Once, Trolls were purely mythical creatures that lived under bridges and ate unsuspecting would-be bridge crossers. Or, if you prefer Tolkien mythos, Trolls were great big dim-witted creatures that can only be defeated by a combination of Hobbit stall tactics and sunlight petrification. Either way, it's safe to assume that when these myths were being written, the total sum of actual death certificates that read "Cause of death: Troll" was nil.
That's not quite true anymore.
If you've ever wasted a few hours scrolling through the YouTube comments section, and been left wondering where it all went wrong for the human race, there's a good chance you encountered an internet troll or two. If you haven't, then here's a brief outline of what an internet troll is: an awful human being. More specifically though, it is someone who constantly posts in online forums with no purpose other than to disrupt conversations, provoke arguments, or just plain bully. They may hardly sound like the world's biggest problem right now, and may even sound mostly harmless, but sometimes they're a more insidious pest than my description does justice.
For example, Jessica Laney, a 16 year old Floridian girl, took her own life after being on the receiving end of online bullying, which included messages telling her to go kill herself. There's also Charlotte Dawson, 47 year old New Zealander and TV presenter who committed suicide after years of online harassment - harassment carried out under the Twitter banner #diecharlotte. These are just a couple of highly publicised examples, but cyberbullying related deaths are becoming increasingly common, to the point where they no longer make headlines. One study shows that suicide ideation is strongly linked with cyberbullying, and we've not even touched on how many cases of clinical anxiety or depression can be linked back to online abuse. The exact numbers for cyberbullying related long-term mental health issues is unclear (unsurprisingly), but it is very well documented that bullying leaves permanent scars, and according to one study, as many as 43% of students will get to enjoy being cyberbullied during their lifetime.
If you thought lone trolls were a nuisance, you clearly don't know much about 4chan. This is a little dark corner of the internet where trolls like to meet up, hang out, pick a target, and make casual rape threats (amongst other things). It's a mysogynists paradise, it's a mob, and it has a way of achieving its goals through "hacktivism". Wonderful.
To be fair, for the most part trolls are just people who get a kick out of causing a bit of mischief by derailing a conversation, or by mildly irritating people with political bait. But there are also those who take it many steps further, and the internet is the perfect platform for all their trolling desires. Further, comments sections seem to bring out the utter worst in people in ways that would never happen in the non-virtual world. Why does this happen, and is there any way to prevent it? ... Other than the brand of anti-troll vigilante justice Luther endorsed, of course.
What feeds the Trolls?
In 2004, John Suler coined the term the "online disinhibition effect", which, in a nutshell, states that people are willing to behave differently online than they would in reality. This isn't really a single effect, but rather a collection of different factors and psychological effects that add up to make trolling inevitable. List time!
- I am no one. Probably the most obvious factor is that commenting is often completely anonymous, and anonymity gives a sense of security against any reprisals. You might be able to find a mister B. Kaldwin and give him a piece of your mind, but Prince_RobotIV? Who even is that guy?
- I am invisible. This is similar to the above, but also adds the fact that the form of communication - text - does not deliver tone, facial expressions or emotion. They are just words on a screen that could be interpreted a hundred ways, and concern over appearance is lost entirely. Further, a troll can pretend to be any age, sex, race or species he/she/it wants if it serves their purpose better. Not only do you not know who or where I am, but you don't know what I am. And that gives me power.
- LOL BYE. The fact that conversations online are asynchronous - one can leave and come back to a conversation at any time - lowers inhibitions by allowing a person to go away and take all the time they need to think of the perfect cutting words. It also gives the troll the opportunity to blurt out something and not worry about a reply until they're ready to log back in. Very unlike real life. This also means you can throw in an inflammatory remark on a popular YouTube video, grab a box of popcorn, and watch the ensuing mayhem.
- You're who I say you are! This is a slightly abstract aspect, and is the most subconsciously active of the list yet. When you read a comment, although you don't see, hear or smell the person on the other end, your brain automatically assigns characteristics to them. Usually, for some reason, people imagine that the commenter is male, white, and less intelligent than you. This is particularly the case in political arguments, where as soon as a disagreement begins, you imagine the other person as the pure stereotype of your political nemesis, and slowly, but surely, you begin to feel vindicated in displaying your ire.
- Want to play a game? Suler observed (alongside criminal lawyer Emily Finch studying online identity theft) that many people see the online realm as a form of escapism, and interacting with other commenters is nothing more than a game. Games have no real consequences, so what's the worst that could happen? That girl won't really think I want her to kill herself! That would be mental!
- You're in my world now. This is kind of obvious when you think about it, but surprising to the uninitiated - the hierarchy of the online world follows its own rules. Even if you know the status of a person in the real world, it has little bearing on their perceived status in online communities. Instead, in the online realm, their online following is what gives them authority in chat rooms. To put it simply, a vocal twitter user who has many online followers but no power in reality, has more "cyber power", and is feared as an authority figure in cyberspace over a prominent politician who only occasionally tweets (and especially if the tweets are of his own name - I'm looking at you Ed Balls).
Add all these effects together, and you get a worrying reduction in social inhibitions online. Politicians are still debating how to grapple with this surprising consequence of giving everyone a cyber-voice, and we're left with the question:
Do we just accept them?
The good news is that research suggests that trolls are in the vast minority. The bad news is that YouTube comment algorithms create the perfect troll feeding grounds. When you leave a comment, there are two ways in which it will find its way to the top of the pile - lots of thumbs up, and lots of replies. It is far more heavily weighted in favour of number of replies, though, and this is the crucial factor that makes trolls so visible - people can't help but to reply to a comment they strongly disagree with. The simplest solution would be to just learn when people are trying to get a rise out of you, and ignore ... but that's really difficult. Replying is reactive (as opposed to the far more passive 'thumbs up' option), and trolls, almost by definition, exist purely to illicit reactions in others. They've found their craft, honed their skills, and have become very adept at it. No matter how many times I hear the phrase "don't feed the trolls", when I read something outrageous, I just can't help but want to send a snarky "Oh YEAH? Well let me tell you, sir/madam, that I think your specific politics are WRONG!".
Trolls get the most replies, their comments find their way to the top, and suddenly they seem like they are the majority - we'll call this troll-bias. Recently, a few YouTubers have begun requesting that their viewers leave a "+" reply to all comments that they agree with, to offset this troll-bias. It's a clever response, and it does indeed seem to already be making comment sections far more pleasant places.
With regards to other forms of cyber-bullying, there aren't easy answers, sadly. Forum moderators can take comments down, but usually they act after the harm has been done, and as Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed highlights, no number of moderators could hold back the tide of hateful comments that come with the Twitter mob.
Stricter laws should be implemented, I think. It's not okay to tell someone to "go kill yourself" - no amount of free speech rights should leave the door open for that kind of behaviour. The online world though is multi-national, so how do we ensure safe spaces when laws aren't always universal? It's also, as I pointed out above, almost entirely anonymous! The ever-watchful, and infinitely creepy NSA might be able to automatically respond to a person openly asking Facebook how to build a dirty bomb (not that they ever do!), but a local police force is not going to able to do much about a string of hateful comments coming from 4chan/b/.
School bullies have existed for as long as there have been schools, and, so far, no one has figured out how to stop them from growing like weeds. Now, our school bullies have the internet at their fingertips, and the online disinhibition effect in their heads, and it's a bit scary. So what do we do when a troll doesn't even recognise his victim is a person? Teach them.
Lindy West, an online activist and vocal feminist, was accustomed to online abuse - anyone who writes about feminism is an easy target for the more misogynistic trolls out there. But then one day, a specific troll took a different tactic than the usual rape/death threats, and decided to impersonate her dead father. Sickening, right? Usually, she would follow her peers' advice and ignore the trolls, but this time and she decided to write a piece about it. The troll read the piece, realised there was real person on the other end of his abuse, apologised to her directly, and changed his ways. The troll decided he'd had enough and came out from under the bridge.
The answer, then, has to be in education. First educate police forces to take online abuse seriously (because they are often woefully inadequate at this so far), and educate youths to understand that not only is bullying a crime, but the people on the other end of comments are just that - people. They're not tropes of your political nemeses, this isn't a game, and you are not absolved of all responsibility by your anonymity.
And if that doesn't work ... Well, there's always the Luther approach.
Note: the author of this blog in no way endorses vigilante justice.
Troll-face image attribution: By Azzy10 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Trollface.png.
Luther (Idris Elba) image attribution: By DFID - UK Department for International Development - https://www.flickr.com/photos/dfid/15418120205/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35853981