Monday, 9 July 2012

Troll filters

Connecting people is the Internet's biggest achievement, but also its biggest problem. The ability to assemble a huge crowd of angry idiots is not new, but the scale and severity of the problem is growing and the tools to deal with it are weak.

For example, if thousands of people start mentioning you on Twitter, it completely spams out your feed making the whole thing unusable. It happened recently to a woman whose name is similar to a UK bank: she started receiving hordes of abusive tweets. It seems to happen to most celebrities and athletes: random morons decide to send abusive, derogatory or unpleasant messages. It seems to be especially vile when directed at women. It also appears on comments at the bottom of articles, and presumably it would also be a problem on other social networks, such as Google+, if anyone were actually using them.

There are two general ways of dealing with it and both are rubbish:

  1. Make it hard or annoying for people to send you a message. So blogs can force people to register or squint at an illegible word before making a comment, Twitter users can protect their tweets so only permitted followers can see and respond, but you may not want to block all strangers, only the morons.
  2. Block specific people. If Bob is harassing you, you can block Bob. That's great if it's just Bob, but if it's a seething mass of anonymous trolls, or if Bob keeps creating new sockpuppet accounts, it becomes tedious and impractical.
The status quo seems to work for most people, but it's a serious problem for some and if it happens to randomly strike you then you may be driven completely away from social media which you've hitherto been enjoying, because you're powerless to hold back the flood.

To me, this feels a lot like email spam a decade ago: annoying but tolerable, and the tools to deal with it sometimes caused as many problems as they solved. Then in the mid noughties email spam filtering got good: now it could block virtually all the bad stuff, let through virtually all the good stuff so email spam just went away. When we implemented this new spam filter on the email system where I worked it was as if we'd flipped the spam off switch.  I was sceptical of the company's claims because I'd read it all before and seen the mediocre reality, but for once the claims were accurate and I was instantly converted: it was one of the best things we ever bought.

Similar advanced filtering technology is the only realistic way we'll be able to deal with trolls and other social media spam. We'll ditch the unworkable idea that you can individually block everyone who's spamming you, we'll do away with peering at wobbly text: we'll find that humans can happily go about their business while all the trolls, spammers and sundry mouth frothers are pinned behind the invisible electronic barbed wire. 

You may think that it can't be done, that it's too subtle a problem, but I used to think that about filtering email spam. When was the last time you received email spam? We implemented that new spam filter in about 2005 and I've seen virtually none since then. Roll on the troll filters.

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