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Don’t let the trolls drag you down

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

The era of email and the internet has been beneficial in many ways, including greatly enhancing access to free speech around the globe. But there’s also a cost to that increased freedom: more trolls.

Trolls don’t care about other people or the greater good; they are small-minded people whose only motivation is their own entertainment, no matter the cost to everyone else. Worse, they often find their entertainment by causing problems for those playing by the rules. They are elementary-school bullies who would rather take your toy and hold it above your head than play with it together.

The sprawling, anonymous depths of the internet has allowed the world’s troll population to explode.

Our troll problem was on display in Kentucky and around the nation last Thursday.

Someone or someones sent bomb threats via email to a wide variety of businesses, churches, schools and newspapers, spurring first responders into action and generating police investigations at all levels of government.

Lexington Catholic High School, radio station WBKO in Bowling Green and the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville were among the Kentucky targets of these emails, which were apparently all scams. The Herald-Leader reported seven locations in Lexington were threatened, “including parks, businesses and a school.”

The same types of locations, as well as places like public libraries and courthouses, were threatened across the U.S., according to news reports.

What should be done about these kinds of malicious, time-and-resource-wasting virtual attacks is a very different question from what can be done in reality.

What should be done is this: The lowlife trolls who sent the threats should be arrested and at least fined for the cost of all the first responders’ time that was wasted. They should perhaps even face jail time if convicted of a crime.

What can be done is probably nothing like that at all. While the internet has greatly increased our capacity to speak freely, it has also greatly increased our capacity to speak anonymously. We love the former; we’re not so thrilled with the latter.

Anonymous digital threats are a perfect example: They must, to a certain extent, be taken seriously. That means spending taxpayer money and potentially pulling investigators and responders away from more productive work. But such threats can be sent with a few keystrokes from any internet-connected device by anyone with an inclination to stir up trouble without getting in trouble themselves.

If we’re lucky, the trolls may have left a digital trail that investigators can follow, but even then, there’s a cost imbalance: It costs us a lot more time and resources to catch a troll than it costs the troll to stir up trouble in the first place. As long as something is easy to do, you can be pretty sure humans will do it a lot.

The internet isn’t going away any time soon, and anonymity likely isn’t either. There can be good things about anonymity, too, despite its many drawbacks.

It’s a tough problem without a real solution at this point in time.

Perhaps the best we can do is avoid giving the trolls what they want.

They want to see a world of angry, fearful people who are always watching over their shoulders and view everything as a potential threat. They want to laugh at that world and say, “We made that happen.”

We may not be able to stop them from sowing the seeds of negativity and fear, but we don’t have to help those seeds grow.

It seems cliché and almost naive, but it may be that our best answer to mean, anonymous trolls is simply being nice to those around us whenever possible. It’s probably not a solution, but it sure feels better than letting them drag us down to their level.