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.

Show Hide image

Selfie sticks mask a bigger problem we have with each other – interaction

New services and products, like selfie sticks, ensure we never have to look each other in the eye, or ask for a tiny favour.

Selfie sticks are the worst, there's no denying it. I was so close to having a selfie stick-free weekend wandering around London aimlessly. But I made the mistake of walking across Westminster Bridge and saw plenty in action. And who can blame Londoners and tourists wanting to frame themselves right next to views of parliament or the London Eye on the opposite side? I'm a sucker for excellent views, like anybody else.

Whereas selfies are inherently a necessary evil for all of those apps that require a decent profile picture, the stick takes this indulgence to a whole new level. Before this metal, phone-holding pole became hilariously popular across the globe, we all had to do the unthinkable (prepare to gasp): ask someone to take a photo of us! How strange and good-hearted of us to trust a member of the public with those brilliant point-and-shoot cameras that we've now stuffed in our attics and bedroom drawers.

I can understand using one in a secluded place where there's nobody around. But isn't the reason behind the selfie stick to basically minimise your interaction with others? After all, a human is going to take a better photo of you and your loved one on the Thames, instead of fumbling for the shutter button on the stick and trying to see the screen a few feet away. We've become too afraid and awkward to ask someone for this tiny favour. This level of awkwardness is just being translated into all sorts of stupid goods and services around the world. It's as if the fictional Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm is being catered to in so many ways.

Heard of the Breakup Shop? Yes, it sounds exactly what you think it would be about. A company that can send an endearing Snapchat message so you can break up with the person you just took that selfie with. Even the now classic method of using email is too considered and measured. And by that I mean having the courage to send an email yourself, not via a third-party service. What happened to seeing people's faces in the flesh and witnessing how our words affect them? We used to be so caring and thoughtful this way.

But of course, that's a service for something serious a person with no courage could end up using. What about everyday, tedious matters? Silicon Valley has you covered! For example, you can avoid going to the petrol – sorry, gas – station and doing that thing car owners have to do frequently: fill up your tank with fuel. Don't worry, this giant "inconvenience" can now be removed from your life through Purple. What's that? It's a service where you pay for fuel through an app and share your car's location. At some point, a dude-bro (or sister) will pop round and fill up the fuel tank, so long as you remember to leave the cap open. Yes. This is a real thing.

The word convenience comes up very frequently with these superfluous start-ups. I think it all started to go into overdrive after Graze, a snack delivery service, which I can understand because I'd find it hard to make a low-fat cake and only restrict myself to a small cube for the whole week. Certain colleagues of mine are hooked to these sorts of things, so much so that I stick by my claim of Wall-E, in which humans are bolted to self-driving seats unable to move, being potentially the most accurate of all sci-fi films ever made.

However, other start-ups are so flat-out idiotic, you have to question why they exist, like Fetch Coffee. Why would you pay extra to have a Starbucks drink delivered to your door? After all, Starbucks sell that stuff in the supermarkets for you to make yourself when you are at home and away from one of their cafes. Are we simply so annoyed by the act of queuing and recognising each other's existence that we want our morning coffee personally delivered to us in such a wasteful way?

It's pretty simple. We're all becoming fumbling, anxious outcasts, constantly inconvenienced by life itself. We're determined to avoid interaction with others even more than is already possible. No wonder the best YouTube channels are of fellow citizens sharing stories of awkward encounters – they're my favourite too.

The Office, NBC

These are all passive distractions we're happy to engage in, so we can avoid sitting with someone for two minutes and provide, in the words of Dwight Schrute, undivided attention to others. It reminds me of an appearance by Louis CK on Conan O'Brien's American talk show. He says everyone has something inside them that is "forever empty", and we're losing the ability to feel empathy towards others.

The most striking thing about following Adele's re-emergence like a fanboy was the small atom of information saying she had returned to doing her own laundry again after giving up the chore. Perhaps it's time we become happy and content in being able to wash our own clothes, fuel up a car and even ask someone to take a photo of ourselves. It'll make us better people.