Hidden behind a perpetual mask of anonymity, they cause anger, frustration, sadness and confusion. They hack, rig and steal information from a system that has no central authority or universal laws. Their reasons differ, their actions always evolving. They have no leader, no structure. This phenomenon that seems like a sci-fi thriller, is the disturbing underbelly of the internet.
Trolls, a term coined in the 1980s for anyone who disturbs the natural conversation of the web. These groups of internet tribes dwell in chat rooms, forums and social media outlets. Their legitimate computer skills are utilized to degrade the few while satisfying the many.
The availability of the internet has made it so anyone can decide to be a troll. A simple fake email and social media account and you’re free to communicate with anyone across the world.
Often times the act of trolling is not random but calculated and vindictive.
Such was the case in 2006 with the Megan Meier suicide saga. Meier, 13, hanged herself with a belt after her online engagement with a teenage boy turned south. One of the final visceral comments reading, “The world would be a better place without you.” The avatar behind the account was discovered to be Lori Drew, a 48-year-old neighborhood mother. In cahoots with her daughter, the combo created the fake account and manipulated the teenagers psyche. Other girls jumped in with insults, ignorant to the account’s origin.
To really understand the world of trolls, consider the behavior that occurred after the incident went viral. Drew and her family’s personal information was posted across the internet, thus leading to threatening voice mails, death threats and a brick thrown through the window. This shows the inconsistency of the internet self-governance.
The story’s popularity meant the opportunity for more troll initiatives. The most recognized figure of the community, Jason Fortuny, executed an experiment that provided insight into the ease of deception. Fortuny, the man behind the Craigslist experiment, created a blog titled, “Megan Had It Coming,” in which he degraded Megan’s life and suicide while pretending to be a classmate. In the third post, Fortuny said the author was Lori Drew, resulting in over 3600 comments and another media storm.
The story is nearly seven years old but in 2013, another high profile troll was revealed. Jofi Joseph, a member National Security Staff at the White House, was ousted as the Twitter handle, @natsecwonk. The handle spewed off occasional insulting comments about President Obama and others. Joseph was predictably fired.
This real life consequence is only duplicated when occasional Reddit or 4chan user identities are revealed, causing loss of employment or legal ramifications. Reddit, 4chan and Encyclopedia Dramtica are the recognized hubs of trolldom.
4chan was created by ‘moot’ known as Christopher Poole in 2003. The anonymous forum started as a secret group of internet pros and turned into a massive message board site. Mainstream picked up on 4chan when user Jake Brahm posted bomb threats to major football stadiums during Ramadan. Brahm was sentenced to six months in jail and $26,750 in restitution. Incidents that followed included flashmob style invasions of other sites and Sarah Palin’s personal emails being posted in 2008. The users, known as b/tards profiled the potential of viral and shareable material. One group, known as the lolcats, created popular cat memes with broken english captions. A blog, icanhazcheezburger.com was created by one of the users and was acquired for $2 million dollars. In 2008, moot separated 4chan from graphic troll behavior with the Robot9000, a moderation system the erased spam and unapproved posts.
Encyclopedia Dramatica was created in 2004 by Sherrod DeGrippo, known as Girlvinyl. The site works as a wikipedia for internet lore and inside humor. DeGrippo herself was victim to a troll attack of taxis, pizzas and escorts when she refused to edit the entry of a troll group.
Reddit, for the uninitiated, is essentially a social news site; with a free username, anyone can submit and vote on content and can do so anonymously. And anyone can start a forum on Reddit dedicated to their interests, known as a subreddit. Today, there are about 10,000 active subreddits out of nearly 100,000 total, spanning a dizzying array of topics from funny pictures, to Power Rangers, to pooping. If a post gets enough upvotes, it can be propelled to the front page of Reddit and a massive audience.
How does free speech come into play?
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 is used to prosecute hackers and lawyers attempted to use the act to prosecute Lori Drew in 2009. The judge threw out the conviction after ruling that punishing someone for violating the terms of service of a particular website was unconstitutionally vague.
Trolls sense of accomplishment is refereed to as the lulz. Lulz is seeing someone’s frustration boil over from behind the computer or scaring off users of a site that you consider your own. Is there any real harm in this, or is it just another inherent danger in life we must evaluate?
Sometimes social media trolls serve as a modern day kangaroo court. In December, senior level PR person for IAC, Justine Sacco, proved that you can change your life with less than 140 characters. Sacco tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” while on board an international flight to Cape Town, South Africa. The tweet was picked up by Gawker as Sacco flew above the connected network. As the Tweet went viral, the hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet, did too. Even Donald Trump chimed in with his “You’re Fired” catch phrase. The situation provided for a real time marketing opportunity from WiFi provider Go-Go, that tweeted, “Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight!” They later issued a Twitter apology. The story grew as Twitter user, @Zac_R, photographed her in the Cape Town airport, accumulating 1200 retweets shortly after. The photo was inspired simply by interest in the story and not from media hounding or personal outrage. The situation ended with the predictable firing of Sacco but not without justinesacco.com being register before she landed. An anonymous figure registered the domain and redirected it to Aid For Africa, a nonprofit that recieved an uptick in donations after the incident.
Do we know why?
To understand this behavior is a complicated venture to say the least. First off, trying to group “trolls” into a generalized group is a mistake. Just as millionaires or criminals, individuals do not share the same characteristics or motives. At the simplest of levels, trolling is enabled by the anonymity of the internet. The same motivation for prank calls, enjoyment at someone elses expense with no consequences, holds true with internet agitating. However the psychology studies devoted to this subject have deemed the behavior as part of the “online disinhibition effect,” simply meaning that social restrictions are easily changed or abandoned once inside a internet community. The effect is based off a series of factors that apply to trolling.
Dissociative Anonymity and Invisibility — Being unknown and unseen presents an opportunity for someone to reinvent themselves on the internet. As seen in the chronicled catfish cases.
Asynchronicity — Not being synchronized with the tone of a given dialogue gives a disruptor the ability to surprise and irritate an audience.
Solipsistic introjection — The interface of online chat allows users to assign characteristics to people they encounter. As they merge with their community and feel as if they are talking to themselves, outsiders are condemned.
Dissociative imagination — Shrugging it off as just a game or just for the lulz is popular for trolls. Reddit assigns Karma points which opens the opportunity for users to moderate controversial subreddits to earn points.
Minimization of authority — There is no authority on the internet and trolls accentuate that. Moderators can only do so much. On Twitter, where the worst penalty is getting blocked by the offended party, the attacks come swift and often.
How does one beat a troll?
For professional boxer, Curtis Woodhouse, the answer was simple. Confront the assailant face to face. Woodhouse read continuous threats from one particular Twitter user, @jimmyob88. Eventually Woodhouse put a Twitter bounty on the 140 character menace. Within minutes, he had his real name, address and was en route to his residence. The troll wasn’t at home when the boxer arrived but he earned a backpedaling apology tweet.
When it comes down to it, trolling will never stop. The ability to organize and plot over the web will only become easier. The anonymity of the internet is still in full force. Social forms, social aggregation and social interaction are the future we all will experience. The only way to fight trolls is to not let external happenings bother you.
Originally published at themodernape.com on September 15, 2014.