Who are the trolls?

What we know about the men (and sometimes women) who spend their days trying to provoke a reaction on the internet.

What's the best definition of an internet troll? Here are two I like:

“A computer user who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question … but whose real intention is to cause disruption and/or trigger conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.”

--- Dr Claire Hardaker, academic researcher

The less famous of two people in a Twitter argument.                                                                                                            

--- @ropestoinfinity

Between them, they catch the complexity of the huge, sprawling phenomenon we've come to call trolling. For, as pedants will tell you, the name originally meant someone whose activities were irritating, but essentially harmless: one Guardian commenter confessed in a thread asking trolls to out themselves that he spent his time on Christian websites, calling Herbie: Fully Loaded blasphemous, because it involved a talking car. 

Now, the term is used much more broadly, to mean anyone who enrages, disrupts or threatens people over the internet. It's usually assumed that there is a simple power dynamic at work - good people get trolled by bad people. (The media loves this, because a campaign against a faceless, anonymous group that no one will admit to being a part of is the easiest campaign you'll ever run.) But it's not that easy. When a famous comedian gets mild abuse on Twitter, and retweets it to his followers, encouraging them to pile on, who's more at fault? If a person has ever said anything rude or offensive against about another person online, do they lose their right to complain about trolls?

The academic Claire Hardaker has proposed a useful taxonomy of trolls:

RIP trolls, who spend their time causing misery on memorial sites;

fame trolls, who focus all their energies on provoking celebrities;

care trolls, who purport to see abuse in every post about children or animals;

political trolls who seek to bully MPs out of office; and many others besides.

To these I would add two more: first, subcultural trolls - or "true" trolls - the ones who trawl forums full of earnest people and derail their conversations with silly questions, or hackers like "weev" who really work at being awful (he was involved with a troll collective known as the "Gay Nigger Association of America" and a hacking group called "Goatse Security"). And second, "professional trolls" or "trollumnists": writers and public figures like Samantha Brick and Katie Hopkins whose media careers are built on their willingness to "say the unsayable"; or rather, say something which will attract huge volumes of attention (albeit negative) and hits.

Although there is still relatively little research into trolling - I would recommend Hardaker's work if you are interested, along with that of US academic Whitney Phillips - we can begin to see a few patterns emerging.

Most of the high profile prosecuted cases in Britain have been of young men: 19-year-old Linford House, who burned a poppy in protest at "squadey cunts"; 25-year-old Sean Duffy, who posted offensive words and images on the Facebook sites of dead teenagers; 21-year-old Liam Stacey, who tweeted racist abuse about Fabrice Muamba while the footballer lay prone and close to death on the pitch; 17-year-old Reece Messer, who was arrested after telling Olympic diver Tom Daley "I'm going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat". Messer suffered from ADHD, and Duffy from a form of autism.

The stereotypical profile doesn't fit all abusive trolls, of course. Frank Zimmerman, who emailed Louise Mensch "You now have Sophie’s Choice: which kid is to go. One will. Count on it cunt. Have a nice day", was 60 when he was prosecuted in June 2012. (Zimmerman was an agoraphobic with mental health issues, which the judge cited when ruling that he would not face a custodial sentence.) Megan Meier committed suicide after being sent unpleasant messages by a Facebook friend called "Josh". Josh turned out to be Lori Drew, the mother of one of her friends.

Sub-cultural trolls often share a similar profile to abusive trolls: young, male and troubled. I asked Adrian Chen, the Gawker writer who has unmasked several trolls such as Reddit's Violentacrez (moderator of r/chokeabitch and r/niggerjailbait), if he had seen any common traits in the sub-cultural trolls he had encountered. He said:

These trolls are predominantly younger white men, although of course trolls of all gender/race/age exist (one of the trolls that has been popping up in my feed recently is Jamie Cochran aka "AssHurtMacFags" a trans woman from Chicago). They're bright, often self-educated. A lot seem to come from troubled backgrounds. They seem to come from the middle parts of the country [America] more than urban centers. 

There's this idea that trolls exist as Jekyll-and-Hyde characters: that they are normal people who go online and turn into monsters. But the biggest thing I've realised while reporting on trolls is that they are pretty much the same offline as online. They like to fuck with people in real life, make crude jokes, get attention. It's just that the internet makes all this much more visible to a bigger audience, and it creates a sort of feedback loop where the most intense parts of their personality are instantly rewarded with more attention, and so those aspects are honed and focused until you have the "troll" persona... I don't think you ever have a case where you show someone's real-life friends what they've been doing online and they would be completely surprised.

The issue of gender is worth raising, because although men and women are both targeted by abusive trolls, they seem to find women - particularly feminists - more fun to harass. When there are group troll attacks, male-dominated forums such as Reddit's anti-feminist threads or 4Chan's /b/ board are often implicated. The use of the spelling "raep" in several of the threats sent to Caroline Criado-Perez, and the words "rape train" suggest an organised, subcultural element, and Anita Sarkeesian reports that "Coincidentally whenever I see a noticeable uptick in hate and harassment sent my way there's almost always an angry reddit thread somewhere."

Just as there are social networks, so there are anti-social networks, where those who want to harass a given target can congregate. That has an important bearing on any idea of moderating or policing one network: it's harder to clean up Twitter when a co-ordinated attack on a tweeter can be arranged on another forum.

As for why would anyone do this? Well, anonymity is the reason that's usually given, but as Tom Postmes, a researcher at the University of Groningen, says: "It’s too simple, too straightforward, to say it turns you into an animal. In all the research online that we know of, anonymity has never had that effect of reducing self-awareness.” He suggests it might be more to do with the lack of consequences: after all, what percentage of people would steal, or lie, or drop litter, or if they knew they would not caught? 

Other researchers point to "disinhibition", where people feel less restrained and bound by social norms because they're communicating via a computer rather than face to face. Psychologist John Suller broke this down in a 2004 paper into several aspects, which Wired summarised as:

Dissociative anonymity ("my actions can't be attributed to my person"); invisibility ("nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone"); asynchronicity ("my actions do not occur in real-time"); solipsistic Introjection ("I can't see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent"); dissociative imagination ("this is not the real world, these are not real people"); and minimising authority ("there are no authority figures here, I can act freely").

Finally, US researcher Alice Marwick has a simple, if sad, answer for why online trolling exists:

"There’s the disturbing possibility that people are creating online environments purely to express the type of racist, homophobic, or sexist speech that is no longer acceptable in public society, at work, or even at home.”

If that's true, the abusive trolls are a by-product of how far we've come. Is that any comfort to their victims? I don't know. 

The "trollface" meme.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit soundcloud.com/azeem-ward or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.