Do Not Feed the Troll – Griefers Anonymous

Anonymity is a core component of griefing. The hiding veil of the Internet naturally encourages some users to behave in ways and say things they wouldn’t dare of doing in real life, for fear of being identified or having a permanent reputation as a racist or miscreant. Griefers take for granted the fact that they will never be identified nor will they have to ever meet the victims of their griefing or trolling.

Companies and governments alike have attempted to force online users to assert their real identifications in order to discourage griefing. The belief is that instead of outlawing griefing itself, by enforcing some personal accountability online providers and governments might be able to indirectly dissuade would-be griefers from participating in the activities that make them such a controversial population on the Internet.

A notable step in terms of enforcing online accountability and reducing anonymity oriented griefing was recently taken by Blizzard. The creators of World of Warcraft chose to implement a system in which user accounts needed to be verified with a real world identification in order to post messages on their forums. The so-called RealID system called for usernames to be the real name of the poster, so instead of having a post of foul, hate-filled speech being made by a user hiding under a creative username or pseudonym there would instead be a direct reference to the poster’s actual identity right next to the words.

With the initial announcement of this concept, Blizzard provided some explanation for their motives, stating:

“Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.”

Upon hearing about this new policy, World of Warcraft users and the Internet at large erupted in outcry. Bloggers accused the company of creating an environment where true, real world harassment could accompany online harassment, and even more official channels claimed the company’s move would assist in chilling free speech on their forums. The Washington Post addressed most of this commentary in an article by Rob Pegoraro found at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/2010/07/world_of_warcraft_real_names.html . In the article, Pegoraro asserts that Blizzard needn’t implement real world association of user names, but instead merely force users to maintain some form of accountability through linked and singular accounts, stating: “[I]f a site’s administrators limit duplicate ‘sock puppet’ accounts, you can’t hide from your past words, even if you didn’t post them under your name.”

It would seem Pegoraro misses the greater point of griefing and trolling. Even with a username that is locked to their accounts, reducing duplicate or troll accounts, the anonymity still present in a forum handle presents far too much opportunity for hate speech and other behavior oriented towards harming others in the virtual environment.

On the other side of the same coin, however, is an attempt at enforced identification that occurred in Australia earlier this year. In the state of South Australia, a law was passed that required any politically oriented Internet posts during an election period to be tied to a verified real name for a user. In pertinent part, the law stated:

“A person must not during an election period, publish material consisting of, or containing a commentary on, any candidate or political party, or the issues being submitted to electors, in written form, in a journal published in electronic form on the internet or by radio or television or broadcast on the internet, unless the material or the program in which the material is presented contains a statement of the name and address (not being a post office box) of a person who takes responsibility for the publication of that material.” http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100202/1840438016.shtml

Clearly a requirement like this would do much to tame any mud-slinging or other strong political discord on the Internet. Again, users on the Internet protested the assault on anonymity, with the story quickly reaching international news channels. The law was quickly repealed, and the election season continued with its anonymous Internet commentary like usual.

As made clear in the South Australian incident, the usefulness of reducing anonymity identifying Internet users with real world analogs begins to fade when real world concepts come into play. To insist that a 13 year old take personal responsibility for a epithet strewn tirade against some faceless victim is much simpler than asking that someone criticizing his local political seat of power to identify himself for potential retaliation.

Perhaps in the end that is the true solution. If one becomes a known griefer, or chooses to use a voluntary, all-virtual environment, then they would need to voluntary associate accounts in such environments as Second Life or World of Warcraft with a verified user ID. However, this solution seems to lose perspective of the over-arching issue, utilizing a broad, strong armed and consequent-laden option for what some consider to be a petty issue. Only time will tell what society and government determine to be the best option to “tame” the Internet, if such a taming is even necessary.

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~ by scottyufl on December 10, 2010.

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