Frostburg Professor’s New Book Unveils the Dangerous Hidden Game Lurking Online

Jan 14, 2019 2:25 PM

Within rhetorical studies, the study of persuasive communication, the internet presents a conundrum. Since Ancient Greece, traditional rhetoric has considered invalid arguments to be ineffective and unworthy of study or response. Online, though, traditional rhetoric is typically ineffective, and fallacies are commonplace. Rather than arguing rhetorically, internet trolls can simply gang up to mock or threaten people into quitting an argument or logging off entirely.

In her new book, “The Internet as a Game,” Dr. Jill Morris, a Frostburg State University faculty member who is an expert in formal rhetoric, details where and how real online harassment campaigns have been organized, and she explains when and why their targets were chosen. Morris argues that rhetoric experts – rhetoricians, as they’re called – must begin studying those unrhetorical techniques commonly found online so they can cover them in classrooms.

“There’s this huge movement right now that nobody has studied yet,” said Morris, an associate professor of English and Foreign Languages. “Just because the things that are happening online are not traditionally rhetorical doesn’t mean they are not effective. … It’s not enough to point at it and say, ‘It’s bad.’ We need to figure out how it works.”

“The Internet as a Game” begins that process, building on the work of other rhetoricians to offer a new framework for critically examining internet argumentation. Here it is presented as a game, guided by procedural rhetoric, the argument a game presents about the way the world works through its underlying rules and procedures.

By examining real-life online harassment campaigns that took place between 2006 and 2015, Morris unmasks and defines some of the rules, techniques and processes used to organize online strangers into loose “adhocracies” built around the “game” of harassing their common foe.

While today’s students may not understand the organizational methods used by online harassers, Morris says many of her students have already seen online harassment play out.

“They need to be aware of what things can cause harassment,” Morris said. “… It’s especially important if you are going to work PR for a company that the things you’re posting to your company’s website and Facebook page aren’t going to get you slammed.”

It was as an undergraduate that Morris first became interested in internet argumentation and trolling. She was running a website from her dorm room when a troll set his sights on her. From harassing emails to contacting her university, even attacking her at other sites across the internet, the troll was unrelenting. Her interest was piqued not long afterward when she realized that any nuanced arguments she posted online were either ignored or mocked.

Morris went on to earn her master’s degree from Michigan Technological University and her doctorate from Wayne State University, continuing her research into the rhetoric of digital communication. Her new book synthesizes decades of research, experiences as a web designer and lifelong internet user, and best practices that she has honed in physical and digital college classrooms.

“The Internet as a Game” is written primarily for an academic audience, but it is a valuable book for anyone who wants to understand why they have been targeted for online harassment, how that harassment is being organized and by whom. As the world increasingly moves online, that understanding becomes more and more crucial every day.

Published by Parlor Press, “The Internet as a Game” is available now in hardback, paperback and e-book formats directly from the publisher or from online and local booksellers.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.