Trolling: Understanding what it is and also why it happens.

24 Sep

Introduction

The topic of ‘Trolling’ is being discussed in great detail on the internet and in the media these days.

Or is it…?

To celebrate yet another confused and inaccurate article being launched on the BBC’s internet site, Roadwax feels that the time is right to encourage proper debate on the topic. One should never encourage a troll but one needs to know what food they like to eat.

This post is a stripped-down “How-to” guide for those of us who do not have much time right now but need to understand more about trolling. It is intended to inform and also to encourage a clearer understanding of what ‘trolling’ actually is.

By necessity, this article also discusses internet bullying. However a separate Roadwax article deals with this topic in more detail.

If anyone wants to read the full, unabridged articles then please email loopwithers@live.co.uk and ask for a copy. Don’t all rush at once. Oh – there aren’t any pictures in this post. Trolls do not really go for pictures. It is all about words. Bring on the trolls.

The current situation: where we are right now

A quick search through the world’s top English-language internet news sites reveals that the word ‘trolling’ is being frequently used but never properly explained. A longer and more refined search will just make you want to weep. It soon becomes clear that the word is being thrown around without a clear understanding of its meaning. After more than thirty years of trolling on the internet across the world, we rarely find a definition of exactly what a ‘troll’ is.

Is ‘internet trolling’ actually being discussed and described or is it simply being mentioned, like a fashionable buzz-word…?

Now is a good time to clear up some frequent misunderstandings that are beginning to creep in to the current debate. If we do not agree a clear understanding of what trolling is then we cannot effectively deal with the topic.

A brief history of the troll

Trolling has been around for centuries. Every culture with a well-established language has always had trolls. Trolling particularly appears at times when there is war and conflict. Diplomatic statements and war-time propaganda messages are often good examples of simple trolling. Over the last couple of decades, ‘internet trolls’ have appeared. We owe them a debt of thanks. If the internet community had not labelled them as ‘Trolls’ for the first time, we would never have realised that they existed.

The differences between a troll and bully

Trolls are not necessarily bullies…but bullies can be trolls.

Think of it like this: A house can be a home but a home is not necessarily a house.

The current focus in the media is to describe trolls as bullies. This is a dangerously incorrect assumption because it masks what is really going on and…is quite possibly a form of trolling itself!

It is very important that we separate out ‘trolling behaviour’ from ‘bullying behaviour’ to understand what is going on when we look at our screens.

Here is a short list explaining why we should make a distinction:

1) Bullies get given elevated status in society if described as trolls – a label which they do not deserve.

2) Bullying is a form of psychological or physical pressure used to unreasonably coerce people. Trolling isn’t.

3) Trolls and bullies both cause disruption but in different ways. They operate similarly but differently.

4) Trolls wreak destruction and disorder but bullying causes distress and depression.

5) Knowing the difference can keep us protected both on and offline and it can even save lives.

How to spot an online bully:

Online bullying can only take place on websites that allow people to ‘comment’ – write and upload statements that other people can read. Think hard on this point. Notice how many websites do not allow the posting of comments or else ‘suspend’ the writing of comments for a while. Often this denial of the ‘comment’ facility is being carried out to stop bullying or trolling being possible.

So, online bullying takes place most often in ‘forums’ – where a topic can be discussed openly by anyone who want s to have their say. YouTube videos, News Website articles, Enthusiast Forums, Bebo, Askfm…the list of places who offer forums or the opportunity to comment is almost endless. This is where trolling and bullying takes place.

An online bully will always make a personal attack or a particular threat to writers in the forum. Always.

Here is an imaginary ‘thread’ on an imaginary forum:

Bob123:          ‘I think this video is great. I love cats! Cats are so cool!’

Fishman:        ‘Check out 1’24″ when the cat goes nuts! LOL!!!’

ZZZmonkey:   ‘You think video footage is real? You are so stupid.’

Bob123:           ‘F**k you, a**hole, you are just a sad piece of sh*t. Go play with yourself.’

ZZZMonkey:   ‘Video is not real! If you think cat actually jump then you are nuts.’

Fishman:         ‘In English please? Are you another crazy Russian who eats cats?’

Bob123:           ‘You f***ing piece of commie sh*t. F**k you.’

ZZZMonkey:   ‘Video is fake. I am not commie. You know nothing.’

There is only one bully in this example. It is Bob123. ZZZMonkey is holding a different opinion about the video and tries to persuade others that they are watching fake footage and believing it is real. ZZZMonkey is straightforward and also rude but he doesn’t bully. Bob123 immediately responds by attacking him personally and then Fishman adds what is possibly a racist slant in his reply which has nothing to do with the points being made by either side.

Now, read the thread again and imagine that:

Bob123 is aged 11 years, female, goes to school.

Fishman is aged 33 years, male, works in telesales.

ZZZMonkey is aged 42 years, transgender, CCTV operator.

Notice how the internet removes so much information that can help us make sense of what appears to be a pointless conflict situation. Bullying often seems more horrifying precisely because it often appears to be so personally vindictive yet it is conducted by apparent strangers.

Bullying is often carried out by people who are struggling to understand what is going on around them. They feel insecure and threatened and so they lash out. They will continue to do this until they are forced to stop. It becomes an exciting new power and the thrill of hurting people is – as adults eventually learn – addictive. If bullying is allowed to go on, then that is exactly what it does. It goes on, and on…and on.

How to spot an online troll:

Trolling is the opposite of bullying. It is often carried out by people who are confident and assured about the world they see. They feel excited by the chances to mess around with the comfort level of less confident or less well informed online guests. They get their fun from wrecking, derailing, destroying and challenging the view of others. They don’t get their thrill from attacking people but instead from manipulating what people think.

Trolls love the power they get from controlling proceedings, dictating what the debate is actually about. Trolls might also bully but then – if they do, they have failed as trolls and should be desribed as bullies. Trolling has nothing to do with bullying.

Trolling is all about power and manipulation. Bullying is all about hatred and aggression.

Let’s run the same scenario again. Remember – we know nothing about the three people who are commenting.

WigWax: ‘I think this video is great. I love cats! Cats are sooo coooool!’

108566M: ‘check out 1′ 24″ when the cat goes nuts! LOL!!!’

Nobby:  ‘My dog could eat that cat. Dogs rule. sorry but thats the way it is.’

108566M ‘Dogs spread disease and suck up to their owners. You sad moron.’

Nobby: ‘Grow up. Cats spread more disease than dogs. Fact. Is a cat gonna save you in a robbery?’

WigWax: ‘Great. A drug dealer wants to lecture me about how great his dog is. Sad.’

Nobby: ‘Maybe I sell your mother all the crack she takes just to put up with you. What’s wrong with that?’

WigWax: ‘Why don’t you get a real job and stop wrecking people’s lives? You scum.’

108566M: ‘I feel sorry for you. You will rot in Hell. God will punish you.’

Nobby: ‘My dog just ate your God. And your cat.’

Nobby is an internet troll. Nobby just derailed this thread and turned the conversation from the love of cats to the morality of drug-taking and religious concepts. Nobby did this without using threats or bullying. Nobby relied on WigWax and 108566M to respond with anger and abuse and Nobby is now firmly in control of this thread. You can use your own imagination to work out how much fun Nobby has over the next few hours…

Notice also - and this is so important - how this thread would simply stop if nobody responds to Nobby’s last comment. The troll cannot continue to dominate unless others allow that to happen by posting replies. The troll can only

a) have the last word in the thread

b) kill the thread by killing off the orginal discussion

c) encourage a Moderator to delete the thread because it is now wrecked

If someone now posts:

Girlfriday: “Nice trolling. Anyway – back to the thread. Cats ARE cool…!”

…then there is still a good chance that Nobby will dive back in and continue. Remember - Trolling is about control and manipulation. Do not feed the trolls.

Trolling on world News Sites:

All news sites – ABC, NBC, BBC, Reuters…every news site in the world - are trolled every day. The trolling takes place in the section of the site where people can leave their comments. Some trolling is done for the sheer twisted fun of it but some trolling is done for a darker reason – to stifle proper debate and to crush dissent.

I could put a link in here to a real-life example that is happening now. Unfortunately, by the time you click on it, the debate will either have moved on or else the comments will have been removed.

Instead, I encourage you to click on your favourite national news site and find a breaking news item which also has a comments thread - and watch it evolve. See if you can spot the point at which an internet troll begins to change the topic under discussion.

Is it a story about a car crash that suddenly changes to a discussion on banning older drivers? Is it a news item on a new hospital brain scanning procedure and the comment thread changes into an argument about abortion?

Hopefully, (to prove my point here) as soon as you see this happening, a Moderator for the site will ‘close’ the comments so that no more posts are allowed.

The comments thread will disappear from view if you revisit the site.

The troll will have successfully stopped open debate and discussion.

The troll will have won.

Trolling on ‘SIF – Sites’ (single interest fanatics) - and YouTube

YouTube provides a fascinating and vibrant introduction for anyone who wishes to study trolling, bullying or any aspect of mass culture. If you watch YouTube, you will see examples of trolling easily and quickly. They are identical to those you may find on the thousands of sif-sites around the world.

YouTube is the most influential and powerful internet media site in the world of 2013. Facebook simply pales into insignificance by comparison, even if one takes their already mathematically corrupted viewing and membership figures…and doubles them.

YouTube allows anyone to upload any piece of film and audio footage for the world to see. It is a place where all you have to do is type in any ‘search’ word and you will find a list of uploaded film relating to that topic. It is hugely influential, whereas other sites are not.

Precisely because of its universal accessibility and worldwide reach, it becomes far more valuable than any single news channel. Notice how, when a new story breaks on a world news channel, one can frequently discover related footage existed a few hours sooner on YouTube.

YouTube allows users to ‘comment’ on footage uploaded by other users.

Think of a popular topic that interests you personally. Go onto YouTube and search for films and videos on that topic. Read the YouTube ‘comments’ and you will see trolling and bullying laid bare. You may also find supreme examples of ‘Moderating’ – where potential trolls and bullies are put in their place by third parties – other visitors to the site.

However - for the sake of clarity – remember that YouTube’s own Moderators use a firm but light touch. YouTube – like Twitter – is a citadel of free speech and expression and therefore it aims to censor as little as possible. YouTube singlehandedly defines the complex struggles involved in maintaining a world concept of ‘free speech’ by simply allowing it.

To many new viewers, this is quite a shocking and revelatory experience. YouTube allows us to see, experience and come face to face with the often shocking world of free speech. Free speech can easily be controlled by bullies and trolls and those who are spectacularly ignorant.

It should be borne in mind that a vast proportion of the most extreme comments on sif-sites and YouTube as well are left by children aged 12 – 18 years. Whether this consideration makes you feel better or worse probably depends a lot upon how you value the power of education.

Trolling as a means of stifling dissent.

As we see in the example of News websites, a troll can stop debate taking place by encouraging the Moderator to close the thread down because it has got out of hand. It has collapsed into a vicious fight between overheated commentators who are now verbally abusing each other.

Most news sites used to try to keep trolls out and keep any debate going but this proved to be a thankless and exhausting task. Now, newsgroups simply ‘pull’ the thread. It is safer and cheaper. Discussion forums – where enthusiasts go to talk with each other – still allow trolls. They cannot really close the forum just because a troll has moved in. Instead, they warn them against trolling – either by an online message for all to see – or privately and more discretely.

A wise troll will move on once their actions are identified. There used to be a saying: “Please do not feed the trolls”. Some web forums still use it but, in truth, that request is usually lost on the very people who should heed it. Trolls have plenty to feed on.

Professional Trolling

But suppose that the troll is employed by a political party? Suppose the news item on the news site or the article in a discussion forum is about a piece of legislation being proposed by The Gorilla Party (hey – I’m just making up a name to keep things simple) and The Ostrich Party doesn’t want that piece of news to give attention to their competitor?

Suppose the Gorilla Party announces support for “free day-care for all children of working single mothers. Vote for the Gorillas and get free day care!”

The Ostrich Party are pretty sure that this legislation will never get passed because it is too expensive. They have worked out the costing figures and they are certain that the Gorilla Party have too. But they are annoyed because the Gorilla Party is bringing to people’s attention the fact that the Ostrich Party do not have their own solution on offer. It makes them look un-caring by comparison.

Do you really believe that the Ostrich Party will keep clear of the ‘comments’ section on that news item? Of course not! They will get a troll in there as soon as possible, to wreck the debate and hopefully get the comments page closed down as quickly as possible.

Stifle debate.

Unintentional trolls

Especially when it comes to news sites, people sometimes become trolls without realising it. They add comments without understanding that they have derailed the discussion.

If a news item is about an accidental house fire where a baby has tragically died, the comments may be mostly from people who wish to express their sadness and support. This is normal and well meant. It goes on all the time. Feelings are intense and people want to express their grief or sympathy.

Now is a bad time for someone to point out the fact that the parents were recent immigrants to the country and they had trouble calling the emergency services because they could not speak the same language.

This comment might have actually been intended as a helpful explanation. It might be a very significant factor that needs to be addressed by the local fire department.

The comment has the opposite effect on the thread. It appears sudden and insensitive and detracts from the emotional integrity of the other comments. The comment thread collapses into accusations of racism, xenophobia, bitter personal abuse and the moderator has to close it down since meaningful debate is now long gone and no postive advantages exist to keeping it open.

This imaginary example shows us how trolls can sometimes be innocent commentators who merely make a badly-timed or poorly-judged observation but meant no actual harm. It illustrates how we can all unintentionally appear as trolls if we mis-judge the mood on a forum or a comment thread.

We might be intending to make a postive or constructive comment - to encourage the debate to broaden out and not simply dwell on the tragedy but instead the cause – but we get it wrong. Suddenly, we have appeared as a troll in the eyes of our peers.

Part-time Trolling

Anyone can be a part-time troll. If we understand anything about trolling then we realise the power that trolling can give us. If we take the power of the troll and turn it to good use, is that not a good thing?

So, suppose you saw a bully attacking someone on a website. Would you ‘troll’ them as a way of stopping them carrying on? Would you try and draw them off their poor target by a display of intelligent trolling without becoming a bully yourself? I reckon that you might. A lot of people do.

Maybe, you would never dream of trolling but then you accidentally stumble across a comment thread where one writer is abusing another simply because of their ethnic background and not for their views. Would you do something to stop it? Of course, the choice always rests with you.

Although trolling is almost always carried out to stifle or subvert debate, it can be seen how trolling can sometimes be used as a weapon against hatred or bullying.

Basic Trolling

At its most basic, trolling is just a means of subverting or suppressing debate. Basic trolling is seen when an internet  discussion suddenly gets ‘hit’ by someone who types: “Buy viagra. Meet beautiful girls and get love pills for free when you click on this address: www.khfskfh.com Best tablets guaranteed.”

They upload this message five or six times in a row on the thread. Let’s be honest, they have probably killed any conversation stone dead. Still want to discuss how mortgage interest relief can be used as a social tool? Nah…nor me.

Sophisticated Trolling

Some trolling is outstandingly sophisticated. It is carried out to undermine or discredit people who are – in the eyes of the troller – deserving to be trolled. People who make overtly political statements, politicians of all levels, are frequently trolled by their adversaries. After all, politics is a dirty game. Trolls silently read the comments left by a particular person over months or even years until they find the right moment. Note – the troll never breaks cover by joining the debate. They just sit and wait and bide their time.

Then, when their ‘target’ – frequently a politician, media professional or social advocate – appears to be gaining fame and popular support, the trolling starts.

‘Great speech. Funny how you support free childcare now but stood against it last year. click this link to your earlier comments: www.abvkdzz.com

Off we go. The trolling has started. The debate is being diverted away from the wishes of the speech-maker.

Governments and politically-charged departments are the most sophisiticated trollers of all. Who can forget the British Government’s encouragement of the belief among the world’s people that Adolf Hitler only possessed one out of a possible maximum of two testicles?

Serious questions raised in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 quickly focussed on asking how the terrible catastrophe had happened in the first place. Go look at the threads now. 99.9% of the arguments are buried under tons of trolled nonsense. The aeroplanes were holograms and the whole thing never happened. It was the Illumnati. It was little green men.

It is now almost impossible for anyone find out how the events on 9/11 actually managed to happen. Sophisticated Trolling at its finest.

Conclusion:

Trolling is an integral part of modern internet communication. it is the art of subverting or suppressing debate. But there is a great reluctance within the world’s government and media to discuss in detail what it is and how it works.

Now, isn’t that strange?

Here’s a picture of a kitten:

"He told you there would be no pictures. He lied to you. And I'm not a kitten.."

“He told you there would be no pictures. He lied to you. And I’m not a kitten..”

5 Responses to “Trolling: Understanding what it is and also why it happens.”

  1. Linda Vernon October 1, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    Well I’ve heard of trolling and never quite understood what it was. My son in law mentions trolling a lot. So I thought it was just a kid thing. Now, thanks to your comprehensive article, I understand the concept of trolling! I think I might try ending some of my posts with a kitty . . . but I wouldn’t want to encourage the trollers! :D

    • roadwax October 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

      My cat, Biggsy (aka: The Notorious BIG), is always willing to a) pose for free for charitable purposes b) rack up eye-watering veterinary bills within the three days before Christmas or any other expensive family events.

      She has also doubled my viewing figures. :D

      • Linda Vernon October 2, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

        HA! Instead of collecting dictionaries, I should be collecting cats.

        • roadwax October 2, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

          You have just reminded me! I promised to send you some wildebeest, a few months ago. Now, where’s that packing case…

          • Linda Vernon October 7, 2013 at 2:37 am #

            I’ll be waiting . . . .with Meow Mix in hand! :D

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