Deliberately provocative and offensive behaviors on the Internet, collectively referred to as “trolling,” represent a constant threat to the civility of the online discourse. With the emergence and proliferation of social networks, the magnitude of Internet discussions on any topic of interest has increased considerably, providing more opportunities to engage in trolling. Moreover, the business model of social networks depends on the ad revenues from user viewings, meaning a hot debate with trolling involved is more profitable than a civil debate that attracts fewer users. Canceling ads for social media posts on certain inflammatory topics will remove the profitability incentive for companies and promote civil discourse on the Web in line with both deontological and utilitarian ethics.
Addressing trolling in social media through ad revenue should be effective because it would remove the monetary motives for allowing or neglecting them. The social media business model is “driven by advertising revenues generated by engaged platform users” (Rainie et al., 2017). The more users view a certain post, the more ad revenue it generates, naturally favoring inflammatory posts where trolling thrives. The proposed solution for this problem is requiring social media to demonetize posts on certain inflammatory topics in certain periods of time. For instance, the governments can require social networks to temporarily demonetize posts related to the ongoing presidential or parliamentary elections to promote stable and civil discourse. Scholars may support it by studying which types of topics and issues typically provoke more attention among Internet trolls. Corporations would be responsible for removing ads in posts related to certain topics according to the established policy. Finally, online communities would play their role by ostracizing those users whose online behaviors are not conducive to civil and respectful discourse. When in effect, this policy can prevent corporations from neglecting or promoting trolling on their platforms.
While this solution is obviously palliative and has imperfections of its own, it is still ethically reasonable from a deontological perspective because it would conform to the moral obligation of discouraging incivility. Deontological ethics often refers to Kant’s categorical imperative, which requires acting on the maxim of one’s will only if the actor can wish “that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785). If the maxim “the Internet trolling should not be profitable” would be applied by everyone as a universal law, it would promote civil and respectful discourse where no one would pursue hot topics simply for the sake of being provocative or offensive. Since that would be a positive result, the policy corresponding to this maxim is sound from a deontological perspective.
Similarly, the proposed policy is also reasonable from a utilitarian perspective based on the balance of collective well-being and happiness. From this perspective, an action that is morally good provides “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” of people while also minimizing pain and suffering (Bentham, 2017, p. 8). The proposed policy will cause discontent to trolls, whose provocative posts will not be promoted by the corporations for financial reasons anymore, and for the social media-owning corporations themselves, losing some of their ad revenue. However, it will increase the happiness for the multitudes of ordinary users who outnumber the parties listed above. Hence, the balance of collective happiness should be positive in this case.
To summarize, one way to deter trolling in social media is by placing governmental restrictions on ad monetization of posts on a limited range of inflammatory topics. Without the monetary incentive for corporations to support provocative behaviors, the balance of power in shaping the agenda within online spaces should shift to responsible users. This solution conforms both to the categorical imperative of the Kantian deontology and to the requirement of promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people put forth by utilitarianism.
Bentham, J. (2017). An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Early Modern Texts.
Kant, E. (1788). Fundamental principles of the metaphysics of morals. Project Gutenberg.
Rainie, K. Anderson, J., & Albright, J. (2017). The future of free speech, trolls, anonymity and fake news online. Pew Research Center.