We have all heard about them, those people sitting behind their screens stirring public’s opinion in their own direction, and preying on the weakest link, we call them internet trolls.
Before we go any further in dissecting how internet trolls grew more sophisticated and numerous with each passing year. Let’s first look at what a troll is.
Trolls: a semantic shift
One theory is that the origin of the term trolling comes from the old French, meaning to hunt for game with no specific target. The term trolling was also used in the 70s by US navy pilots during the Vietnam war to meansearching/lying in wait for/ trying to provoke a reaction from the enemy.
The act of trolling hasn’t always had bad press. Internet trolling has started in the late 80s, or early 90s mainly by Usenet discussion groups that were scouting for internet newbies. In other words, these trollers would start discussions with the intention of engaging new internet users.
Today the term trolling has reached a tipping point, it refers to the monster under your bed, the Sauron of the internet that has his eye on everything. Or in simpler words, a troll is a member of an online community that participates actively in spreading provocative and offensive posts fishing for reactions.
Claiming the high moral ground when it comes to trolls
We have all at one point in time left our emotions take over when commenting on certain posts, newsgroups, forums…etc. However, it seems that the internet troll’s main purpose in life is to cause mayhem. A constant state of provocation and attention seeking that seems exhausting to most of us, and if you really think about it, this seems like an eminently odd way to spend one’s time. So, who are these people? Where did they come from? And why do they do it?
My Conventional wisdom tells me a troll is an uneducated male loser that still lives in his mother’s basement, he spends his day binging on Cheetos and never gets out of his sweatpants. He is a bitter individual who sees his small ego inflates as he inflicts pain and discomfort.
The more I research the subject, the more my assumptions about the trolls fall like a house of cards. Trolls are no longer playing solo, they have formed into well organized groups of individuals that function within a set of rules. What used to be random online comments is now structured into scripted content that targets specific causes, and people.
Stroll communities have formed, under strong leaderships to defend, criticize, bully and in extreme cases threaten their targets.
Tell me why?
Our logical reasoning will tell us that toxic online comments come from our bias towards a line of thinking, a behavior, or even a single person. The fact is it is rooted much deeper than that. Mr. Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago who interviewed over 20000 internet users, explains that people use the internet to complete their incomplete everyday life. In other words, people have been trained to resist being impulsive in the real world, the internet has liberated them, freed them to cave to their temptations with no witnesses hovering over their heads.
This is not new information. Before the existence of Internet, people communicated their shortcomings via other channels like TV and radio talk shows. The internet has simply made it more anonymous and more accessible.
We are all trolls
In the last year, internet trolling has put on a new hat, the common understanding of the term and what it represents has completely changed. Trolling today is used as a reflection of the popularity of this type of behavior.
This behavior tends to escalate when it comes to certain topics, politics being one the subjects that cause most controversies.
Influencers on Instagram with public accounts are also very much exposed to attacks from trolls. In 2018, Instagram introduced a new option that allows the account owners to delete followers that tend to be aggressive without even notifying them.
Sometimes we are just bored and looking for some kind of interaction to keep us entertained.
The fact is, the epidemy has spread, Internet trolls are all around us. They are our partners, our friends, our coworkers, and our own family.
And when the stars line up, they are us, too.
Trolls Vs Bots
When it comes to online trolls, there is no easy fix. The massive amount of comments being posted every second makes it difficult to filter through and remove the negative ones.
Jeff Kao, a data scientist, used a machine-learning algorithm to discover that 1.3 million comments were likely fakes posted by bots. Many comments appeared to be very convincing, with coherent sentences, but it turned out that there were many duplicates of the same comments.
But for very offensive comments, the reality is that consumers have very little power to fight them. Tech companies like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have published guidelines for what types of comments and material are allowed on their sites, and they provide tools for people to flag and report inappropriate content.
Yet once you report an offensive comment, it is typically up to tech companies to decide whether it threatens your safety or violates a law — and often harassers know exactly how offensive they can be without clearly breaking rules. Historically, tech companies have been conservative and fickle about removing inappropriate comments, largely to maintain their positions as neutral platforms where people can freely express themselves.
Yes, I am talking to you
The bottom line is that trolls are not about to stop. Between the human and the bot, comments will keep flowing seamlessly. What is important though is to clearly understand how they function, and to which purpose, so that next time when we are scanning the web, desperately looking for information, trying to sort through all the data available to us, we won’t take the bait that have come to rule our online lives.
The original internet trolls have remained true to themselves, fighting for what they believe, dedicating hours every day honoring that commitment.
We are the newbies…
We have evolved into walking on the same path, and engaging in the same destructive behavior because believe or not somehow it makes us feel better.