Beware of Trolls

Can we look for reasons behind why some people behave the way they do?  Psychologists have been attempting to do that for hundreds of years, perhaps priests and other members of the community who wanted to help said before that.  In today’s day and age, we have the internet phenomenon of “trolling”.

According to Wikipedia, trolling is when someone attempts to sow discord on the internet by trying to start arguments and upset people.  They can do this in a variety of ways – posting off-topic messages to detract from the original intention, or posting inflammatory words on groups and online forums in the hopes of kicking things off.  From the wiki site:-

“Early incidents of trolling were considered to be the same as flaming, but this has changed with modern usage by the news media to refer to the creation of any content that targets another person. The Internet dictionary NetLingo suggests there are four grades of trolling: playtime trolling, tactical trolling, strategic trolling, and domination trolling. The relationship between trolling and flaming was observed in open-access forums in California, on a series of modem-linked computers in the 1970s, like CommuniTree which when accessed by high school teenagers became a ground for trashing and abuse. Some psychologists have suggested that flaming would be caused by deindividuation or decreased self-evaluation: the anonymity of online postings would lead to disinhibition amongst individuals Others have suggested that although flaming and trolling is often unpleasant, it may be a form of normative behavior that expresses the social identity of a certain user group  According to Tom Postmes, a professor of social and organisational psychology at the universities of Exeter, England, and Groningen, The Netherlands, and the author of Individuality and the Group, who has studied online behavior for 20 years, “Trolls aspire to violence, to the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want it to kick off. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.” Adams, Tim (24 July 2011). “How the internet created an age of rage”. London: The Guardian (The Observer).

“Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they – and the troll – understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll’s enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group. Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling – where the rate of deception is high – many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one’s online reputation. “ (Donath, Judith S. (1999). “Identity and deception in the virtual community”. In Smith, Marc A.; Kollock, Peter. Communities in Cyberspace (illustrated, reprint ed.). Routledge. pp. 29–59. ISBN 978-0-415-19140-1. Retrieved 2009-03-24.)

The term trolling these days can refer to not only those people who have a clear agenda in creating discord or playing identity games, but also those for whom bullying is an enjoyable pastime.  Online bullying tends to fall under the category of trolling, perhaps because it is simply easier to call all those who misbehave on the internet with a single label.

I have been subject to various trolls over my online lifetime – both those who simply wish to sow discord on online forums, those who have a hidden agenda and those who are simply bullies.  The question remains – why on earth would someone want to do such a thing?

In a way, I’m not sure this question can ever be answered, for we cannot get inside someone’s head. We can understand some of their motives, but unless we have access to every single second of their lives which may have influenced their behaviour, we are still making assumptions, which may never be proved.

Some of “my” trolls have sought to change the topic of conversation, for reasons only known to them. I can speculate that they didn’t like my opinion, or that they may be working with those who are on the “other” side of the situation, debate or discussion.  Trying to return back to the subject time and again can be futile, especially when there are several trolls working together. In this case, I have simply walked away from that discussion, forum or group if I feel that the moderators are not doing their job correctly in keeping things going forward on topic, troll-free.

Other trolls have been bullies, such as on this blog where a particular troll was attempting to silence me from any further posting for whatever reason.  Swearing and telling me that I should seek psychiatric help among other things led me to believe that the individual in question was projecting their own fears and anxieties onto me, a faceless person (they may or may not have known me personally).  At any rate, any of my thoughts on this person’s behaviour would simply be speculation.

So, what can we do about it? Are we simply to accept that there are trolls online, and we are to ignore them, as many people have suggested – “Do Not Feed The Trolls”? Or is there something that we can do?

For moderated online communities, I feel the responsibility should like with those who claim to be moderators. Some moderators may have their own agendas, however, and so are perhaps not the ideal people to perform such a task.  If a moderator on an online forum, group or community was part of a company, and a discussion was taking place in where the objectives of that company were in question, they may simply close down the thread or delete it for no apparent reason.  In this instance, freedom of speech is being impinged upon, and there is very little we can do about other than try to work around said moderators, to try and go over their heads to a “higher source” who may or may not listen to our opinions, suggestions or queries.

If it is a “personal” attack, such as on a personal blog, what can we do? Do we delete all the posts that this person has made, and simply ignore it?  I haven’t – I have left these person’s posts in place to show how life is for some people – it is a testament to human interactions, to human behaviour and to society and culture as a whole.  Only when the remarks have become so antagonistic as to resort to swearing and using violent terms have I decided to no longer accept posts from these people.  I am using these trolls as an example to other readers as to how some people behave, either in an online community or, heaven forbid, in real life.

In a way, I have a very real sympathy for these trolls.  This may be totally imagined, and it is only a personal assumption, but I believe these people to have very unsatisfying lives in general.  Why else would someone want to do such a thing?

In our world of ever-increasing virtual interaction, it is my fear that more and more people will not be able to engage with others in a respectful and honourable way. Without that face to face interaction, will we see an ever-growing increase in such bad behaviour, which could also impact upon real-life situations?  Will this bad behaviour, ingrained and learnt from an early age be taken out into the real world, where this will occur more and more in face to face situations? I sincerely hope not – it’s bad enough that it is occurring online.

So, what can we do about it?  We can make people aware of what is occurring, for starters.  We can then deal with each interaction with as much respect and honour as we are able.  We can make points known, and then if the discussion falls into chaos and disrespect due to trolls, we can refuse to engage, simply stating why we are refusing and then walk away.

Sometimes walking away from a bully doesn’t work, however. Sometimes they get their best shot when your back is turned.  All we can do is to remember that, as the heathen saying goes, “We Are Our Deeds”.  Whether these are online opinions or not, I feel that this saying is applicable to everything that we do in our lives.  Sure, not everyone of us is a shining example of humanity, and simply because we have done less than honourable deeds in the past does not mean that we continue in dishonour – we can work to gain that back through everything that we say and do today.

And so, for all the trolls out there who may be reading this – remember this saying. We are our deeds.  It’s not too late.

And for those who are being plagued by trolls, I offer up a previous blog post which may help to overcome any feelings instilled by this abhorrent behaviour:


3 thoughts on “Beware of Trolls

  1. My brother in law likes to antagonise people over xbox live, he’ll deliberately try and wind people up for his own amusement and specifically targets people who clearly don’t like it. This unfortunate behaviour was picked up by my niece who, when I let her speak to some of my friends online once, immediately started hurling offensive swear words and screaming at them until I took the headset away from her and told her off from doing it. I think she’s learnt now that it’s wrong, but other kids who don’t have the shining example of me to look up to I dread thinking how they may be turning out.

    • Goodness – that’s terrible! I just don’t understand how people cannot seem to realise that these are other people on the other end – it’s too abstracted a form of communication for some, I guess. Others simply like to abuse other people, without fearing any face-to-face repercussions – totally abhorrent behaviour…

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