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.

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Haystack in a haystack: travels around the human genome

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book is a tourist guide to the twenty-first century’s uncharted continent, the human genome.

My favourite quotation from Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” In that brief sentence, the founder of modern biology unknowingly summarised in advance the history of genetics, from the eugenical ideas of his half-cousin Francis Galton to Bill Clinton’s statement that the human ­genome sequence was “the most important, the most wondrous map ever produced by humankind”.

The eugenics movement led to ­disasters known to everyone. It is not yet dead: Francis Crick once claimed that “no newborn should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment”, and our own government’s decision to deny child support to poor people irresponsible enough to have more than two offspring (the agent of the policy has four) is in the same tradition. As a reminder of our ignorance, the DNA chart looks more like a medieval atlas than a modern map – with geneticists, in unconscious parallel to Swift’s words, the geographers who “in Afric maps/With savage pictures fill their gaps,/And o’er inhabitable downs/Place ­elephants for want of towns”.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book is a tourist guide to the new Africa, the human genome. The chart of that continent does indeed have too many metaphorical elephants and a noticeable shortage of productive towns: there are only about 20,000 working genes in the conventional sense, rather than the millions once assumed to exist (and why do tomatoes have more than we do?). They are surrounded by vast numbers of more or less mysterious molecular beasts, some of them parasites that invaded long ago, others the mouldering corpses of once-noble creatures, and yet more – the so-called junk – known more in its anatomy than in what it actually does. Lengthy as this book is (and Mukherjee might have gained from turning to his own account of the genome’s ability to cut out redundant and repetitive sections), it gives a full and lively account of the development of the subject, from its birth in the 19th century to its infancy in the 20th and its uncertain adolescence in the 21st.

Mukherjee begins the book with a melancholy tale of the schizophrenia that attacked two of his uncles and his cousin, and caused his own father to worry that elements of the illness “may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself”. Other family members had blamed the madness of their relatives on the horrors of Partition in India in 1947, which led to millions of deaths. Now, however, it has become clear that a predisposition to the condition, and particularly to the variety known as bipolar disorder (doctors have abandoned the old name “manic ­depression”), has a strong hereditary component, and Mukherjee confesses that part of the impetus for writing The Gene: an Intimate History was a personal concern about his own offspring. In this it resembles his 2011 work on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which he describes as a biography rather than a work of popular science.

The problem with genetics is that it lends itself too readily to anecdote. When teaching, I begin my own first-year course on the subject by telling the students: “I am a geneticist and my job is to make sex boring.” They look somewhat bemused, but after 20 lectures that fight through pedigrees, linkage mapping, population genetics, inbreeding, heritability, mutation and the like, I can tell that they agree heartily – and I’ve not even started to talk about the mechanics of sequencing or the horrors of bioinformatics, which have turned much of biology into computer science. Instead, to leaven the mix, and much as I secretly regret it, I plunge again and again into the Swamp of Storytelling and revel in colourful and often tragic tales of Sex, Age and Death (a phrase I once planned to use as a book title but made the mistake of mentioning to Bob Geldof, who stole it for one of his albums).

Mukherjee does the same, and often succeeds. I did not know that Gregor Mendel twice failed in his attempts to enter teacher training college; that the founder of (and donor to) the notorious “genius” sperm bank of the 1980s, the Nobel prizewinner William Shockley, may well have had autism, another condition with some genetic component; nor that the human genome paper was the longest ever published in Nature. And I learned perhaps more than I needed to know about the sordid disagreements between public and private genome mappers, the latter anxious to make millions, even billions, from the map, and the former who saw it as a public good. The good guys won in the end, though the American molecular diagnostics company Myriad Genetics managed to leap in just in time to patent the two genes that can cause breast cancer when they go wrong.

On his trek across the genetical landscape Mukherjee gives an exhaustive account of the development of the modern science of inheritance. He has talked to many of the main players and gives deep insights into their moments of discovery. He does sometimes fall a little too hard for the latest scientific fashion, the most glittering (or tawdry) of which is epigenetics, the interaction between gene and environment. The term was coined by one of my own teachers at Edinburgh, C H Waddington, a student of fruit fly development. He found that a sudden heat shock to the embryos led to the appearance of a few flies with abnormal wings among the adults. By breeding from these, he could obtain stocks that in time produced such flies with no need for a shock, proof that an environmental stress could uncover hidden genetic variation. Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked and turned into a universal bridge between chemistry and biology. It is even used to revive the discred­ited idea that an organism can pass on characteristics acquired in its own lifetime.

That bridge goes far too far. The idea that genes respond to external stresses can be traced to the first days of molecular genetics, when it became clear that some genes regulate the activity of others when a creature is faced with a shift in food, or temperature, or some other external stress. In part it is a statement of the obvious: go out in the summer sunshine and the average Briton will get a tan, because skin cells respond to an alarm call by a protein that senses cellular damage to summon up dark granules of melanin around the DNA in order to protect it. His or her children, though, will be born pink. Quite why there has been such a fuss about a concept invented 70 years ago is not clear and is made no clearer here.

The book ends where it began, with schizophrenia. That illness is a microcosm of Darwin’s aphorism on ignorance. Freud blamed the condition on “unconscious homosexual impulses”, while others were just as confident that it was brought on by hostile mothers. Then the pendulum swung towards treating it as a genetic disease almost as straightforward as haemophilia. Some cases, like those described in Mukherjee’s opening pages, do indeed run in families, but many more are sporadic and appear among kindred that have no history of the problem. For the latter, the new genetics has revealed hundreds of gene mutations in affected children that are not present in their parents. For the former, the story is not so simple. Certainly, genes that predispose to the condition can be passed on, but various families may inherit different genes yet show similar symptoms, and particular combinations of genes rather than single elements may be responsible for the illness.

As this book puts it, the search for the genes behind mental disorder is not like searching for a needle in a haystack, but for a haystack in a haystack. Even for highly heritable attributes such as height, the quest for genes has been baffling, given that more than a hundred are known to be involved in such variation but altogether do not represent even a tenth of the number needed to explain the similarity of parents and children. Unpalatable as this may be for us mere Mendelians, almost every human gene, in effect, may influence almost every one of our attributes, which will be no fun for tomorrow’s molecular cartographers. Even so, and tangled as it already is, Mukherjee does a good job of cutting away the web of ambiguity and complexity that scientists have woven since the happy days when Mendel counted the ratio of round to wrinkled peas in the garden of Brno’s abbey.

Another Darwin quotation, this one from The Voyage of the Beagle:

There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage . . . The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply. 

Very true, but for his genetical descendants the expedition has only just begun. 

Steve Jones is Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College London and the author of “No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine” (Little, Brown)

The Gene: an Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee is published by Bodley Head (608pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink