Trolling – it has become a media buzzword that has been blamed for everything from Donald Trump’s election (Goldberg, 2018) to the viral spread of misogyny (Mantilla, 2013). Although the most recent coverage of trolling has been focused on a convoluted combination of politics (see Burgess, 2018; Kouwenhoven & Logtenberg, 2017) and gender (Dinsmore, 2018), the phenomenon dates back far earlier, back to the original days of the internet when disparate individuals were connected by Usenet forums (see Feinberg, 2014).
I have spent the last four years of my life dedicated to studying this phenomenon: examining trolling from the perspective of victims, bystanders, researchers, and even trolls themselves. I managed to learn a few things along the way, some findings more surprising than others. For the first time in a non-academic format, I will share these insights with Diggit in the hopes of creating a better internet for us all.
What is trolling?
The earliest documented cases of trolling were, as previously described, on early iterations of internet forums such as Usenet. Julian Dibbell, however, arguably wrote the earliest case study of a troll, back in 1993. He described the online games of the day – text-based forums with basic programming that allowed people to live out the lives of characters they created in a virtual world – which bear a more than passing resemblance to the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) of today.
In one of these games, LambdaMOO, a single character called Mr. Bungle dominated one of these virtual worlds, abusing the world’s programming rules to force other people’s characters to perform violent or graphic acts without their consent. Dibbell called it “a rape in cyberspace” (1993, p.1). It took the whole community banding together to become ‘powerful’ enough in the virtual world’s terms to banish him from the community by trapping Mr. Bungle the avatar.
In my own work, I have found trolls to be brothers, girlfriends, company owners, master’s students, and everything in between, which is why I take personality-based work with a grain of salt.
This initial case demonstrates several of the features key to trolling today: anonymity (Buckels, Trapnell, & Paulhus, 2014; Fichman & Sanfilippo, 2014; Hardaker, 2010) and deception (Herring, Job-Sluder, Scheckler, & Barab, 2002; Maltby et al., 2015; Shachaf & Hara, 2010). Since Mr. Bungle was known only as an in-game avatar, there were no repercussions outside of the virtual world for his rape; the person behind the avatar was anonymous (Dibbell, 1993).
This is what we see today with modern trolls – the most effective punishment we are able to administer are ‘bans’, which is quite literally a banishment from the online game or forum (see Reddit, 2019; Riot Games, 2019 for examples). Along with this anonymity comes deception, hiding behind an avatar in the case of Mr. Bungle, but also hiding behind the pretense of critical conversation (see Herring et al., 2002) or ignorance (see Thacker & Griffiths, 2012) in more modern cases of trolling. Under the dual cloaks of anonymity and deception, trolls operate across the games, fora, social networks, and online communities of both yesteryear and today.
Types of trolling research
However, despite this shadowy backdrop, a surprising amount of research has been dedicated to creating a picture of the internet troll – what do they do? Why do they do it? Some of the major players in this research have been personality psychologists. Through their large-scale surveys, they have found that trolls score highly on what is commonly known as the dark tetrad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism (Buckels et al., 2014; Craker & March, 2016; Lopes & Yu, 2017; March, Grieve, Marrington, & Jonason, 2017; Sest & March, 2017). Sadism and narcissism in particular have received special attention, and have been used as an explicatory mechanism for trolling, alongside computer scientists who argue for a negative mood as the primary cause of trolling (Cheng, Bernstein, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, & Leskovec, 2017).
Although this is possible, other trolling researchers – including myself – have argued for a more nuanced approach that places a higher emphasis on the environment in which trolls operate (Bishop, 2014; McCosker, 2014) and the online social norms that enable trolls to operate without major repercussions (Cook, Conijn, Antheunis, & Schaafsma, 2018; Cook et al., 2018).
In my own work, I have found trolls to be brothers, girlfriends, company owners, master’s students, and everything in between, which is why I take personality-based work with a grain of salt. Perhaps these people do score a bit higher than average on sadism, but they are clearly not all the stereotypical dungeon-dweller that the average person imagines when they hear the word ‘troll’.
On the contrary, these are friends that operate in a loose community gathered around what they often perceive as simply playing practical jokes on the rest of the world (see Cook et al., 2018 for a complete discussion). They want to laugh, to be noticed, to alleviate boredom – normal reasons to engage in, what the community tells me, is a normal, albeit undesirable, online activity.
How to deal with trolling
So knowing this – knowing that trolls are everyday people that operate in the shadows for some laughs on the weekends, and knowing that these little jokes can have massive ramifications – what should you do? To conclude, I will present my top five recommendations to the internet community based on a PhD’s worth of research:
- Make use of the mute button. One of the primary goals of the majority of trolls is to get an overreaction from their victims. This could either be in the pursuit of entertainment, or a belief that those who fall for trolling are inferior and unable to control their emotions. Before they get what they want from you, simply mute or block them. Without the reaction they crave, trolls are unlikely to continue in their pursuit and, at worst, will have to try another tactic.
- Report trolling to authorities, even if they are just website administrators. In my earliest study interviewing trolls, one of the most surprising findings is how easily they are able to keep trolling with impunity. Bystanders and victims alike seldom use the reporting function, believing it to be ineffective. This is a false perception – reporting does something, and without reports, administrators cannot take action even if they want to do so.
- Avoid joining in. Even if every fibre of your being wants to take down a troll’s faulty logic, or scream your frustration at their obvious trolling … don’t. At best, it does nothing. At worst, you are giving the troll exactly what they want. Instead, stop, take a breath, and hit the mute button. Or, better yet, use that anger to craft a well-reasoned report to send to the people in charge of your chosen forum/game/social network. You will get that energy out and have the potential to prevent someone else being targeted in the future. Instead of defending a victim by calling out the troll, privately offer your support – be a hero behind the scenes to avoid making a scene.
- Portray the social norms you value. I would argue that the majority of the problems we see on the internet are due to a false belief that the internet is ‘other’ – that it is not the ‘real world’. Online actions have offline repercussions, even if we do not always see them. If something is important to you offline – kindness, civility, a cause – put your best foot forward and act out those same values on the internet. Social norms do not change unless we change our own behaviour first, and right now, the norm is to troll. Build a new norm by replacing argument with reasoned discussion, cat photos, or whatever it is you love and want to see in others.
- Engage with the next generation. As a trolling researcher, I feel confident in telling you that there are few things that make us happier than seeing an educator or a parent navigating cyberspace with a child. This is not telling them what to do or what not to do. This is when they play an online game together, when they check out a website of mutual interest, when they try to find the answer to a question side by side. Social norms are most often conveyed by behaviour and modelling as the work of famous psychologist Albert Bandura has taught us. If the children are the ones adopting our norms, the very best thing that we can do as members of a community is build and strengthen the norms we want to see in the people who will become the next ‘us’.
And with that I close, hoping that I have given you at least an introductory glimpse into an emerging field of research. There is still much to be done, but of this I am certain: we can make the internet into whatever we desire. By building healthy social norms and understanding those who operate under different norms, we can be the understanding society we want to create for the world.
Chrissy Cook is our guest in the new episode of Babylon's Burning, our YouTube Show on digital culture. The episode goes live on Wednesday 20 March 2019 at 19:30h. (Dutch time). Don't miss it, subscribe and get notified
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