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Are Racist Internet Trolls Simply Expressing Their Freedom of Speech?

Inevitably, any post remotely related to race, sexual orientation, religion or even rhesus monkeys, turns into a launching board for someone’s racist and mean-spirited rant.

Yet, would these armchair haters be so bold if they actually had to say such terrible things face-to-face?

Take, for example, this recent, punctuation-less and spelling-challenged pearl of wisdom spouted by an Issue Hawk reader dubbed ‘monkeyboy’:

“[T]hese little sht kids call each other n1gger all the time you n1ggers ruined this country and you know it city schools are a toilet only thing you apes can do which isnt impotant (sic) at all is catch a ball big fcking deal.” (sic)

Would ‘monkeyboy’ be so willing to stand up at his job or in front of his place of worship and say the say the same thing?

Chances are, the answer is no.

Turns out that there is an entire psychological phenomena dedicated to trolls who think they can say exactly how they feel under the cloak of invisibility that is the internet.

The Online Disinhibition Effect refers to people who know better than to be jerks in-person but feel free to be racist, sexist  trolls while pounding the keyboard.

Unfortunately, the availability of the internet practically everywhere has created a lot of these disinhibited folk which means that wading through comment sections often leaves readers hip-deep in bigoted and biased spewings.

It also exposes most of us to a lot more hate than we would normally see out in the open in the ‘real world.’

While the jury still seems to be out whether or not these racist free-for-alls somehow impact the psyche of Americans who read this stuff day after day, it is a big enough problem that YouTube has changed its policies and some sites are considering turning off the comment sections entirely until they can figure out how to make commenters less mean.

The internet-hooded trolls, however, have countered that censoring their racist rants are a violation of their First Amendment rights to tell the ‘truth’ and have vowed to continue turning article after article into a vehicle of their hate-talk.

Calling the desire to curtail racism ‘a lame excuse’, one hate page explained why they have a right to keep posting:

“The real reason they are doing this is because these sections have been used as vehicles to spread truth and have served to discredit the biased mainstream press,” the Daily Slave demands, declaring it their right to be jerks.  “By their actions they are now admitting that they can no longer control the narrative through their one-dimensional propaganda.”

Poet and writer Olivia Cole, however, insists that hate is hate and the internet trolls must be stopped.

“When we say racist behavior on the Internet is “just the Internet” — “that’s the way it is” — we are not only justifying that behavior, but we are erasing the experiences of those who are on the receiving end of it,” she said. “Why should racism be treated with any less seriousness because it’s in the form of a 140-character micro-aggression as opposed to an epithet hurled from a car window?”

Legally, it seems both claims has some merit.

Yet, as much as the haters have a right to free speech, those targeted have a right to be free from dangerous hate, leaving the issue of hate on the internet a thorny issue that – much like the open-carry activists – challenges just how far Constitutional rights should go and where the line should be drawn to make the internet safe for all involved.

Photo Credit: Dana

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.

  • Joshua M. Patton

    Tamar, excellent piece. I wonder though, if we are not asking the wrong question about this issue. Rather than attempting to figure out a way — in the spirit of free speech or not — to silence the trolls, perhaps we should figure out a way to ensure that these comments are disregarded for the nonsense they are. To put it another way, as a parent I can’t worry about controlling what sort of things my daughter sees or hears, but I can control how I prepare her for them. Trying to silence them would only invigorate them, we should learn how to ignore them. Great job.

    • Tamar Auber

      Great point…I am wondering (and this goes out to our readers), what building a hate-resilient experience on the internet would look like? What steps can be taken to make sure that racist trolls are regarded as nothing more than nonsense (as Joshua suggests)?

      • I_B_ME

        and to add to that, it is not only the racist, but the hate mongers, sexist and religious zealot’s as well as the rabid atheists. Freedom of speech is inshrined into the laws of this country, because one persons hero is another’s traitor. I can say I love god and you can say you hate god, if there is no god does it matter. One can claim that all three statements are hateful to the other two. I think that as long as people can hide who they are they will spout their dark side, it is the light of knowing that keeps them at bay. Just my 2 cents.

  • Jodye Rudolph

    As a website Admin, I have dealt with trolling. My method is censoring foul words and sentences and changing them to something else. I turned the trolls words on them, making them sound like hero worshipers to me. That stopped the troll cold. They left because I rendered their platform useless and their words harmless.

  • Ran Talbott

    As one of the admins of CompuServe’s political and religious forums, I learned a great deal about both the psychology and the legal issues involving trolls and other nasties.

    It’s crucially important to understand that what’s going on in blogs, comment sections, etc. is not “speech”: legally, it’s “writing”, and the difference matters. A lot.

    It’s said that “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one” and, if you’re running a site, _you_ are that (wo)man. Legally, you can be considered the _publisher_ of all that drivel if you exert any control of what gets published. Depending on the extent of that control, you may even find yourself legally liable for libel, invasion of privacy, and other torts committed by the people posting there.

    The flip side of that is that there is NO “freedom of speech”, or “freedom of the press”, on someone else’s site: if you want freedom, get your own “press”. As a site owner, you can (and, arguably, should) set rules about what you’ll publish. And enforce them. Without favoritism toward the people you like/agree with. Otherwise they’re useless, and partiality in enforcing them (even if only incorrectly perceived) becomes an issue, itself.

    There is no legal right to “freedom from hate” or “freedom from offense”. As someone operating a discussion forum, you’ll probably find it highly desirable to maintain an environment that’s mostly free of hate: it’s unpleasant for both the hated and the bystanders, and most people don’t go to bars or cafes where fistfights break out routinely. “Freedom from offense” may be important if you’re running growbetterdaffodils.com for an audience of suburbanites, or counterproductive for discusscontroversialissues.net (people who espouse stupid ideas sometimes _need_ to be offended to shock them out of their stupidity).

    But the bottom line is that you’re the one who decides what’s “okay” in your online pub/town hall/living room, and the only _right_ the visitors have is to say “I think your choices are too lax/too strict/downright silly”, and go where the atmosphere is more to their liking if they can’t persuade you to change them.