The troll: a dark shadow on the internet

Luke Goode, Associate Professor of Media and Communications in the Faculty of Arts, at the University of Auckland, looks at both the up and down side of internet trolling

Internet trolls have become popular news fodder in the past few years: Just last week a US activist who found herself on the receiving end of an anti-Semitic hate campaign was the subject of a story here on Newsroom.

Within its relatively short history, the figure of the internet troll has cast a progressively darker shadow across public consciousness. Once it was associated with relatively benign, if irritating, pranksterism. For example, tricking newcomers to online communities into answering dumb questions. But now the internet troll has grown into a more threatening and toxic figure – one who provokes outrage and derails debates. And trolling has become more firmly equated with harassment, hate speech and extremism.

In a 2012 BBC Panorama documentary Hunting the Internet Bullies, the presenter tracks down and confronts an angry white, working class man in his 30s who spends his spare time writing vicious and obscene messages on RIP websites where friends and relatives pay tribute to recently deceased loved ones. This man had no connection to any of the people he attacked. At the end of the documentary, the presenter proudly states: “So there you go: an internet troll. That’s what they look like.”

Except that in reality internet trolls don’t conform to a narrow stereotype. They come from diverse socio-economic and educational backgrounds. And their motives vary too.

Some trolls are attracted primarily by the entertainment value (the ‘lulz’), revelling in their capacity to cause havoc online.

Others are driven by political commitments, although this is usually combined with amusement-seeking. Often they are free speech fundamentalists: their trolling is a performance in which the sanctity of free speech is pushed to its limits through, for example, deliberately offensive racism or misogyny. For these people, whether or not they hold such racist or misogynist beliefs isn’t really the point. Attacking the supposedly oppressive apparatus of PC culture is what matters.

In the recent story on Newsroom, notorious troll ‘weev’ is quoted saying that anonymous trolling is a “distinctly American” political tactic. While hardly confined to America, he correctly highlights an important connection between trolling and a particular brand of right-wing libertarianism which has its strongest roots in the US.

Others use trolling as a form of political protest or civil disobedience, a ‘weapon of the weak’ against Big Government, Big Business, paedophiles and terrorists. ‘Hacktivist’ groups Lulzsec and Anonymous have often used trolling tactics as part of their wider arsenal. In one operation, for example, ISIS websites were hacked by replacing them with Viagra ads.

Aside from political and amusement motives (which often work in tandem), trolls may be driven by a variety of other impulses such as anger, hatred and attention-seeking. Psychologists have drawn attention to the internet’s role as a disinhibitor: the real life consequences of a troll’s behaviour on their victims are quite literally ‘screened’ off. And mental health issues undoubtedly come into play in some cases.

Finally, the question of how we respond to trolls has become murkier in recent years. Where once the received wisdom was ‘don’t feed the trolls’— that is, deprive them of the oxygen of attention—now the ethics of troll-control are more complex. Ignoring and blocking them is one strategy (but a difficult one in the face of a concerted harassment campaign); calling them out and collectively shaming them is another. Pushing social media platforms for more robust online safety measures or calling on governments to implement hate speech legislation are other possible responses.

Trolls and their intentions, behaviours and consequences come in many shapes and sizes. Given this complexity, we risk losing sight of what’s at stake when we reduce them to a single stereotype.

But before we automatically condemn it as a toxic force in public life, we should ask whether there are any potentially positive sides to internet trolling.

In principle, trolls can challenge our cognitive complacency. 

The internet is very good at shoring up our ethical norms and cultural assumptions by connecting us to people and ideas that reinforce rather than challenge our worldview. 

This process works as a symbiosis of human psychology (confirmation bias) and technology design (algorithms which personalise our online networks of people and information).

Internet trolls may serve some purpose by intruding upon our comfortable opinion bubbles and challenging our complacency. Provocation has a positive place in public life. As an educator I often try to provoke my students with statements I know will be controversial, whether or not I sincerely believe in them. I tune into talkback radio from time to time because occasionally a right-wing host will say something that causes me to reflect on why I hold an antithetical viewpoint.

Some provocations can be constructive, regardless of whether the provoker sincerely believes in what they are saying. Certain artistic movements such as punk and Dada explicitly set out to shake people’s faith in their norms and values. They were cultural trolls.

But there’s a fine line. When encountering internet trolls or listening to talkback radio generates apoplectic rage (as both often do) this is not constructive. And while punk and Dada took aim at ‘the system’, internet trolls select flesh-and-blood individuals as their targets.

Internet trolls undoubtedly cause real and serious harms, aside from causing a general rise in the blood pressure of the body politic. At the extreme, victims fear for their lives or endure unthinkable suffering. In Werner Herzog’s recent film Lo and Behold (2016), which explores both the beautiful and ugly extremes of the internet, he profiles a family who lost a teenage daughter in a car crash. Gruesome photographs of her mutilated body were leaked onto the internet, and the family then became a target for mockery, taunting and hatred by a swarm of anonymous strangers. Internet trolling at its worst can be a sobering reminder of the depths to which human cruelty can descend.

But internet trolling may provide insight into more than just the human psyche.

It is also a symptom of our hyper-individualistic culture. Schools, the media and the self-help industry devote tremendous energy to telling people they are extraordinary individuals whose calling is to make their unique mark on the world. When the rest of humdrum social reality reneges on this promise, internet trolling offers a temptingly simple, though illusory, escape from feelings of powerlessness, insignificance and boredom.

Internet trolls also highlight the highly polarised nature of public life today. When we find refuge in comfortable bubbles of consensus, we become target practice for people who derive rather pathetic enjoyment from piercing them and sending us into a tailspin. Our public sphere is in bad shape. We need to embrace dissensus instead of running from it. And we need to find healthier ways to argue and disagree with each other. 

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