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Sticks and Stones: Does Internet Trolling Really Matter?

We’ve all experienced it; some anonymous user posts a horrendously offensive or just incredibly stupid comment under a blog. It’s so mean and nonsensical, it makes you wonder if the person is playing around or if he or she is just that despicable. Such “trolls” are all over the Internet, and they enjoy riling up others.  This behavior is so commonplace that TV show host Jimmy Kimmel recently aired a segment of celebrities reading the mean tweets trolls had sent them. Few people in real life would behave this way (especially to a celebrity’s or to anyone’s face), we recognize. So, does such behavior on the Internet really matter? In case you don’t know precisely what a troll is, here are some definitions. 

  • Wikipedia says an Internet troll is “…someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”  
  • About.com defines a troll as “…an abusive or obnoxious user who uses shock value to promote arguments and disharmony in online communities. Named after the wicked troll creatures of children’s tales, an internet troll is someone who stirs up drama and abuses their online anonymity by purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or just simple bickering between others.” 

Mashable recently posted this infographic, presented by bestpsychologyschoolsonline.com on the psychology of internet trolls and how to stop them.  The infographic attributes the behavior to issues of dissociative identity, asynchronicity, dissociative imagination, and narcissm (among other psychological impairments).

This concept holds that since trolls are anonymous, they taunt others they can’t physically see (thus can’t relate to) by using comments to hurt them, then simply leaving a forum when they choose. According to a CNN interview with Howard Bragman, trolling is akin to the anonymous writing on the bathroom wall, and it is best to block the comment/post and ignore it. He advises that if something violates a social media platform’s terms of service, users should advise the website of the issue and let the site handle it.

Many websites provide the ability to report offensive comments. YouTube allows comments to be marked as spam; enough of those marks result in comments being blocked. Facebook similarly allows comments or groups to be marked as offensive, which then warrants an investigation of the content.

Does It Matter?

We all know the old saying about sticks and stones… so do the actions of trolls online really matter?Should we accept that this is what comes with the anonymous exchange of ideas the Internet allows? Or does this type of discourse (if you can call it that) deserve to be reported as abuse and hindered?  Do expressions of hatred warrant action and accountability?  There are arguments for both sides of the issue, coinciding with free speech debates existing in this country since the inception of the First Amendment. 

When Does It Go Too Far?

I think many would agree with me that when comments go from simply mean speech to harassment and intimidation, the trolling has gone too far.  In a Huffington Post panel on trolling, Michael Roberts claimed his ex-wife’s online harassment of several yearsdestroyed his business by ruining his reputation. She posted constant online allegations that he was a pedophile, wife beater and that he engaged in other crimes. He found that potential clients distanced themselves just to avoid any potential scandal. Roberts says social media allows for relentless and anonymous harassment, and the amount of damage it can do to one’s credibility, regardless of the truth, is huge. 

Internet Troll Exposed

While anonymity is a big part of trolling, interestingly, the identity of one of the worst offenders on reddit, Michael Brutsch, was exposed on Gawker.  Under the username, “Violentacrez”, Brutsch created and moderated several subforums, including “Rapebait,” “Incest,” “Pics of Dead Kids,” “Creepshot”, “Choke a Bitch,” and “Rape Jokes.””Violentacrez” was banned from the site several times. 

Asa result of his online identity being revealed, he was fired from his job, and lost the health insurance and income he relied on to support his disabled wife. Though few had sympathy for him, Gawker pointed out the hypocrisy of reddit’s hanging out to dry one of its most reviled trolls. Brutsch’s offensive behavior was enabled and encouraged, Gawker said, since the material helped make the site as popular as it is today. CNN reported his posts may have generated as many as 800,000 subscribers and that triggered a debate about whether reddit was criminally liable for the content of its forums. To me, trolling, is one of the growing pains of the Internet, and I think discourse will evolve past trolling. Remember, at one time, the printing press was a revolutionary technology that allowed extensive circulation of new ideas and information. At its inception, it permitted the circulation of what many considered lurid garbage, but it also made it possible to distribute respectable newspapers, great works of literature, and reports of scientific achievements to the masses.

Have you been the victim of an internet troll? How do you think they should be dealt with?

Dorotea Szkolar

I am an alumna of the iSchool MLIS program and am mainly interested in writing about technology and libraries. Contact me at doroteaszkolar@gmail.com or @doroteaszkolar if you would like to chat.

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