Most would consider it evil to exploit others’ suffering for their own personal amusement. When it comes to the internet, however, what one would call evil another might think harmless shenanigans.
While only 45% of American adults are familiar with the term “troll,” 28% “admitted [to] malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know.” A study conducted by YouGov revealed.
“Trolling can be anything from innocent banter to literally wishing someone would contract cancer,” said Nick Reed, a senior writing major at Point Loma Nazarene University. Vice president of PLNU’s eSports Club and an avid gamer, Reed has witnessed more than his fair share of trolling.
It’s even more ubiquitous in social media circles. While 17% of U.S. adults have noticed, trolling behavior related to gaming, 49% have noted the same conduct on the topic of politics, and 38% when it comes to current events and religion, the YouGov survey showed.
Trolling is most commonly witnessed in online forums and social media.
Per Jonn Merrill, a sophomore broadcast journalism major at PLNU and internet frequenter, this is due to the anonymity of being online.
“There’s no consequence to it on their end,” he said. “It’s very easy. It’s [actually] harder to compliment someone.”
Trolling is accepted as one of the inevitable facets of the internet. “It can’t be [monitored].” Jonn said. “Sadly, [trolling] probably won’t be going away anytime soon.”
Internet trolling, once considered by most to be rather inane and unimportant, has become gradually more harmful and accordingly controversial.
Within the past ten years, suicides have occurred wherein the primary motivation was the shame and hurt felt from being trolled relentlessly. Since then, the term “cyberbullying” has entered the language. It was even the primary topic of the 20th season of South Park, a TV show notorious for satirizing latest events.
The typo “an hero” contained in the MySpace obituary of a young man who took his own life has resulted in net trolls mockingly employing the term “an hero” to describe anyone who takes their own life. It is even used on occasion to suggest self-harm – the usage of the acronym “KYS,” meaning “kill yourself,” has become a frequent occurrence on the internet, ever since its origination on website Urban Dictionary in 2003.
Just half a mile away from the coast, close to dusk and amidst the gray, light showers of San Diego in wintertime, the reporter interviewed a source – a local internet troll who requested anonymity for fear of being stigmatized. The meeting was quiet, and the slight wind made for the perfect cover. No one could overhear, and anonymity would be easily maintained.
This source particularly enjoys posting intentionally inflammatory political “memes” – short, pithy statements, often accompanied by a humorous image or other media – to Facebook and other social platforms. “It’s a way to pass the time. It’s a way to have fun at someone else’s expense.” They told me, even suggesting a psychological element. “The primary motivation of a troll is curiosity about human psychology and how [your victims] will respond to your antics.”
Regarding the psychological, even practical element of trolling, the source referenced the “Streisand effect,” a phenomenon whereby the attempt to hide information actually results in it being more widely publicized. This occurrence could be considered large-scale trolling en masse.
Although pleasure plays a role, the self-identified troll said the activity can serve a purpose, as well. “[When it comes to] people exhibiting intellectual inconsistency online, if I [debate] them directly, I might be ignored. If I’m provocative and mocking, it increases the chances they’ll respond, because I’ve offended them personally and publicly.”
The source’s political memes have been particularly effective in their conscious efforts to offend people. “I publicly endorsed Donald Trump on Facebook in November 2015.” They said. “At that time, I had 440 friends.” From then onward, the self-identified troll went on a deliberately inflammatory political posting spree. “By his inauguration, I was down to 188, and most of those people have blocked me.”
“The only regret I have is that with fewer followers, the memes I post have smaller reach.” They said. Many of the troll’s former Facebook contacts were more akin to acquaintances than friends.
“Since they’re just contacts on a social media list, I did not feel any emotional loss or personal affront to it.”
The source believes that, not accounting for some extreme exceptions, “trolling has been demonized by people who are unaware they themselves engage in it. Everyone on the net has [at
least] felt the urge to call someone out on their intellectual inconsistency and make a joke out of it.”
Both the anonymity and publicity of social internet platforms provide a significant stage to voice such controversies. “It’s hard to resist if you have the platform,” the troll said. “If you see a Tweet where someone posts something inane, it’s hard [not to] mock them.”
“We all have that pent-up anger that we want to let out,” Jonn said. “The internet is the perfect means to do it.” Everyone on the web has the platform, and accordingly the potential to be a troll.
It all comes back to anonymity. “We’ve become accustomed to treating each other poorly on the net, because of this distance.” The source said. “There are all kinds of ghastly things I would say to someone on the net, but if we were face to face, I would be more selective [with] what I’m saying.”