Trolls, Net Morality, and Types of Societies

So I just finished writing the latest installment for my column XY for the current issue of Cahoots magazine — it’s not up yet, but I’ll link it when it is. The column is a kind of amateur explanation of the implications of sociobiology, by a non-specialist, which means, er, well, thin ice and all that.

Yet surely nobody would disagree with this month’s premise, inspired (if the word can be used) by a recent nasty experience here on my own site, which is basically that when it comes to dysfunctional behaviour online, men run amok digitally in very different ways from how women do. That is, most of the people who set about Trolling online are male. Why is that?

(As I say, I’ll post a link when the article’s live, and you can see my attempt at an answer.)

Anyway, I was trying to find some research about this topic, scholarly research I mean, and I couldn’t find much, but I did find an article by Jiwook Shin with the following title: Morality and Internet Behavior: A study of the Internet Troll and its relation with morality on the Internet, which was presented at a conference earlier this year. I find this interesting for two reasons: one, because the author seems, from the excerpt, to be a Korean student — the telltale use of the word “netizen” and also because it looks like with was written by someone who is not a native speaker of English. (Not that it’s bad, just… there are little things.) Anyway, look at Shin’s abstract, available (along with publication information) here:

A part of new generation residing in the Internet space, Troll, is threatening netizen’s well-being. A troll is a person who interrupts communications on the Internet, and often seen as problematic or even criminals. According to Durkheim, the order of society is maintained by morality. Morality has definite rules and conducts which every member of the society agrees upon and depends on. Morality is functional since it has authority and regularity. Therefore people know how to behave and what is right or wrong offline. In the Internet space, however, people do not perceive clear codes of conducts on the Internet, nor authority and regularity, according to the result of this study. Unlike offline morality reinforced by education, that online morality have not been shared and not even discussed so provides the existence of Troll.

The emphases are mine, and are very interesting. They seem to relate well to the current Korean discussion of Internet censorship and speech/identity rights. (As in, the debate over whether there should exist a right to anonymity online.)

Most of the elements in the discussion I’ve been privy to have focused on the “harm” caused by “nasty comments” online, which in the media has been exaggerated into being almost the cause of death for several celebrities, along these lines: pop stars are criticized online, and then they kill themselves. They were killed by nasty comments, in other words. (Never mind that the vast majority of people who kill themselves here yearly aren’t pop stars and weren’t criticized publicly online.) The abstract above seems to hold the same assumption: that trolls actively do harm to netizens — that is, other Internet users.

Which is a problematic place to start, isn’t it? I mean, yes, trolls are a pain in the arse, they’re annoying, they do derail discussions. But then we develop systems of monitoring discussions, weed out the trolls, and move on. I think most Westerners would probably see spammers as harmful, and trolls as a nuisance, but the discussions I’ve seen in Korea have often described trolls as “harmful.”

The next bit I’ve highlighted is also interesting:

In the Internet space, however, people do not perceive clear codes of conducts on the Internet, nor authority and regularity, according to the result of this study.

One must wonder exactly how the questions were framed, though. In my experience, people do see ethics as contextual, but not in precisely this way. For example: most people would agree that driving through a red light at 4:00am on a deserted street is illegal, but not immoral, as long as there were no chance (or almost no chance) of a collision resulting from the infraction. (Likewise jaywalking when all the lights are red and all the cars are just sitting there, waiting for a light to change, as seems often to happen at the major intersection near my subway station.)

But in terms of interpersonal ethics, I don’t think the majority of people I know online would agree that “people do not perceive clear codes of conduct on the Internet.” Rather, I’d say that back in the early days — the mid-90s, for me, are the early days — the finer points of netiquette were not really hammered out, and people didn’t have a clear sense of the Internet as a public place (outside of their own homes where they were viewing it).

However, in general, I think, the majority of Western Internet users would agree — even when they are breaching them — that standard codes of conduct apply in any situation: online, offline, on the phone, and so on. Actually, I think that a large number of Korean internet users also behave this way, but I’m willing to grant that for some reason, a much larger proportion of Korean internet users seem to breach those social conventions in a more extreme way than do Westerners.

There are probably all kinds of interesting reasons why, related to things like the way that etiquette and conduct are taught (and performed) here — heavily contextual and delimited by hierarchic position, rather than generalized and taken as given for any context — and the way the Internet and anonymity can decontextualize any exchange. Or maybe it’s the relative difference in the degree of freedom experienced as part of anonymity: the average degree of constraint that is removed by going anonymous is almost certainly higher for most Koreans than it would be for their Western peers.

But finally, I found this a surprise:

online morality have not been shared and not even discussed so provides the existence of Troll.

… is an interesting assertion, since it argues that Trolls exist because of a lack of clearly delineated online morality. The assumption is that a context-specific morality must be manufactured and promulgated for any new, specific context, else the natural outcome will be antisocial behaviour. That, for example, unless “traffic morality” gets created, codified, shared, discussed, and otherwise imposed on people, they will act in an antisocial manner whilst driving.

This sounds absurd to a Westerner, but you know what? There’s a reason that I chose driving as an analogy. If you don’t want to take the word of the many foreign people I know who have ridden bikes or driven automobiles in Korea, and who agree that the streets are not just chaos, not just lawless, but also, too often, downright antisocial, you can look at the various accident and accident fatality rates.

In 2002, I spent a hair-raising half hour on what I was soon after told was indeed, at the time, the most dangerous stretch of highway in the world. Here’s what I saw: the drivers — all of them — drove far above the speed limit for most of the route. The one thing they slowed down for was the speed camera. I think there was only one, or maybe two, along that stretch of road. It was as close to organized as I’ve ever seen thousands of people behave — the cars slowed down for the speed camera, and then, as soon as they were beyond its range, they accelerated again to speeds that made me clutch the dashboard.

(Need I add that I was the only person in the car wearing a seatbelt?)

Now, some people will patronizingly say, “Ah, that’s just a lack of common sense!” To which I’d reply that common sense is obviously lacking among human beings in general, but that a combination of etiquette and rule of law seem to successfully mitigate most of that lack in arenas like driving behaviour in places like Canada or England or the USA or Japan, and doesn’t seem to mitigate it in places like Korea, Greece, Turkey, and Italy.

However, maybe etiquette and rule of law aren’t the crucial points. Maybe etiquette and law only bolster a more fundamental sense of whether ethics apply in this or that arena? Whether driving “like an idiot” (as we Anglophones say of what seem to be very common driving styles in Korea — impatient, aggressive, and illegal) is perceived in Korea as a question of ethics, as opposed to a question of personal choice.

Though I found a lot to disagree with in Michael Breen’s annoyingly titled book, The Koreans[1] (which I discussed here), I find myself wondering whether he was right when he said we can learn a lot about a society by looking at its driving culture. The interesting thing is that the line I drew above fits really well with the dichotomy between low-trust and high-trust societies, which I ran into this summer while reading Barbara A. Misztal’s book Informality: Social Theory and Contemporary Practice, where she summarized Francis Fukuyama’s argument about the link between trust levels and economic acitivity thus:

All low-trust countries (France, Italy, China, South Korea) rely on centralized control, state intervention, hierarchical, centralized and legally-defined authority and people cooperate there on the basis of formal rules. In high-trust societies (the USA, Japan and Germany) the existence of a supportive culture of ‘spontaneous sociability’, that is a readiness to cooperate with others in an economically productive way, results in the flourishing of numerous institutions and associations seen to be a good in themselves.

Misztal is quick to point out that the low trust level in China isn’t impeding its economic growth, and that Germany and Japan’s high-trust levels seem not to be the absolute key considering those nations’ economic woes (ca. 2000, when the book was written), among other problems with Fukuyama’s understanding of trust and sociality. However, at the same time, she’s happy to point out that low trust makes it much harder for social change to come about… in other words, makes it difficult for a society to become a high-trust society.

But to whatever degree we can talk about a society as being high-trust or low-trust, isn’t the capacity for trust essentially created by the behaviour of individuals in that society? In other words, isn’t a high-trust society only possible when the majority of its members are observed to internalize a certain kind of ethics that govern not behaviour in a specific context, but rather generalized, non-context-dependent ethics that can be extrapolated into guidelines for behaviour in contexts both familiar and unfamiliar alike?

(In other words, societies where people are likely to use the ethics that govern social interaction face-to-face as a guidelines for how to conduct discussions online do so because they sense that the ethics governing face-to-face interaction are not context-specific, but rather derived from more basic, generalizable ethical principles. In low-trust societies, the ethics seem to be more contextual, so that the Internet is, ethically, a no-man’s-land.)

Is this why online etiquette and offline etiquette seem so much the same for Westerners, and so radically different for Koreans? And is this why so many young Koreans seem so willing to go along with their government’s and the media’s constant assertions that anonymity needs to be eliminated from the Korean internet, and that censorship is necessary to govern the behaviour of Korean netizens?

The question is important because it may well be that the solutions that work for high-trust societies simply don’t work for low-trust ones. For example, though Korean streets have all the trappings of Western streets (where the trappings remind, enforce, and instantiate the rule of law and of an implied ethics of driving), those trappings seem to have made really limited inroads in governing the behaviour of an important segment of Korean drivers. (Against this, of course, we have the fact that Italy and France aren’t anywhere near as bad as Korea is for traffic fatalities, even if the drivers in these places are also insane.)

What if this is also true of freedom-of-expression online in Korea? The stakes are higher than it might seem and there doesn’t seem to be a better side on which to err: too cautious, and you have a state with much more power to silence criticism and threaten its critics than any state ought to have — as I’ll discuss tomorrow with the case of the Korean netizen who goes by the name “Minerva” — but with too little, the kinds of abuses of anonymity (such as the cyberstalking and cybermobbing of Dog Crap Girl) that we’ve already seen before may not self-correct in the way they seem to have done in the Western world.

And yes, I should add that I am extremely anxious about this idea. It smacks to me of the claims made by certain developing nations that “human rights” are a Western conception… yes, and so are machine guns, which poses no impediment to their adoption worldwide. To reject an idea because it’s Western, or to claim that some solution won’t work for a problem because of some sense of exceptionalism, is a lazy approach to sorting through this kind of question.

(One I hear all too often in Korea, of course, where North American solutions to problems like teacher-student violence seem completely dehistoricized for young Koreans — as if the West didn’t have a similar teacher-student violence problem fifty or sixty years ago!)

In other words, I kind of distrust the idea of “kinds” of societies. I kind of think that low-trust is something every society has had to work its way out of, and that finding workarounds that allow it to remain low-trust simply prolong things in the low-trust stage unnecessarily. But what if this instinct of mine — an instinct embedded in me from growing up in a very high-trust society, is wrong? What if the fact if the matter is that different kinds of solutions get solved more efficiently in different kinds of societies through different means? Then it would suggest that the common Korean reflex — to look to the USA and Japan for models and solutions for various problems — is less useful than looking to other low-trust societies to see how they have gone about bringing their traffic fatality, cyberstalking, and other social problems down to manageable levels.

Then again, it may be that the low-trust/high-trust dichotomy may not be the one we need. After all, French workers may live in a low-trust society, but the workplace efficiency of a French worker is 250% that of a Korean worker. And while, yes, Korean office time is radically inflated by cultural factors (many workers feel pressure to stay late at the office even when they have no work to do, or spend part of their workday surfing the net to ensure they have work to do later in the evening) French workplaces have, even in their low-trust setting, managed to avoid this qality-of-life damaging status quo. Maybe some other dichotomy would work better?

Anyway, more tomorrow, after the promised review of our bean bag chairs.

[1] The fact the title annoys me is perhaps idiosyncratic, but it does so for a few reasons. First and foremost is that the use of the article, “The,” suggests that Koreans can be encapsulated in a monolithic group. I know, it might sound like I’m being really picky here. But I soon realized that I’d never heard the people using it — usually ignorant fratboys without a lick of knowledge, without a sliver of Korean language study beneath their belts — use it in an analogous way to describe any other group. Sure, they would speak of “The Americans” or “The Australians,” but they didn’t tend to generalize some perplexing or stupid behaviour to all Americans or Australians. When a non-Korean acted like a mental patient, or a jerk, they’d blame him. When a Korean behaved weirdly or rudely, they’d speak of “The Koreans,” pluralizing and generalizing in one all-too-easy step.

5 thoughts on “Trolls, Net Morality, and Types of Societies

  1. Rather than commenting here sorry, I’ll indirectly do so by discussing some of your thoughts on driving culture in post of my own on driving culture in Korea sometime next week (I’m sure you’ll notice the link!).

    Just for now though, a quick note to say that for some reason this post isn’t showing in your regular blog and I had to go down to your black section and click on the link in “Recent Blog Posts” to get to it. I only found out about it at all (and so knew that there was a link to be found) because of your RSS Feed, so unless you fix it up then being just visiting normally won’t ever notice the post.

    Jeez, even my “quick notes” seem long-winded. Time for bed for me…

  2. G,

    Fascinating insights.

    Your post is tantalizing because, near the beginning, it touches on the role of maleness in trolling, then moves on to more general issue; I hope you write another post that deals more explicitly with the maleness issue.

    Quick conjecture: I imagine that the relationship between maleness and troll behavior is similar to that between maleness and violence.

    Interesting to think of cultures in terms of “high trust” and “low trust.” I’m gonna start using that metric in my travels.



  3. James,

    Yes, anything flagged as Korea-related is not showing up on the main blog. It’s related to work. I haven’t stopped writing about Korea, but those interested will mostly already be on the RSS feed anyway. Maybe I should make a note, though?


    Thanks. Actually, the article I mentioned looks at trolling and maleness. I didn’t make the connection with violence too deeply, though I have now updated it — since it’s not published, I can do that — because your point is actually crucial and fits a missing piece of the puzzle as I laid it out. That is, the link with male violence makes a lot of sense.

    The connections I made were focused more between inclinations to interpret the Net as a machine, vs. inclination to interpret it as a technological thing to be mastered. Mastery of peers and mastery of tools are both noticeable traits, traits that advertise fitness and create desirability in a mate. So the sick jollies that trolls get manipulating people into reacting is probably analogous to the sense of satisfaction a silverback gets making the other gorillas flee in fear, or that the high school thug gets scaring people into silence.

    I suspect, indeed, the troll is a niche parasite. Where you and I can display our fitness in other ways — mastery of the English language, for example, marked with publications and intelligent posts — or mastery of musical instruments, or skillful teaching, the guys who end up trolling are the guys who have no skills worth mentioning, but have a burning need to display fitness on some level. They’re the (less-damaging, but just as pathetic) internet equivalent of guys who beat their wives to assert their strength and manliness.

    Anyway, I’ll link the article from my blog when it goes live in about 8 days…

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