt upon and torn apart that the transgressor doubles down rather than opens up. Ross warned that we must be careful with call-out culture as it can prevent open conversations. The fear of not being utterly correct in opinion and language can lead to conversations not being had at all and an increase in ignorance rather than enlightenment.

Andrew Marantz, author of Antisocial, pointed out that trolls, especially alt. right ones, are far more likely to go after women. The viciousness of the language is disturbing. For some observers it seems that the internet always needs someone to hate, as it is the fuel while it seems that misogyny continues to be the propellant.

When we joke with our friends in person, they understand the context. In the hands of strangers, without nuance or tone, our interpretation can go haywire

Comedian Andrew Doyle talked of threats to free speech and a fear of making jokes, with 3,000 people apparently arrested for offensive online speech last year, but we had no context of the sort of language that leads to arrests. When I have seen the utter inaction by social network providers after people have been threatened with sexual violence, for instance, I think there is far more to this than just “you can’t say anything nowadays”.

We seem slow to adapt to this medium and understand it. It is a place where we make our private selves public. When we joke with our friends in person, they know us, they understand the context. In the hands of strangers, without nuance or tone, our interpretation can go haywire. Perhaps social media has released the complex social nature of jokes, it is not “just words”.  There’s your death of the author, Barthes.

Ross advised us to give people benefit of the doubt, to not leap straight to the offensive. She has met with far-right racist groups, seen individuals changed by face-to-face conversation, by the oxygen of exposure. She knows the need to humanise. “I had a capacity to have a dialogue with the most unlikely people… if a black woman can’t hate the Klan, what’s left ?”


The Digital Human is on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Sounds