Prior to my life on the internet, a troll was some kind of mischievous, typically ugly, but not altogether sinister creature, who dwelled in mountain caves and other remote natural places. I envisioned them as a cross between an ill-tempered leprechaun and my late uncle Harry. I now realize that this was wrong. Trolls are flat out evil. They are nothing like my uncle Harry.
This is not just my opinion, mind you, it is a peer-reviewed scientific finding. Science, which by now has investigated everything else under the sun, has turned its analytical spotlight on the phenomenon of trolls. Alright, not the diminutive, hairy-faced demons of pre-Christian Norse folklore. The trolls that sociologists and psychologists are studying are the ever-present scourges of the blogosphere -- some of whom doubtless are already sharpening their verbal knives to respond to this very article.
Here is a working definition from Wikipedia. An internet troll is "someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion." One commentator described trolling more colorfully, if less rigorously, as "throwing meat into a pack of wolves and standing back."
As a writer who publishes environmental journalism on a variety of online venues, I often encounter these charmless creatures in the comment lines of my articles, especially on contentious subjects like global warming and natural gas fracking. Trolls hew to extreme black and white positions which they back up with invective and name-calling rather than rational argument and evidence. They are shrill, gratuitously insulting, and, as a general rule, deficient in the arts of spelling, grammar and syntax (although they may just ignore these in their frenzy to spew out their unwholesome opinions.) Trolls also rarely give any evidence of actually having read the post, beyond say the headline.
Reasonable people may occasionally differ on whether or not a particular comment is an example of trollery, or simply a crudely stated point of view. One person's troll may be another person's freedom fighter... or something along those lines. But as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in his judicial opinion on obscenity, "I know it when I see it."
One rule of thumb is that trolls pretend to be sincerely interested in a topic at hand -- that's how they rope you in -- but their real motive is to push your neural buttons and elicit some sort of reaction. In other words, they want to make your brain every bit as angry and addled as their own. Science has got some advice on this: don't let them. Do not feed the trolls.
This is the takeaway of a study published in -- I kid you not -- the Journal of Politeness Research by Dr. Claire Hardaker a linguist who teaches at Lancaster University in the UK. "Trolling can be frustrated if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but are not provoked into responding," Ms. Hardaker advises. She arrived at this somewhat less than ground-breaking conclusion after plowing through a "172-million-word corpus of unmoderated, asynchronous computer-mediated communication." The sacrifices some people make in the name of science!
And finally if you can't beat them, join them, Hardaker suggests. "Users can mock [the] troll. That is, they may undertake what appears to be trolling with the aim of enhancing or increasing effect, or group cohesion."
OK, I think she just said that you can out-troll the troll. One internet commenter quoted in the well-named "Journal of Improbable Research" tells us how to do this: "Whenever I have come across a troll who is obviously trying to get a rise out of someone, what I do is vehemently agree with said troll to the point where I eventually come round to the point of insulting the troll for not being as pro the subject as I am making myself out to be." Well, good luck with that...
Various other troll-control strategies have been been put forward (I'll tell you my own favorite at the end of the article.) Most approaches involve strengthening the moderator's role, deleting unacceptable posts and threads quickly, and banning consistent offenders from participation on the site. Critics counter that any censorship of free expression is unjust, and that the potential for excising critical or unpopular views is great.
Science remains neutral on these matters. It's goal is to help us understand who trolls are and why they do what they do. Here is what Olivier Morin, a cultural anthropologist who has studied the phenomenon of trolling reveals about the first question: "Most people who troll are people who are just like you and me, but just a bit more intense."
His point being, I suppose, that trolls are not necessarily the stark raving candidates for the strait-jacket that they make themselves out to be. They are mostly sane -- albeit antisocial and often psychopathic -- individuals who just happen to be letting their monsters show at the moment. "The sleep of reason" in Goya's memorable words, "brings forth monsters." (The Spanish painter might have said asynchronous computer-mediated communication brings forth monsters, if he were a 21st century social scientist working on his graduate thesis.)
Trolls are, well, normal because the norms of internet communication differ radically from those of ordinary human intercourse. If I say something rude and ugly to you, you may hit me. Only a crazy person would want to be punched in the face, right? Whereas if I say something vicious while I'm hiding behind the a user-name in a chat room or comment line, there will be no painful bodily consequences.
Granted, to call these perpetrators "normal" may be a bit of a stretch. But their acts are clearly becoming the new normal as internet forums increasing get arterially clogged with noxious streams of troll drool.
Many people see cyberspace as a kind of game where the conventional rules of everyday interaction don't apply. Psychologist John Suler calls this "the online disinhibition effect." It works both ways: people on the internet can open up, become less guarded, more affectionate and expressive. On the other hand, they can become raving jerks when there is no possibility of reprisal.
If you doubt that the anonymity of the internet can bring out the best in people, look at the outpouring of compassion in response to Carrie Tennis's October column "I'm a gay Muslim and I want to die," in Salon. If you still need to be convinced that it can bring out the worst, you simply haven't been reading the comment lines have you?
Which may be a good thing -- again according to science. A recent study conducted by a group of researchers at George Mason University and other institutions focused on the effect that trolling has on reader's perceptions of science-related articles. The 1,183 survey participants were asked to read an article on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. In one case, the article was followed by a civil discussion of the contents; in the other the thread was filled with flame wars where commenters savaged each other's views.
University of Wisconsin professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele summarized the findings in the journal Science: "Disturbingly, readers' interpretations of potential risks associated with the technology described in the news article differed significantly depending only on the tone of the manipulated reader comments posted with the story. Exposure to uncivil comments (which included name calling and other non-content-specific expressions of incivility) polarized the views among proponents and opponents of the technology with respect to its potential risks. In other words, just the tone of the comments following balanced science stories... can significantly alter how audiences think about the technology itself."
The job of a journalist is to bring a degree of nuance and balance into the treatment of controversial issues. This effort is frequently undermined by comments that scream at us that only their partisan view of things is correct. Should these comments be deleted? Well maybe, but this is clearly a slippery slope to censorship and the kind of top down corporate journalism which has traditionally excluded alternate viewpoints which challenge mainstream assumptions.
Trollery may be the price we have to pay for a free and open internet. But there is something that we can do to discourage its worst abuses: require that those who post use their real names rather than the pseudonyms and user names which allow them to hide -- like the trolls of legend -- unseen in caves and shadows.