For everyone that has ever been online, at some point you have come across a remark that was hateful, obscene, or just downright bizarre. If you are one of the people who has ever posted something controversial, political, or religious, you have opened yourself up to a world full of opinionated individuals who are now free to take you to task. It may be that you invite and enjoy such engagements, but it is more likely that you are the victim of bigotry and ignorance. Regardless of your situation, it helps to understand why certain people behave the way they do and what you can do to take back your digital neighbourhood.
The first step in preparing to defend yourself is knowing what you are up against. There are many reasons why someone would choose to behave badly online, and some of them may not be what you’d expect.
(Sadistic and narcissistic personalities would be included in this group.) Dissociative, delusional and psychotic individuals are not as common as most people would think, comprising only a very small percentage of the population. While studies often show up to twenty-five percent of the population as mentally ill, these numbers include mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, which are serious conditions in their own right, but generally to not contribute to unsociable behaviour on Internet comment threads.
Most people who are diagnosed as mentally ill can be effectively treated with medication and therapy, and are not a threat to society. Also, some are institutionalized, homeless, or otherwise non-functional in terms of Internet access. These leaves a small albeit not insignificant number of untreated or under-treated individuals which cannot account for the large number of negative comments. The conclusion is most trolls are not mentally ill.
Xenophobia and Tribalism
Humans are often called a tribal species, and display marked preferences for a group to which they belong, as well as a noted animosity towards strangers and opposing tribes. In modern societies, when tribes are no longer bound by geography and kinship, groups can form around anything from commonly held beliefs, to skin colour, to sports teams.
Showing support for one tribe can bring a strong reaction from an opposing viewpoint. When the two factions are opposing sports teams, confrontation is unlikely to go any further than taunting and harmless pranking. However, when the group is bound by more serious ideologies, such as misogyny, race hatred, or powerful religious dogma, even a minor disagreement can be seen as an attack on the group’s fundamental identity. The resulting backlash can include threats of physical violence. This behaviour is considered acceptable within the group because anyone outside of the group is recognized as having a lower status, and empathy towards outsiders is diminished or absent altogether. Deindividualization or “mob rule” can reduce the sense of individual responsibility.
Alienation and Juvenile Behaviour
Contrary to the stereotype not all trolls are fourteen-year-old boys with nothing better to do. But some of them are. The adolescent brain is not yet fully developed and this can lead some to impulsive, reactionary behaviour. Coupled with a desire to rebel against authority as they establish their independence, this can lead to some poor choices. Other factors such as low self-esteem, exclusion from social groups, a need for popularity, and underdeveloped social skills can express themselves as mischief.
If you could see all of your social media “friends” in one room, most of us would be too terrified to stand up in front of them and express an opinion, yet few feel too self-conscious to do the effectively the same thing online every day. In an effect similar to road rage, we feel as though we are in a safe and secure bubble, and anyone who intrudes on that space can elicit an aggressive response. In addition, masking of the user’s real persona can allow one to assume a more assertive character. The ability to present an idealized version of one’s self can be disinhibiting. Even when the user’s identity is known, there is a perception that they are removed from harm and can be more forceful in their responses.
The removal of social cues can give one a false sense of empowerment, as well. Without cues of authority or an imposing physical presence, a disenfranchised individual may be motivated to be more vocal than they normally would. An absence of personal context and contact allows the creation of an incomplete mental model of the subject that causes one to fill in the gaps by projecting their own expectations on the other person. This transference can often lead to misinterpretation of the other person’s intent.
Paradoxically, the primarily one-way dissemination of content, especially from celebrities, can cause a false intimacy to develop. When this perceived personal connection is ignored or rebuked by the sender, the effect can be psychologically damaging, prompting a reprisal.
Time and Space
Unlike face-to-face communication, texting does not have to occur in real time. Hours for even days can go by between a question and a response. In that time circumstances might change radically for either party. Also, the lack of direct response increases the amount of depersonalization. That is, they are seen as less a person and more as an undefined, anonymous entity. It’s more like mailing a bill payment to a utility company than talking to a person.
On the other hand, instant communication with distant parts of the world can lead to cultural clashes. Different standards and traditions are not always known or understood, especially to someone who hasn’t travelled extensively. A woman taking off her top at the beach would go unnoticed in France, be shocking in the U.S., and be arrested in Saudi Arabia.
The Internet as we know it is a new phenomenon. While the teenagers of today will never know a world without instant global communication, their parents can remember a time before mobile phones. The rapid growth of technology has created a generation gap unlike anything that has come before it. As a society, we are still figuring out the rules of this new world, and as such comprehensive education on the ethics, rights and responsibilities of our online reality are almost entirely absent.
For countless generations, the knowledge and morality of the parents was passed on to the children, but now we reinvent the world faster than we can come to terms with it. In years hence, the legal and moral consequences of the virtual world will be more clearly defined. Until then, we still exist like settlers on the mostly lawless digital frontier. There are bound to be some outlaws and troublemakers.
A Form of Protest
Sometimes trolling could be considered an act of civil resistance. For instance, if a dangerous religious cult were spreading misinformation, or if a fraudulent doctor were selling a miracle cure for cancer, it might be considered ethical to try to stop them. Such an effort might take the form of a denial of service attack where a forum is flooded with posts and comments to overwhelm the server, or perhaps editing a wiki to reflect the truthful information.
Such attacks are vigilantism and while they can be immediately gratifying, they are not an effective long-term strategy. They are also open to abuse, as what is deemed unacceptable to the trolls may not reflect society as a whole.
Profit and Hidden Agendas
Occasionally, a professional troll will try to disseminate misinformation on behalf of a corporation or political group. The goal is to cause dissent and disrupt the communication of an opposing group or company. More often it is enthusiastic volunteers who seek to promote a cause. One such example is someone who will infiltrate a forum under the guise of common interests, but soon begins to question the position of the group and sow doubts among the forum members. An anti-vaccination advocate who enters a medical forum seeking guidance and then starts to challenge the safety and efficacy of vaccines would be a compassion troll.
Everyone is a comedian
Not everyone can have a great sense of humour, but almost everyone still tries. Sometimes a seemingly nasty comment is just someone’s attempt at a bad joke. Sarcasm does not always translate well into text.
The cost to society
Trolling can be thought of as a kind of social hacking. Like hackers manipulate code to disrupt a computer system, trolls attack the human element. The most immediate effect of trolling is the personal dismay felt by the recipient of the attack, but there are other hidden costs as well.
Trolls can disrupt legitimate discussions and draw attention and resources away from important issues. They can create a hostile environment that discourages users from returning to the site and scares away new users. Trust in the site can be eroded over time, leaving people scrambling to find other resources.
There is the possibility that trolls can spread misinformation, disinformation, or just plain bad advice. In the case of medical support groups, they could discourage people from seeking life-saving treatment. Trolls are more than a nuisance.
What you can do
Comments are how your audience communicates with you. Don’t let some fool ruin the experience for a cheap thrill on their part. The comment section is yours, and you need to take it back. Here are some suggestions on things to do when you encounter a troll, and more importantly, things you should not do.
First and most importantly, if you receive threats of violence, rape, or death, or if you feel that you are in immediate danger, contact the police. Uttering threats is a crime in every civilized part of the world. While it is a sad fact that the police are often unable or unwilling to do anything, it is still important that you report it. Having a history of uttering threats works against the troll should they escalate, and it will help to better establish a case against them.
If you know the identity of the troll, contact their local police as well. You are more likely to get action in the jurisdiction of the offender. Contact other people in your group to see if they are having similar problems and get them to report the troll as well. It may take a dedicated campaign to get a response from law enforcement. That is not a comment on the attitude or effectiveness of any particular law enforcement group. It is a question of resources, the particulars of law, and the relative seriousness of the crime.
When someone taunts or maligns you on the web, you almost invariably feel hurt by it. Often we think, “What did we do to deserve that?” or “What’s wrong with me?” However, if that same person were to walk up to you on the street and say the same thing, you would almost always think, “What’s wrong with them?” and then you would proceed to tell them, politely or not, what they could do with themselves.
As a social animal, it is a fundamental drive to want to be accepted, so rejection in any form is painful, even when it comes from a stranger. That is where the troll gets their power over you. Don’t give it to them.
Your first reaction may be to fire off the nastiest or most sarcastic reply that you can come up with in ten seconds. This is the one thing you should never do. Getting you upset means the troll wins. Anything you have to say after that point is moot. They have already beaten you which is their whole reason for being. Take a deep breath and count to ten, and whatever you do, don’t hit send.
Ask yourself this one question –
Is this person adding anything to the discussion?
If the answer is no, then there is no reason to engage them. If you are still all riled up, write down what you want to say to get it all out of your system and then delete it. Remember, it’s not you. It’s them.
However, If they do have a valid point to make, address that and ignore the invective speech. If you appear willing to discuss the issue calmly, then they must either follow suit and you can have a reasoned discussion, or they look like a ranting lunatic. You win.
Burninate with hellfire
The default option for most people is to delete, block, unfollow, etc. While this is the easiest action, it can be self-defeating. If you simply delete anyone who disagrees with you, you risk being labeled as close-minded. If you look at sites that sell shady merchandise, all the reviews for their product will be glowing testimonials. You should never trust anything that is all five stars. Having someone disagree with you is not a blemish on your record. It is a sign that you are discussing something controversial and therefore interesting. Take it as a badge of honour.
In addition, it is easy for trolls to simply make a new account and start harassing you again. They are like mosquitoes or cockroaches. When you squash one, three more pop up to take its place. Reflexive blocking is momentarily satisfying, but ultimately pointless, like Whack-A-Mole.
The best option is to set a policy ahead of time, announce it, and apply it fairly and consistently. It is your sandbox, so you set the rules. If others don’t like it, then they can’t come to your party. When they see you don’t want to play, they will take their ball and go home. You win.
For advanced users, there is the option of beating the trolls at their own game. When author John Scalzi of the Whatever blog was beset upon by a particularly nasty group of bigots, he pledged to give money to charities that supported everything this group hated every time they called him by one of their nasty nicknames for him. Many fans and friends have since joined in and over sixty thousand dollars has been raised.
There is also the practice of disemvowelling, used on blogs such as Boing Boing, in which all the vowels are removed from offensive posts, making the commenter look silly. Needless to say, this approach isn’t for everyone, but it is probably the most satisfying.
A closing note
It is important not to simply ignore a troll, especially in an open forum. Someone with less Internet savvy than you may stumble across the post and fall into the trap. Flag the comment for moderation if you can’t edit it yourself. Be a good Internet citizen and help keep the streets safe for the kids. Help put the trolls in their place – back under the bridge.
- Here be trolls: Hunting down online haters (stuff.co.nz)
- On trolling. (tedunderwood.com)
- Hostility and Anonymity- An Inseperable Pair (identifyingjohndoe.wordpress.com)
- The Truth About Internet Trolls and Cointelpro (2012thebigpicture.wordpress.com)
- Should You Respond to Internet Trolls? (business2community.com)
- Troll admits to making death threats against children on Facebook (nakedsecurity.sophos.com)
- Gaming: Where Trolling Began (loupdargent.info)
- Facebook Worst For Trolling, Says Study (news.sky.com)
- Jose Canseco’s AMA On Reddit Has Turned Into A Big Ol’ Troll-Fest (sportsgrid.com)
- Denise Welch’s vile internet troll is shopped (thesun.co.uk)