Is trolling freedom of speech?

| March 13, 2020

There’s been increased attention given to the harms of trolling. Study after study has demonstrated that this mode of online interaction is injurious, and should thus be more strictly regulated by lawmakers and media companies.

Even Pope Francis (not known for his commentary on digital culture) has urged Catholics to give up trolling for Lent.

Simultaneously, freedom of speech has become a topic de jour in sections of the Australian media. Commentators (particularly those of a libertarian persuasion) have argued that even problematic views should be aired in the public sphere, and assessed on their own merits, or lack thereof.

Are these two projects at cross purposes? Can regulating the trolls and their output coexist with a commitment to avoiding censorship?

Should trolling be understood as freedom of speech, and defended as such?

Definition of terms

The term ‘freedom of speech’ describes the principle that all speech should be protected from censorship, whatever form that speech might take, and whatever the content might be. This principle has been understood as necessary for a healthy democracy. As legal scholar C. Edwin Baker wrote in 1997:

“… people’s speech and, more generally, their expressive conduct are crucial to their self-identification, to their capacity to change the world, and to their voluntary interactions, including communicative interactions, with others.”

The term ‘trolling’ is used to describe material that is posted online with the specific aim of generating heightened, and usually negative responses. This material can be posted to social media platforms, below-the-line comments sections, via email.

Sometimes, trolling is political in nature (e.g. the troll targets someone with opposing political views or allegiances). Sometimes, it’s fuelled by misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism. And sometimes it’s for the ‘lulz’, though of course the recipient may not be lulzing.

Trolling seems absolutely antithetical to freedom of speech. Much of it
could in fact be classified as hate speech. Ah yes, but it’s still speech. And for that reason, it should be defended, right?

Yes, there are ways forward!

A useful approach when answering the above question is to examine the harms that trolling can cause. From John Stuart Mill onwards, free speech advocates have argued that speech should not be defended in any way if it injures another individual. The liberty of one shouldn’t come at the expense of another.

Research has demonstrated that trolling can cause psychological distress. Trolling can create unsafe work environments and destroy careers.

Trolling can precede offline violence. For instance, prior to carrying out the 2019 Christchurch massacre, Brenton Tarrant posted a manifesto to 8chan, an imageboard that has enjoyed popularity amongst the far right.

This manifesto can be understood as ‘trolling’ because it attempts to rile ‘readers unfamiliar with internet culture by making outlandish statements outsiders may take seriously.’ The manifesto is also undeniably xenophobic.

Importantly, trolling can also have a chilling impact on victims. Research has shown that victims of trolling can become silent online, for fear of the abuse they might receive. Such silence is difficult in an era when so many personal and professional interactions are web-based.

To this extent, deleting abusive posts from comments sections or personal inboxes cannot be understood as censorship. This can be understood as enabling communication, or at least enabling an environment in which communication can more freely take place.

The same could arguably be said of taking legal action against trolls. Though this can also be problematic. For example, in her book Troll Hunting, Ginger Gorman found that some trolling victims were effectively blamed by police for their abuse. This mirrors the victim blaming has long been directed at women who report sexual assault.

And ‘don’t feed the trolls’. A truer internet catchphrase was never spoken. Let’s face it, trolls crave a reaction. By refusing to respond to their comments or emails, the victims can effectively deny them of oxygen.

Again, declining to engage with somebody ­ especially when that person displays hostility ­ can hardly be regarded as censorship.

It’s complicated

So there’s no tension between defending free speech and regulating trolling? Not so fast! That question is far from answered, and this lack of a concrete answer hinges on one crucial point: What counts as ‘trolling’ can be deeply subjective.

To clarify, rape and death threats are not simply matters of perspective. Neither are attacks based on race, religion, disability. These create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for the victim, and should not be tolerated on an intellectual or legal level.

But take this hypothetical scenario: A devout Christian takes to the comments section below a news article that is affirmative towards same-sex marriage.

The commenter argues that this kind of union depicted in the article is antithetical to God’s law, and should never have been legalised. This commenter argues that the persistence of same sex marriage will have odious ramifications for the future of the human race.

The view described above is bigoted, not to mention a contentious interpretation of religious doctrine. This view will offend some readers. The commenter will likely anticipate that reaction ­ how could they not? Perhaps they might even want to offend.

Hell, perhaps this communication could be classified as ‘trolling’.

Nonetheless, it’s debatable whether ‘offence’ equals ‘harm’ in any tangible sense. This commenter could be trolling and participating in the public deliberation that online newspapers and social media platforms at least appear to encourage.

On that last point: It’s worth noting that not all trolling is necessarily harmful. Take the ‘rickroll’, which may not be a nuanced contribution to the marketplace of ideas, but which seems unlikely to traumatise recipients, whatever they may think of Rick Astley’s oeuvre.

Of course, it’s every content moderator’s right to remove comments that don’t comply with the particular community standards guidelines of the media outlet for which they are employed. Actually, it’s their job.

Researchers such as Tarleton Gillespie and Jennifer Beckett have written about the ethical and commercial issues that moderators face in deciding what to leave online and what to remove.

Beckett has written about the specific forms of abuse that moderators face in doing what they’re paid to do.

Equally, it’s my right to respond or not to any email that lands in my inbox. Though as a white and middle-class male, the correspondence I receive is incomparable to the aggression that Indigenous, Muslim and female friends have received.

The question arises: At what point does ignoring views that don’t align with one’s own, and indeed which may seem disapproving of one’s existence, become less about personal safety and more about perpetuating an echo chamber mentality?

How conducive is that mentality to public debate, or the fostering of diverse viewpoints in the digital public sphere?

Some final words ­ if you’ll let me speak!

Some readers will find this article indecisive. And they’d be right. The relationship between trolling and freedom of speech is deeply fraught. This relationship proffers a plethora of philosophical and ethical dilemmas that can’t be quickly resolved.

For this reason, the journalism-free speech relationship deserves to be the subject of further public discourse. The specific forms in which this discourse could take remain to be decided.

There have been excellent inquiries into trolling, and how this can be addressed on a personal and societal level. There have also been many excellent defences of free speech, as well as cautions on the limits of the ‘free speech’ defence. These need to continue, and they must necessarily come from different ideological standpoints.

Yes, we should all keep talking.

Actually encouraging an engagement with viewpoints other than one’s own can be challenging, not least because of the strong emotions that the above issues raise. For many, being abused online or being denied the opportunity to speak aren’t simply objects of enquiry.

Nonetheless, silence on those issues ­ be it enforced by the self or another ­ cannot benefit understandings of how harmful trolling can be regulated without enforcing censorship or echo chambers.