Are Trolls Just Playing a Different Game Than the Rest of Us?

Trolling isn't just the actions of ornery black sheep on the web. Jonathan Zittrain explains that it's a set of behaviors due to be studied more intently in the coming years.

Jonathan Zittrain: Trolling is certainly the topic of the year. If we were having this conversation in 1995, for one thing the screen would be about 1/16 the size and the video quality would be much poorer, but it would be a very standard configuration. The story would be hey there's now an internet; people can say anything; sometimes it gets a little out of control and maybe the government will come in and try to regulate in some way. But it's basically the government is trying to stop illegal or really extreme things from happening and otherwise it's just a free-for-all out there. Away we go. Fast-forward 10/15/20 years and we see an environment now in which many, many people want to participate, maybe have views they want to share. And if you stick your head up out of the gopher hole and happen to say something intemperate or wrong or that others may disapprove of, they might not just say, "Gee I disagree. Let's talk about this or something." They may decide to try to doxx you. Find out where you live, the names of the rest of your family to threaten you with the goal of making you feel insecure. They might try to swat you. Tell the police that there's something terrible going on in your house and before you know it there's blue and red lights outside your window and people ready to kick in the door.

This is a strange state of affairs and it's one I think with multiple causes and that actually is susceptible to pretty sustained study, most of which hasn't happened yet — in the next few years I think it will — that says what makes people want to react that way. My best cut on it, at the most abstract level, is that when we are online we may be undertaking very different activities than the people that we're talking to. One model for being online is I'm entertaining myself. I'm having fun. I am in some form or another playing a game. And if that's the case playing the game means picking a side. And that's a very different model from I'm online because I really believe earnestly in something and I want to convince you of why I'm right or have you maybe convince me. Or find people who are of like mind and we can talk about strategizing about the thing that we really care about. Those are totally different activities. And when you try to mix the two that's almost like saying if there's going to be a discussion between Seattle Seahawks fans and New England Patriots fans ahead of a Super Bowl, can't we just settle this with a discussion? Like can't we just earnestly air our differences and come to some compromise that the Patriots should win but only by five points? Like that's nuts. The purpose of the conversation is sort of just the chest-thumping that comes from the play of being a fan of a team and trash talking the other team and then you play the game.

I think that for a lot of trolling there's a sense that it's just nothing personal; we're just out to have some fun. Others have referred to this as 4chan culture, of course named after the site 4chan, for which this is largely the culture. Figuring out, I think, how to have people avoid category errors might be a good way to relieve a little bit the initial conditions that give rise to a situation that you fast-forward and somehow death or rape threats are being made, personal information is getting scattered everywhere, and the parties behind it still just like think it's no big deal. Like they just go to sleep at night and tomorrow they'll find a new cause to get involved in. I imagine we will also see some of these intermediary platforms that are commonly used for many purposes like Twitter, they're going to start taking a heavier hand at intervening when discussions get rough. And it might be as simple as being more willing to delete accounts, which, let's be clear, that's going to mean that others will be more willing to try to importune Twitter to delete accounts as part of the battle between people who are arguing about something.

Over the longer term, I think we may see coming into view something that has been promised for a while, and be careful what you ask for I think we're going to get it, which is to say some form of singular or multi-platform reputation systems. Think how different one’s Twitter or Facebook experience might be if the feed is populated on the basis of people who are known to participate with a bare minimum of civility. Let's define it easily as don't engage in serious and imminent death threats. And if you do you might not have your account deleted, but you will find that the way in which you tweet will not have the same reach as people who, either through the Twitter platform or through behavior on other platforms that has been deemed civil and productive, those will start to get reach too. And I will say that once people kind of know the basis on which they're being graded, can have a really instant effect on their behavior.

Some of us may remember the moment that Uber mistakenly made it easy for somebody to find his or her own rating as a passenger by drivers on Uber; drivers rate passengers, not just the other way around, and people are much more self-conscious now maybe about how they'll behave in an Uber if they want to retain a good rating so that they will be more likely to be picked up when they need a cab or a ride in the future. Those reputation systems both hold promise as a way of having trolling be, if not punished, not rewarded; good behavior whatever that means is in the eyes of the people rating, rising you up in the scales and giving you more reach. It, of course, also carries with it a whole host of new and difficult questions about well who runs this rating system and what if the people rating me are rating me by criteria that are unfair, that might be based on the color of my skin or my ethnicity or something like that, that we could find rating systems doing. Now we're not exactly there yet so we have to see what are the solutions that will come about to problems like trolling and what are the problems that those solutions will raise.



Online trolling isn't just the actions of ornery black sheep on the web. Jonathan Zittrain explains that it's a set of behaviors due to be studied more intently in the coming years. Zittrain, who is a professor of both computer science and law, hazards a guess that most people consider the internet a medium for entertainment. Thus, their behavior online varies from the norm because the focus is less on obtaining social acceptance and more on getting your kicks. In this video, Zittrain tackles topics ranging from online gaming, 4chan, Twitter wars, and various internet subcultures.

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She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.