The act of writing or uploading deliberately provocative or hurtful things on the internet with the aim of creating upset and disruption and eliciting an emotive response.
You may have already heard the tragic story of thirteen year old Hannah Smith, who sadly committed suicide last week after being cyberbullied through the website, ask.fm. Recently I wrote about ask.fm and similar anonymous social media websites (refer to my previous post for further details). To summarise, Hannah was receiving anonymous comments through the site calling her fat and ugly and telling her to kill herself. Hannah eventually hung herself in her bedroom after the abuse got too much to bare. Her 15 year old sister found her body.
As if this isn’t traumatic enough for Hannah’s family, her sister has since been receiving abuse from internet trolls (within days of finding her sisters body). Hannah’s family set up a Facebook memorial page for friends and family to share their positive memories of Hannah. However it was soon targeted by trolls who wrote comments such as “she deserved to die”, “she’s a coward” etc. Her poor father even received a message saying that he should “get over” his daughters death within days of it happening. Her family have since been forced to close the memorial page.
This case is far from unique. Unfortunately trolling on the internet is a regular occurrence and memorial pages are a prime target.
- On Valentines day 2011, Natasha MacBryde committed suicide by jumping in front of a train after allegedly being cyberbullied online (although there is controversy over whether the bullying actually occurred). Following her death, Natasha’s family were targeted by internet trolls, one in particular, Sean Duffy has since been charged – he was sentenced to 18 weeks in prison and ‘banned’ from using social media for five years. Sean posted images of Natasha’s face with captions such as “Natasha wasn’t bullied, she was just a whore” to her family’s memorial page. He also trolled the parents of numerous other teenagers who have committed suicide or died in accidents, including uploading photos of maggot infested rotten bodies with comments such as “apparently I tasted pretty good”. He also edited photographs of the victims themselves and crossed out their eyes or drew nooses around their necks. (Note: Sean has been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome which some feel may have contributed to his actions).
- Hayley Bates, 16, was killed in a car crash in 2010. Trolls created Facebook fan pages dedicated to mocking the teens death.
- Megan Meier, 13, commited suicide after Lori Drew, her neighbour and the mother of one of her old school friends, set up a fake MySpace account posing as a 16 year old boy in order to befriend and ultimately humiliate Megan. Megan had previously had issues with low self-esteem and did not always find it easy to fit in at school. Lori, alongside her daughter, Sarah, and an 18 year old employee ran the fake account posing as a boy named ‘Josh’. During a prolonged period of time, Megan believed that she had formed a close friendship with ‘Josh’. However, ‘Josh’ then turned on Megan, accusing her of not being a nice person and saying that everyone was against her and the world would be better off without her. ‘He’ then started publicly sharing some of their private messages on the internet. Megan hung herself shortly after the abuse started.
Of course, trolling also occurs in many other instances online and not just on memorial pages. For example:
- Caroline Criado-Perez was recently successful in ensuring that women remain featured on banknotes. However, she soon became the victim of numerous trolls who have repeatedly threatened to rape, torture and kill her. The trolls have been relentless and this has had a major impact on Caroline’s life. You can read more in this article which she wrote this week.
- Anita Sarkeesian is a media critic who researches the portrayal of, and harassment of, women in online gaming. As a consequence of this she has been subject to extreme trolling including racist comments “She is a JEW”, sexist comments “It would be better if she wrote this from the kitchen” and hurtful remarks such as “I hope you get cancer :)”. Trolls even created an online game where the ‘player’ could punch Anita in the face until the screen turned red.
Why do trolls ‘troll’?
Some people and organisations believe that many trolls may be suffering from mental illness. However, an interesting paper by Whitney Phillips suggests that some users troll for amusement and relief from boredom rather than a type of sociopathy or other ‘disorder’.
Whitney quotes one interview with a troll:
“He […] explained how he got involved with trolling; like many of the trolls I’ve worked with, he was interesting and pleasant and somewhat nervous about providing “good” answers. Also like many of the trolls I’ve worked with, he shrugged off the presumption of sociopathy and suggested that trolling was the result of boredom as much as anything (though he did admit to finding the whole process quite amusing). In his interactions with Hale [a journalist running a newspaper piece on his story], however, he reverted to his trollish tauntings, boasting about his lack of remorse and playing up his perceived villainy. In other words, he gave Hale exactly what she wanted. Two weeks later, she published a fiery piece condemning the “vile and disgusting” trend of Facebook trolling, with particular focus on that monster [the troll] — who in turn reveled in his newfound notoriety.”
In another of Whitney’s interviews, a different troll talks about the ‘community’ within trolling:
“The purpose of the community … I guess is to exchange ideas and techniques, and to plan co-ordinated trolling. The underlying philosophical purpose or shared goal, anyway, would be to disrupt people’s rosy vision of the internet as their own personal emotional safe place that serves as a proxy for real-life interactions they are lacking (i.e. going online to demonstrate one’s grief over a public disaster like Japan with total strangers who have no real connection to the event). This latter point can be said of trolls, too. There’s a kind of interaction, in-your-face and disrespectful, that trolls would like to but can’t do in real life (for various reasons), so they do it online.”
He also speaks about his justification for trolling:
“The reality of this is simple: the vast majority of those who get large memorial pages on Facebook are cute little kids (Jamie Bulger) or pretty young ladies (Jenni-Lyn Watson, Chelsea King) or useful pawns for a cause (Tyler Clementi and other gay suicides). These memorial pages are decidedly not a place for friends and family to grieve (family and friends should be grieving together in private like normal people). In reality, these are havens for “grief tourists”: people who substitute online emotions and declarations of solidarity for real emotional relationships and friendship. Most memorial pages are not set up by friends or family; they are created by people who are too involved with the stories they read online or see on the news — people who derive some sense of self-importance and worth from being seen to care by strangers.
There are of course exceptions to this. There are indeed memorial pages set up by family that get trolled because your average user is too ignorant of the controls of the page given to them by Facebook (and internet culture in general) to deal with trolling. In some trolls’ eyes, these people are asking for it for being ignorant.“
He downplays the impact of trolling and disputes the idea that victims can be described as being ‘bullied’. Due to the ability to ‘log off’ from the internet, he sees victims as always having control over the situaiton:
“The claim that there is any element of trolling that causes someone to be trapped and bullied and subjected to a hostile environment is outright ridiculous. You can log out of the public forum you are engaged in. You can defriend, block, retaliate, or whatever those who are obviously not being nice to you online. It isn’t like getting beat up or picked on while walking to the bus stop because you always have an element of control not present in real life situations — a logoff. The claim about kids online being naïve or otherwise easy targets is lame — where are the parents and their responsibility in all this? […] The real question to ask with respect to teen suicides due to so-called “cyberbullying” is why kids today are so likely to kill themselves over it.”
What are your thoughts?
Do you think that a teenager who is receiving hurtful, threatening or slanderous comments online will find it easy to log off and walk away from the situation? Social media is a major component in the lives of many users, particularly younger users who have grown up with this technology. Their friends and family are on social media and they may feel isolated from their social circle if they are forced to withdraw from online interaction. Yes, they can switch off the computer but does this not have a profound negative impact on their lives when we are very much living in a digitally-connected world?
Do you think they will find it easy to log off and ignore hurtful comments that are being said about them online, often publicly for everyone else to see? In this scenario, would you find it easy to log off and turn a blind eye, knowing that the rest of your social circle can still see whatever the troll is saying? How about if you are receiving threats and you worry that the trolling will transfer into the offline world?
How about if you are going through all of this as a 13 year old child? Do you think it is realistic to assume that they can just ‘switch off’?
Whitney’s interview with the troll is very interesting, and I would encourage you to read further. As you can see, his responses are very articulate – something that you may not have originally expected from your inital concepts of an internet troll.
What can be done about it?
Many are calling for social media sites to implement more advanced features to detect and block trolling (and cyberbullying) but this is difficult to implement. There are also concerns over when something is free speech and when it becomes trolling. In some circumstances where malicious intent can be proven, trolling can be classed as an offense under the Malicious Communications Act. The maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment or a fine of up to £5000.