Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

The Future of Free Speech, Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online

Theme 1: Things will stay bad, Part I

Respondents to this canvassing were very focused on human nature and the special character of online interactions. They offered a series of ideas along these lines: To troll is human; anonymity abets anti-social behavior; inequities drive at least some inflammatory dialogue; and the growing scale and complexity of internet discourse makes this difficult to defeat

Trolls are the internet’s primary bad social actors. Due in part to the focus of this question, many of the respondents in this canvassing generalized most socially disruptive activities including harassment, threats, hate speech, “flaming,” “griefing,” and “doxing” under the umbrella terms “troll” and “trolling.”

Human nature has not much changed over the past 2,000 years; I don’t expect much change over the next 10. Anonymous respondent

Many pointed out that negative behaviors online are encouraged by actors’ lack of physical proximity and said they are mostly empowered by a lack of attribution or anonymity.

While there is likely no way to quantify the percentage of “positive” discourse as compared with the “negative” online, it is quite possible that the socially beneficial declarations and conversations being carried on really outweigh those that are not. So why do experts perceive the tone of online social discourse to be troubling? Bad actors and propaganda pushers are motivated to command center stage – in fact they crave it and they generally get it – and their actions can create states of fear, mistrust, polarization, anger, withdrawal that cause significant damage.

At the time of this canvassing, the summer of 2016, a vast majority of respondents expressed opinions ranging from disappointment to deep concern about the social climate of the internet.

  • Those among the 42% in this canvassing who said they expect “no major change” in online tone by 2026 generally see the state of online discourse to be raising important challenges, and they expressed worries in their written elaborations.
  • The 19% who said they expect the internet will be “less shaped” by bad actors by 2026 said things are bad now, but they expressed confidence in technological and human solutions.
  • And the 39% who said they expect the future to be “more shaped” by negative activities had little hope for effective solutions.

Trolls have been with us since the dawn of time; there will always be some incivility

Many respondents observed that prickly and manipulative behaviors are a fundamental part of human nature due to group identification and intercultural conflict. They added that the particular affordances of the internet make trolling especially potent.

Trolls online are trolls in real life. It’s just the person you are. The internet has provided closet trolls an outlet. Anonymous respondent

David Krieger, director of the Institute for Communication and Leadership at IKF in Lucerne, Switzerland, said, “Trolls we will always have with us. Despite everything, they serve the useful purpose of challenging and improving the evolution of the social immune system. The pressure for more transparency and authenticity that comes with increasing connectivity and flow of information will tend to make life more difficult for the trolls. … Privacy will yield to ‘publicy’ in knowledge economy of abundance. … What we need is Network Publicy Governance instead of market individualism and bureaucratic hierarchies.”

Jim Warren, internet pioneer and longtime technology entrepreneur and activist, wrote, “It seems clear – at least in the U.S. – that ‘bad actors,’ children of all ages who have never been effectively taught civility and cooperation, are becoming more and more free to ‘enjoy’ sharing the worst of their ‘social’ leanings.”

Jan Schaffer, executive director at J-Lab, commented, “I expect digital public discourse to skew more negative for several reasons, including: the polarization of the country, which is a barrier to civil discourse; the rise of websites, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages dedicated to portraying an opponent in a bad light; and the awful online trolling and harassment of women who are active in social media. I do not think things will get better on their own.”


An anonymous respondent said, “Human nature has not much changed over the past 2,000 years; I don’t expect much change over the next 10.”

Daniel Menasce, professor of computer science at George Mason University, said, “While social media and digital commentary have some very positive aspects, they also serve as tools for the dissemination of lies, propaganda, and hatred. It is possible that technological solutions may be developed to assign crowdsourced reputation values for what is posted online. This, in my opinion, will not stop people from consuming and re-posting information of low value provided it conforms with their way of thinking.”

An anonymous respondent remarked, “Trolls online are trolls in real life. It’s just the person you are. The internet has provided closet trolls an outlet.”

Paul Edwards, professor of information and history at the University of Michigan, commented, “Social media will continue to generate increasingly contentious, angry, mob-like behavior. The phenomenon that underlies this behavior has been consistently observed since the early days of email, so there is no reason to think that some new technique or technology will change that. Mediated interaction tends to disinhibit people’s expression of strong opinions, use of inappropriate language, and so on. It also makes it easier to misunderstand others’ tone. Emoticons have at least given a means of indicating the intended tone. Fact-checking sites have also helped to control the spread of rumors, but not very much. The very rapid interaction cycle on social media causes it to be governed by ‘fast’ thinking (see Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”), which is intuitive, reactive, and often emotionally based. For this reason, social media discourage long-form arguments and long, complex exchanges of nuanced views.”

Paul Jones, clinical professor and director of at the University of North Carolina, briefly quoted earlier, had a fuller comment: “The id unbound from the monitoring and control by the superego is both the originator of communication and the nemesis of understanding and civility. As we saw in “Forbidden Planet,” the power of the id is difficult to subdue if not impossible. Technologies of online discourse will continue to battle with the id, giving us, most recently, Yik Yak (id-freeing) and comment control systems like Disqus (id-controlling). Like civility in all contexts, controlling the id is more social and personal in the end. Technologies will nonetheless attempt to augment civility– and to circumvent it.”

The comment by Dean Landsman, digital strategist and executive director of PDEC (Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium), represents the experts’ who expect online tone to improve despite the state of affairs today. He wrote, “With each new communications medium comes fear, loathing, abuse, misuse, and then a calming down. Gutenberg printed a bible, and shortly thereafter the printed word represented a danger, a system used for wrongdoing. … Free speech is made possible and more freely distributed by technology. Capture (read: production) and distribution are burgeoning. The individual has more than a soapbox; he or she or they have video and streaming or ‘store now and play later’ with repositories in the cloud becoming cheaper by the moment.”

Trolling and other destructive behaviors often result because people do not recognize or don’t care about the consequences that might flow from those actions

A large share of these respondents added that the natural tendency of humans to be nasty at times to each other is especially enabled by the terms of online engagement. People are more emboldened when they can be anonymous and not ever confront those they are attacking.

Online our identity is disembodied, only a simulation of what we do in the physical presence of others; it is missing our moving countenance, the mask that encounters – and counters – the world. Barry Chudakov

An anonymous respondent wrote, “In any setting where there is a disconnect between speech and social consequences, whether that’s a chat room, a mob, talk radio, a pulpit, whatever, a large minority of humans will be hateful. That’s humans, as a species.”

Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, commented, “The nature of instantaneous online communications is to vastly amplify that which attracts or threatens us, and a very small number of actors can make a very loud noise, despite the fact that they are less than 1% of the conversation.”

Tim Norton, chair of Digital Rights Watch, wrote, “Anonymity (or at least the illusion of it) feeds a negative culture of vitriol and abuse that stifles free speech online. Social media allows people to take part in a public debate that they may have not previously had access to. But alongside this an increasing culture of attack language, trolls, and abuse online has the potential to do more damage to this potential.”

An anonymous respondent commented, “People are snarky and awful online in large part because they can be anonymous, or because they don’t have to speak to other people face-to-face.”

Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, noted, “The quality of online discourse ebbs and flows. In certain environments, trollish behavior is more noticeable, while in others trollish behavior is largely absent. Anonymity fuels a lack of accountability for some online discourse, producing, at times, an online “Lord of the Flies” (LoF) situation. LoF situations have persisted in human social groups for eons and are not created by the availability of online fora. Despite the poor behavior of some, the world of social discourse in online environments is growing in depth, diversity, and levels of participation. Free speech is readily available, but the speaker may lack the protections afforded by a close social group.”

Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research and StreamFuzion Corp., replied, “In trolling, even challenging or calling out those who agree with you, self-presentation becomes a game of catch-me-if-you-can. What shapes our discourse? Our hidden physical state. Online our identity is disembodied, only a simulation of what we do in the physical presence of others; it is missing our moving countenance, the mask that encounters – and counters – the world. As online discourse becomes more app-enabled, our ability to disembody ourselves will only grow more dexterous. Online, our face is absent – a snapshot at best, a line of code or address at worst. Politeness, sociologists tell us, is about ‘facework’ – presenting a face, saving face, smiling, reassuring, showing. But online we are disembodied; our actual faces are elsewhere. This present-yet-absent dynamic not only affects our identity, whether people can identify us behind the shield of online presentation, it also affects our speech and, ultimately, our ‘performance.’ Into this pool jump the hackers and mischief-makers and deadly serious manipulators who realize that they can do their work behind the shield with impunity – until they are caught or ‘outed.’”

Some argued that trolling has to recede because it has reached its peak and resistance to trolls is growing.

Bailey Poland, author of “Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online,” wrote, “We are close to a tipping point in terms of online dialogue. Things are likely to get much worse before they get any better, but the state of online discourse has been ugly for a very long time, and people are beginning to rally for real changes.”

Technological evolution has surpassed the evolution of civil discourse. We’ll catch up eventually. I hope. We are in a defining time. Ryan Sweeney

Chris Zwemke, a web developer, commented, “People feel empowered to say hateful things and complain and shame those hateful things if they aren’t face to face. Shaming a harasser or a troll is definitely negative noise (I don’t know that it is wrong, but it is negative noise). We haven’t reached peak argument yet online. Folks will continue in the next decade to speak ill of each other in either true hate or trolling. Either way, the people who visit ‘public’ places online will have worse content to consume. Best to avoid the comment sections for the foreseeable future. My hope is that online discussion can solve the echo chamber problem of online discourse so that people can see the other side with more clarity.”

Lee McKnight, associate professor of information studies at Syracuse University, wrote, “In the year that WWE-trained Donald Trump became presidential it is hard to imagine bad actors, harassment, trolling, griping, distrust, and disgust – what we used to call flaming and then learned not to do online – becoming more plentiful and empowered worldwide than those so engaged do now.”

“Although I believe the online environment today is extremely negative, I also believe this environment has reached peak negativity and it will remain at this level,” replied an anonymous respondent.

Ryan Sweeney, director of analytics at Ignite Social Media, commented, “Online discourse is new, relative to the history of communication. The optimist in me believes we’re in the worst of it right now and within a decade the kinks will have been worked out. There are a lot of tough and divisive but crucial conversations occurring online at this moment in time. People are more open with their communication. Groups that have previously had minimal access to mass communication are able to have a voice and those who previously had the microphone aren’t quite sure how to react pleasantly. Technological evolution has surpassed the evolution of civil discourse. We’ll catch up eventually. I hope. We are in a defining time.”

“I don’t think it can get worse,” wrote an anonymous respondent. “There should be better methods to filter and block ‘bad actors’ in the near future.”

Anonymously, a leader of city government in a Silicon Valley community said, “There are a number of largely unmoderated forums like NextDoor which in my city have been taken over by anti-politics – people use false identities to promote their points of view and squelch everyone else’s.”

Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker and founder of The Webby Awards, optimistically said, “As we connect our identity more to what we say, there will be more accountability. Since it is easier to say harsh words anonymously, the continued direction of transparency will lead to more civil discourse.”

An anonymous technology writer, expressed a great deal of frustration, arguing, “The presence of harassment and mobs online effectively silences me from voicing opinions where they can be heard. Doxxing is dangerous to my family and neighbors, and I can’t risk it. The ability for anyone anywhere to find and publicize personal information for any member of any minority group who might draw ire is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Anonymity and privacy are already more-or-less mythical. Either we, as a society, start designing explicitly for inclusivity or we accept that only the loudest, angriest voices have a right to speak and the rest of us must listen in silence.”

Inequities drive at least some of the inflammatory dialogue

Some respondents noted that “anger gets translated into trolling and other really bad behavior,” and many of the participants in this canvassing noted that social and economic bifurcations or inequities are the motivation behind online angst.

Dara McHugh, a respondent who shared no additional identifying details, said, “The overall trend in society is toward greater inequality and social conflict, and this will be reflected in online discourse.”

As internet access becomes more expansive due to the increasing affordability of smart phones, the socioeconomic gap between the world’s poorest and richest members of society will unfortunately become evident in their interactions on the Web. Nicholas V. Macek

[in the future]

Giacomo Mazzone, head of institutional relations at the European Broadcasting Union, commented, “Social media are simply the reflex of the society in which they are encapsulated. In Europe, the U.S. and all rich countries of the world, the social media debate will worsen because in the next decade the populations there will become older and poorer. It’s demography, stupid!”

“The most important issues of our time are complex, and social media does not allow for a complex discourse. Furthermore, algorithmically selected content based on our existing interests also steers us towards more ideological isolation, not openness,” added an anonymous consulting partner.

Robin James, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, commented, “The problem with online harassment isn’t a technological problem, it’s a sociopolitical problem: sexism, racism, etc. These systems of domination motivate harassment online, in the street, in homes. As technology changes and adapts, so do the underlying systems of domination. So online harassment may look different in the future, but it will still exist. Sexism and racism also impact how we need to talk about free speech: the issue here isn’t censorship but power inequities. The language of ‘free speech’ misidentifies the actual problem: punching down, people in positions of power and privilege using speech to harass and assault people in minority positions.”

Axel Bruns, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre, said, “Unfortunately, I see the present prevalence of trolling as an expression of a broader societal trend across many developed nations, towards belligerent factionalism in public debate, with particular attacks directed at women as well as ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities.”

Annette Markham, an expert in information studies, observed, “Two factors seem relevant to mention here: Historically, new media for communication have been accompanied by large spikes in impact on forms of interaction. This tends to decline as technologies move from novel to everyday. This suggests that extreme uses tend to normalize. The second factor to add to this is that many stakeholders are responding to extreme homophily.”

Masha Falkov, artist and glassblower, wrote, “Online, speech becomes more than just printed word on paper. It becomes a vector for the binding of a community. People who wish to speak hatefully against their targets – women, minorities, LGBT, etc. – seem to bind together with much more force than people who speak to defend those same targets. Hate speech online isn’t the polar opposite of supportive conversation or polite discourse. It’s a weapon made to cause its targets to feel fear, inadequacy, and it has real-world effects on those people, with virtually no consequences for the speaker save for disapproval for the community. … Whether limits on hate speech and abuse online are part of a larger trend toward limits on freedom of speech should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis rather than shouting an alarm that our freedoms are being eroded.”


Nicholas V. Macek, digital director at a political firm, wrote, “As internet access becomes more expansive due to the increasing affordability of smart phones, the socioeconomic gap between the world’s poorest and richest members of society will unfortunately become evident in their interactions on the Web. Especially in the context of political and social movements, and civil rights, the lack of understanding between people of different backgrounds will become more pronounced.”

Luis Miron, professor at Loyola University-New Orleans, wrote, “Although I am not a pessimist I am deeply worried that in the next decade, and perhaps beyond, racial and economic conflict will likely exacerbate. And social and economic inequality will widen before narrowing. Globally. My fear is that terrorism will continue to strike fear in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens, furthering the online negativity.”

We are watching what happens when the audience becomes accustomed to ‘having a voice’ and begins to assume that being heard entitles one’s opinion to dominate rather than be part of a collaborative solution. Pamela Rutledge

Elisabeth Gee, a professor at Arizona State University, wrote, “The growing economic and social divides are creating a large number of disenfranchised people and undoubtedly they will express their frustration online, but they’ll mostly be interacting with each other. Just as ‘public’ places like city parks have become mostly the realm of the poor, so will public online spaces. I suspect that the real trend will be toward increasingly segmented and exclusive online interactions. We know that’s already happening.”

Dave Kissoondoyal, CEO of KMP Global, located in Mauritius, commented, “With the rapid change in the human environment today – be it in a social context, or professional, or even societal – people have the tendency to be stressed, frustrated, and demotivated. … People use social media to express anger, disgust, and frustration. This tendency will continue and it will expand in the next decade.”

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, observed, “Communications are a reflection of local and global sentiment – online public discourse reflects how people feel offline. We are in a period of considerable economic and political chaos across the globe. All people instinctively seek certainty and stability to offset the fear of chaos and change. This increases tribalism and ‘othering,’ as people seek to make their worlds feel more stable and controllable. Media provides a means of identifying tribes and groups and these tendencies have deep evolutionary roots. The problem won’t be trolls and general troublemakers – these have always been a minority. The problem is the tendency of the cacophony of negative media voices to increase the social schisms contributing to the rising anger over a world undergoing massive shifts. We are watching what happens when the audience becomes accustomed to ‘having a voice’ and begins to assume that being heard entitles one’s opinion to dominate rather than be part of a collaborative solution.”

Alan Moore, a software architect based in the U.S., framed his comment within the environment of the raucous 2016 presidential campaign, arguing, “The tone of the internet, especially social media, is driven by people being frustrated by our system of government and especially the corporatocracy that money in politics brings. Those without the money to pay for access will vent online. … We want to be free from manipulation and coercion, from incessant tracking of our every move. As technology lures us into its comforting ease and convenience, many, not all, will slowly lose whatever sense of privacy we have left.”

Joshua Segall, a software engineer, said he doesn’t think that technology is capable of solving many of these problems, “Online activity is already heavily shaped by negative activities and there’s no reason to expect the trend to reverse. The effect is due to two broad drivers. First, the social media companies have taken a false neutral stance in which they apparently believe that technology will solve social issues as opposed to amplifying them. … Abusive activity is much more of a threat to free speech than almost any policy or action that could be taken by these companies. I think there is demand for more-inclusive systems but I don’t see a pure technology play that will enable it. Abuse is already widespread, so it’s unclear how much more demand there can be. The second driver is the ongoing economic stagnation across the globe, which is increasing tension between groups and fueling a sharp rise in nationalism, racism, fascism, and violence. This will be reflected online by increased abuse and negative activity, especially on social networks. Technical solutions and social media have little control over this aspect, but the underlying forces will affect them nonetheless. I don’t think this has anything to do with anonymity, privacy, or free speech. It’s a reflection of society, and people will find a way to use any system to express themselves. Any systemic change would have to be more broad-based than a single company’s online policies. However, there is a role for these companies to play in shaping public discourse by encouraging inclusiveness, civility, and true discussion.”

Chris Kutarna, a fellow at the Oxford Martin School and author of “Age of Discovery” wrote, “Part of the context we need to understand is that unpleasant shocks are becoming more frequent and more severe in their effect. This is a consequence of rising concentrations and complexity within society, and within social and natural systems. Our global entanglement makes us more vulnerable, while also making it harder to see cause and effect and assign accountability and responsibility to the injuries we suffer. Anger and frustration are a predictable consequence, and I expect public discourse online to reflect it.”

Scott McLeod, associate professor of educational leadership at University of Colorado-Denver, was optimistic that something can be done, writing, “The internet will continue to serve as an outlet for voices to vent in ways that are both productive and necessary. Societal and political ‘griping’ and ‘disgust’ often are necessary mechanisms for fostering change. We are going to find ways to preserve anonymity where necessary but also evolve online mechanisms of trust and identity verification – including greater use of community self-moderation tools – that foster civil discourse in online communities that desire it. Yes, there will be marginalized communities of disgust but many of these will remain on the fringes, out of the mainstream. The ideas that bubble up from them and gain greater traction will represent the larger public and probably deserve some constructive attention.”

An anonymous professor of public relations wrote about the origins of the most volatile and outspoken rage being expressed publicly in online fora arguing, “We are on a downward spiral, but I disagree that it is because of bad actors, trolls, etc. This is a time of great unrest in this country with distrust of media, academic experts, and government. The voices of anger, anxiety, and frustration are loud, and discourse by elites that these are uneducated or uninformed disgruntled citizens, contributes to the malaise and feelings of disempowerment. I continually hear, ‘What the hell can the average person do?’ voiced by these angry citizens as they shake their heads in disgust. This negativity will spiral out of control without leaders’ recognition of the legitimacy of these concerns.”

The ever-expanding scale of internet discourse and its accelerating complexity make it difficult to deal with problematic content and contributors

Do you think online discourse seems to be increasingly contentious now? Wait until a billion more humans are connected. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet, and about 3.6 billion are internet users today.2 A billion more are expected to get online in the next decade or so. Some of these respondents expect that some of them are likely to be trolls or people who are motivated to manipulate others, maybe quite a few. Respondents also noted that rising layers of complexity due to the expansion of the Internet of Things and new tech, like the further development of virtual- and augmented-reality, will create even more new challenges in monitoring and attacking trolling activity.

With more people gaining access, there will be less tolerance, counter-reactions. There will be expansion but also contestation. Anonymous respondent

M.E. Kabay, a professor of computer information systems at Norwich University, predicted, “As the global economy increases the number of people with modest disposable income, increasing numbers of people in developing countries around the world will use smartphones to access the internet (or the restricted portions of the Net permitted by increasingly terrified dictatorships). We will see increasing participation in social networks, including increasing numbers of comments by new users. The widespread availability of anonymity and pseudonymity will encourage social disinhibition; without real-world consequences for intemperate remarks and trolls (attempts to provoke angry responses), the amount of negativity will increase. The numbers of new users will overwhelm the resources dedicated to monitoring and purging (some) social networks of abusive language – even today, networks such as Facebook are experiencing difficulty in taking down abusers. … Perhaps we will see the development of social media sites with stringent requirements for traceable identity. These systems may have to demand evidence of real-world identity and impose strong (e.g., multifactor) authentication of identity. Even so, malefactors will continue to elude even the best of the attempts to enforce consequences for bad behavior.”

An anonymous respondent wrote, “With more people gaining access, there will be less tolerance, counter-reactions. There will be expansion but also contestation.”

Itır Akdoğan, research communication director at Istanbul Bilgi University/TESEV, commented, “My perspective is from the developing world: Turkey. Gradually, those who are less-educated start being active in social media/digital commentary. As much as it sounds democratic at first, we then observe an increase in hate speech, harassment, and trolls. Statistically, the less-educated are the majority of the population. In this sense, I can say that the future of digital commentary will not be more democratic.”

Jon Lebkowsky, CEO of Polycot Associates, said, “With more voices in the discussion, facilitated by the internet, negative elements have become more visible/audible in civil discourse. This could be seen as the body politic releasing toxins – and as they are released, we can deal with them and hopefully mitigate their effect.”

Bryan Alexander, president of Bryan Alexander Consulting, wrote, “The negative comments will occur wherever they can, and the number of venues will rise, with the expansion of the Internet of Things and when consumer production tools become available for virtual and mixed reality. Moreover, the continued growth of gaming (where trash talk remains), the persistence of sports culture (more trash talk and testosterone), and the popularity of TV news among the over-50 population will provide powerful cultural and psychological backing for abusive expression.”

Wendy M. Grossman, a science writer and author of “net.wars” wrote, “It’s clear that the level of abusive attacks on sites like Twitter or those that leverage multiple sites and technologies operates at a vastly different scale than the more-confined spaces of the past.”

[By 2026]

Lindsay Kenzig, a senior design researcher, said, “Given that so much of the world is so uneducated, I don’t see that more-inclusive online interactions will be the norm for many years.”

While some predict that adding a billion more people online might raise the level of negative discourse, one disagrees. Christopher Mondini, a leader for a major internet organization, said, “Taking a global perspective, the billion Internet users who will be newly connected in the next four years will have the same initial surge of productive and valuable interactions experienced by more mature online markets a dozen years ago. This will counterbalance growing pockets of self-important and isolated pockets of griping and intolerance that we see in these mature markets.”

  1. To put this into context, in 1995 less than 1% of the global population was online; today about 40% of the global population has and uses internet access. The ITU reports 81% internet penetration in developed countries, 40% in developing countries, and 15% in least-developed countries.
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