Trolls, fake news, bad actors loom over internet: poll

Trolls, fake news, anonymous posts, bad actors and other negative influences loom over the internet, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center.

The key question from Pew Research Center and Elon University: In the next decade, will public discourse online become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, and an overall tone of griping, distrust and disgust?

The answer: 42 percent of the respondents to the poll expect no major changes over the next decade in online social climate, while 39 percent believe the future will be “more shaped” by negative activities. An estimated 19 percent said they believe the online future will be “less shaped” by harassment.

Pew and Elon University polled 1,537 “technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders” during July and the first half of August of 2016, the researchers said.

The respondents included Vint Cerf, a Google vice president and co-founder of the internet protocol. Those who were surveyed were invited to provide their own perspective about the situation beyond making choices in the poll.

“The internet is threatened with fragmentation,” Cerf wrote. “People feel free to make unsupported claims, assertions, and accusations in online media.”

Social media and online participants tend to seek out those who espouse views similar to them, Cerf said.

“People are attracted to forums that align with their thinking, leading to an echo effect,” Cerf said. “This self-reinforcement has some of the elements of mob (flash-crowd) behavior. Bad behavior is somehow condoned because ‘everyone’ is doing it.”

On the other hand, some experts who responded noted that the internet by its nature tends to be anonymous and that sort of shielding can encourage trolls who might otherwise shy away from a face-to-face, in-person conversation. Put another way: Get used to trolls.

“Trolling for arguments has been an internet tradition since Usenet,” said John Cato, a senior software engineer. “Some services may be able to mitigate the problem slightly by forcing people to use their real identities, but wherever you have anonymity you will have people who are there just to make other people angry.”

Things are likely to get worse before they get better, warned Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst at Altimeter Group.

“In the next several years we will see an increase in the type and volume of bad behavior online, mostly because there will be a corresponding increase in digital activity,” Etlinger wrote in her response.

A bad outcome might result if efforts succeed in shoving bad behavior out of the public eye into back alleys of the internet. That would create a false impression that all is well, when in reality it’s only the surface that is placid.

“The more worrisome possibility is that privacy and safety advocates, in an effort to create a more safe and equal internet, will push bad actors into more-hidden channels such as Tor,” Etlinger said. “Of course, this is already happening, just out of sight of most of us. The worst outcome is that we end up with a kind of Potemkin internet in which everything looks reasonably bright and sunny, which hides a more troubling and less transparent reality.”


Photo from Bay Area News Group archives


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