Rex Miller wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. It’s an old habit from his days as a trauma nurse, when he spent three decades triaging victims of domestic abuse, gunshots and the occasional knife fight.
His current job is not quite so traumatic, but it taps the same ability to assess a difficult situation and fix what’s wrong, which these days is more likely to involve stanching the toxic vitriol of online trolls.
Miller, 62, is a Reddit moderator, one of more than 20,000 who monitor exchanges on the online forum’s popular, often provocative, discussion sites. Redditors, as they’re sometimes known, are unpaid volunteers, and theirs is a generally thankless job. It attracts its share of detractors, which is why most Redditors maintain a low profile (none wanted to include a self photo in this story).
The Redditors’ nemesis is the troll -- an online commentator who seeks to disrupt public discussions by whatever rude means possible. In that regard, Redditors are not alone. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently voiced her discontent over being hounded by trolls, purely out of meanness, which she called “dehumanizing.” Earlier this month, J.K. Rowling also became the object of a troll attack after she donated £1 million ($1.7 million) to the campaign against Scottish independence. News organizations have taken the brunt of vicious online attacks, too. Many outlets, including Popular Science, have shut down their online comment sections after troll and spambots hijacked conversations, especially on contentious issues like climate change.
Reddit is among the online message sites that attempts to minimize trolling through the use of moderators whose job it is to monitor wide-ranging exchanges of information on every conceivable topic, and to intervene when there is trouble, which is fairly often. Miller said the closest parallel to his role is an umpire. “You’re making calls one way or another and you’re pissing people off on a daily basis,” he said.
Another Reddit moderator, Daniel Allen, noted that the anonymity inherent in Internet forums like Reddit is the perfect breeding ground for bullying trolls to let loose, and because Redditors represent the closest thing to an authority figure, they are themselves frequently targeted.
“If you get a large enough group of people together, they will forget that you're a real human with real feelings and just attack with no remorse,” Allen, a 32-year-old web designer from Chicago, told International Business Times.
Allen moderates for the Reddit sites /r/art and /r/crappydesign, and said that in December 2013, while moderating /r/conspiracy, he suffered an onslaught of online attacks. “I was getting hundreds of messages per day, either to my personal inbox or as comment replies in threads about me,” he said. The virtual attacks led him to resign as a moderator on that particular subReddit, as forums that grow out of other forums are known.
Whether it’s on larger discussion sites such as 4chan or in the comment sections on news articles, oversight is key to avoiding spammers, scammers or cyberbullies looking to use a conversation to their advantage or simply to damage or discredit others.
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