Book Review: “Violence and Trolling on Social Media”

A new book called “Violence and Trolling on Social Media” attempts to help define wrongs in social media. Unfortunately, at first read, it seems to be wrong itself in a number of areas.

Take for example page nine:

In ‘How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life’ (New York Times Magazine,12 February 2015) Welsh journalist Jon Ronson investigated the effect on victims of public shaming through social media platforms and compared it to the history of public shaming as a form of punishment. Such punishments (the stocks, the pillory, the whipping pole) have gone out of practice, in part because they were considered too humiliating and socially annihilating for the person undergoing the punishment.

This conclusion that punishments went out of practice “in part” for being too humiliating, seems to be in fact based on a single sentence in Ronson’s article:

At the archives, I found no evidence that punitive shaming fell out of fashion as a result of new found anonymity. But I did find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning the outsize cruelty of the practice, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.

Absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. People bemoaning excessive punishment does not mean that punishment was ended because of the bemoaning.

More to the point, if I remember correctly from studying alongside a PhD candidate at LSE working on political history of social punishment (in particular the rise of guillotine), there was a problem with the unruly nature and impracticality of the format that led to its demise.

It was operational concerns and a noticeable lack of effect (opposite of Ronson’s cruelty remark), and not empathy with the targets, that led to demise of the stocks, pillory and pole.

Here is an excerpt from UK Parliament’s official record in an 1815 debate on pillory abolition.

It spells out how social methods failed to maintain a desired end as sometimes crowds even “contravened the sentence of the Court by exalting the criminal”:

It could not be called a reforming punishment, because it rather tended to deaden the sense of shame than to have any other effect. Besides, it appeared to him as contrary to law, because the culprit was left to meet the fury of the populace. It was not attended with any good to the spectator, because it only gave rise to the assemblage of a tumultuous rabble, who either contravened the sentence of the Court by exalting the criminal, or violated the law by an outrageous attack upon him. It was therefore evidently a punishment of a very unequal nature.

Examples then were provided to emphasize the point that social shaming was so uncontrolled it backfired into random outcomes, from generating support for those put on display or opposite (causing their death by unruly mob):

In the year 1759, doctor Shebbeare was sentenced to be pillored for a libel of a political description—and in what manner was that punishment executed? Why, when he arrived at the pillory he mounted it in full dress, attended by a servant in livery, who held an umbrella over his head and the under-sheriff, who participated in the popular feeling, instead of calling upon him, as usual, to place his head in the pillory, was satisfied to let him simply rest ins hands on the machine, and in that way he underwent his sentence. Then again, in the case of Daniel Isaac Eaton, who two years back was pillored for a religious libel, this man, instead of being regarded, as might have been expected, with indignation, was treated with, respect, and viewed with silent pity.

Does that sound “too humiliating” and “socially annihilating”? More to the point, exposing “higher walks of life” to public sentiment was deemed “unequal” treatment:

The punishment, he insisted, was unequal: to a man in the higher walks of life, it was worse than death: it drove him from society, and would not suffer him to return to respectability; while, to a more hardened offender, it could not be an object of much terror, and it could not affect his family or his prospects in the same degree.

Consider again who was bemoaning social punishment, and why that form of punishment was truly abolished (although it’s important to remember it still exists in things like “smacking” and the stocks were never abolished).

Stocks and pillaries have been in use for more than 1000 years. They were used as a punishment from the Middle Ages up to the eighteenth century. In 1405 a law was passed that required every town and village to have a set of stocks, usually placed by the side of a public highway or village green. Stocks were a status symbol for smaller communities. If a town was too small or could not afford stocks that town was regarded as a hamlet and could not call itself a village. The pillory was only abolished in England around 1837. Stocks were never formally abolished and were used until around 1870.

Stocks not only were NEVER abolished, they remain to this day as a former status symbol of a village!

Never abolished, this public punishment platform stands even today as a source of pride. “The Stocks were a coronation gift to the Green in 1953”. Source: Southgate Green Association

That’s just one example.

Here is another one from the book worth digging into, on page fourteen:

Online vitriol seems to be a particular product of the Web 2.0, the ‘participatory’ or ‘social web’ that has evolved since the early twenty-first century, and that revolves around ‘user-generated content’ and conceives of the web as a space of interaction, rather than a collection of static sites where one can read information. The term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined in 1999 by Darcy DiNucci in an article prophetically titled ‘Fragmented Future

Obviously a collection of static sites where one can read information is in fact a space of interaction. When one person publishes, another person reads. Strange to see that publisher/reader relationship of a webpage (hello dear reader!) framed as different from being social when they are literally the same (leave a comment below if you disagree, haha).

The book has consistently made these kinds of errors so I’m getting stuck in the weeds, rather than giving a high level review. Not sure the latter makes sense however when the former is so distracting.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: “Violence and Trolling on Social Media””

  1. for what it’s worth, “web 2.0” is often associated with dialog as default, and we all know how powerful defaults can be. I’d argue that its design invites participation, whereas typing in this little box and wondering if anyone else will comment seems more exposed. Here, I have an expectation that you control this venue there’s a good chance you’ll censor or delete what I write if you don’t like it. Facebook, reddit, and twitter more closely resemble the “public square” legal construct because practically, censorship rarely happens. For the sake of their argument, I can see how in those forums, a pile-on effect may be more frequent. Here, the set of commenters are less likely to groupthink our way into thinking Chris Krebs is either a witch or a member of a shadowy pedo conspiracy.

  2. Thanks @Dylan, you said:

    Here, I have an expectation that you control this venue there’s a good chance you’ll censor or delete what I write if you don’t like it. Facebook, reddit, and twitter more closely resemble the “public square” legal construct because practically, censorship rarely happens.

    This is an interestingly false construct. Private companies run by a few or single individuals holding all the power are nothing even close to approximating a public square, and certainly very far distant as a legal construct.

    What “legal” authority do you have over these private companies censoring women for showing a nipple in a picture (but not men for doing the same), which you surely must know is a very common thing for them to do? None. They control the venue very narrowly and they course-correct dialog in self-serving ways.

    Recent disclosures even point out Facebook ignored stark internal warnings that its cherry-picking censorship model “exempting politicians from fact-checking ‘is protecting content that is especially likely to deceive'”.

    External research supported the same conclusion, even pin-pointing how the company conspired with its biggest offenders:

    Facebook pages that spread the most election misinformation belong to Trump, his son, and a set of right-wing commentators…

    In other words, intentionally refusing to act on known wrongs was facilitating wrongs. This was no public square.

    Anyway I guess it comes back to the fact that publishing a page invites participation. Dialog means you can publish your own page as well. It’s the next part that gets convoluted in the “rich” media expansion that came after HTML. If you publish your thoughts as comments in a service dialog on my page, is it still like you publishing your own page?

  3. Fair. Our legal construct of public square is based on a long-dead, now-imagined community dynamic: presumably, in many cities there existed a large open area where people often gathered, and sometimes was commonly used to express ideas (Martin Luther comes to mind). That common reality gave rise to a legal doctrine that reflected that practical experience. I very much doubt that it happened in reverse, that city planners in a 1400s western European theocratic monarchy would say: “We as a culture would net benefit from a more free exchange of ideas…all that’s missing is a consistent location – how about in front of our cathedral?”
    Practically, the experience of getting harangued by a demogogue in a public square has a lot more in common with reddit than the comment section of an erudite but obscure blog. I’m not talking about legal principles and US caselaw – I’m talking about what most people perceive. If I say in a crowded public park that meat packing regulations are too strict and that it would be good if more people got sick more frequently, some people would immediately engage me, and people around them may engage, and it may snowball from there. If I wrote the same thoughts on twitter or facebook, the same social dynamics would occur. If I wrote them as a comment on your blog or mine, nobody would ever care except the people reading that blog post. Further, there’s an expectation of moderation on a blog post. This place belongs to you – it’s got your name on the top. The effect is heightened by the notification, “your comment is awaiting approval.” I’m here at your pleasure.
    While facebook has the same legal rights that you do, it doesn’t use them, really. That’s part of the problem: people on these platforms almost never get censored, let alone banned. This is partly by design: prioritizing engagement (and thus eyeballs and clicks) means a model where every censorship decision has a negative impact on your bottom line – you want people to be outraged and doomscrolling. Their personal mental health and the health of society have no measurable impact on your revenue. The only reason why these venues do any censorship is theatre – they want to seem like they’re helping in order to avoid a national narrative of “facebook is ruining America.”
    I’ve also never seen any volume-based censorship analysis from facebook, youtube, reddit, or twitter (aside from IP complaints, which is a different story). If you have a source indicating volume, I’d love to see it. I have heard that twitter has really increased the amount they censor or tag in the last few months, but I suspect that most people have a wild-west experience. I know I have.
    I’d say the practical experience of posting on blogs is much more akin to me posting notices on your house. People who come to your house can see them, you can take them down, and I don’t get responses in realtime because you’ve got better things to do. It’s a forum only in the theoretical sense, not in the 300 BC Athens sense. While it may be compatible with the legal “public square” model, the practical experience is much different.
    While I haven’t read the book in question, I’ve often wondered about what the modern equivalent of “public square” is. Social media isn’t a perfect fit – even though it may seem like an open discussion, many people have the power, motive, and ability to adjust the perceived narrative for their own ends, and have been shown to do so, including the platform owners, state propaganda, political groups, and corporations. At the same time, maybe this has always been true: who’s to say that powerful groups only recently started seeding public squares with representatives in an effort to generate groupthink in their favor?

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