On Trolls and The End of the Road

by James Wasserman

There we have it, kids.   First semester is just about in the books. But since we’ll be wrapping up what we’ve learned in our presentations, lets talk a bit about trolls. If you have time, read this article from Vice where the author interviews a troll from the Web 1.0 days.

It may come off a little “Back in my day…,” but I think we need to understand that the internet and its language have both evolved. So, a troll in 2015 isn’t exactly the same as a troll was in 2005; tactics, technology, and mindset have all advanced in some way. Access to the internet has increased as well, so the “bad apple” principle is really starting to take hold.

Jamie Bartlett’s interview with a self-proclaimed troll reveals the old-school definition of the term. Not only is his cause something I think most of us call noble (“Zack is a member of several trolling groups, all of which he describes as being a kind of cyber neighborhood watch—they seek out extremist, misogynistic, or generally unpleasant communities, and bother the hell out of them”), but his tactics are much more refined than name calling.

“His favorite technique, he explained, is to intentionally make basic grammatical or spelling mistakes, wait for someone to insult his writing, and then lock them into an argument about politics.”

As I divulged to you all, I had a certain set of trolling skills, skills that I acquired over a very long career. And I used them for good – trolling the KKK. But this brings up a good (but probably not THAT relevant) point about the ethics of trolling. Is every form of trolling bad?

Just as we discussed the definition of asshole, and how its different from being a jerk, Bartlett says that “the word has become a blanket term for any hateful dickhead with a hard drive.” I wonder if the role of the troll will change in the coming years, as the internet opens up to more and more people, but becomes easier for certain entities to police.

Are there any other terms that were created by and then changed by the internet? What group or business would you troll? What person? I already told you guys about my KKK trolling, so here’s an article about my pick for person to troll.

We have 10 days before we’re back in class. Obviously, nobody has to do anything related to our classes, but if you were to, what would you do either to tie up loose ends from last semester or get a jump on the second? Do you think you’ll stop keeping up with news for Kate’s news quizzes? (Guys, don’t, news is so much fun! But honestly I probably will unless we form some sort of forum to keep up)

Keep in touch guys and HAGS!!!!


23 thoughts on “On Trolls and The End of the Road”

  1. It’s really interesting to see that there are different types of trolling, including those who “troll for good.” But I don’t think I’d be interested in trolling anyone. Maybe it’s a man thing, like being an “asshole” per the definition of “Assholes: A Theory.”

    That’s not to say that women don’t do it; there are a lot of cases about online bullying and I’ve read about a few cases of female trolls, like this one from Buzzfeed. Interestingly, this is what one female troll had to say about why she ended up sending death threats to a stranger on Twitter:

    “‘Alcohol,’ she says without pausing to think. ‘I’m a horrid drunk and it’s just stuff I say when I’m drunk. I’ve read police statements of what I’ve said when I’m drunk and I’ve heard it read out in court and it’s all alcohol. It makes me really mean and nasty.”

    Personally, I just wouldn’t get much out of it. I feel like there’s something inherently immature about it (no offense). Causing someone annoyance is one thing, and harassment is another. Plus, having been the target of awful trolls, I really just want to avoid them. The other aspect mentioned in the Vice article you shared is this concept of sowing anarchy for the fun of it. Again, it strikes me as more of a man thing.

    This debate makes me think about the connection between online behavior and real-life behavior. It seems to me that not many trolls would be the kind of person to harass people in real life, like showing up at their target’s house. Maybe a few, but I think anonymity really helps.

    Along those lines, I really recommend HBO’s new documentary <a href="http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/thought-crimes-the-case-of-the-cannibal-cop#/"Thought Crimes about the NYC cop who was arrested for allegedly plotting to kidnap and kill women. Basically, in this case, the question was: if the guy was just talking about committing crimes in online chat rooms, was he actually going to go through with it? Should someone be held liable for “thought crimes” if they didn’t actually follow through with the plan? It’s really fascinating and it relates to this question about online behavior.

    As for your last question – during break, I need to really take a break – no following up, no starting second semester things. This is for my mental health. 🙂

    1. The documentary sounds really interesting – haven’t seen that one.

      I think your point about the connection between online behavior and real-life behavior is really fascinating and important. I think that you are right that *most* online trolls don’t harass in real-life, and as nasty as they are, maybe that can offer some perspective about the harm they are likely to cause.

  2. Internet trolls represent a lot of what has bothered me with new media, and why for so long I was opposed to being on social media. It’s the confusion between free speech and harassment that gets to me. In the Vice article by Bartlett I do think the “OG troll” Zack does make a point about what we consider trolling.

    “Threatening to rape someone on Twitter isn’t trolling,” he explained. “That’s just threatening to rape someone. On Twitter.”

    Though Zack claims to have trolled in the public’s interest, does that make it any better? Many times it sounded like he was trying to start a dialogue, not necessarily harass people like trolls do. I see the difference in that. He does provide some examples of types of trolling he did, and some actually seem more like parody. I think we can laugh things off when it’s not hate spewing. However, when does even dialogue like his end? There may be trolls trolling the troll.

    Jay, in your example of trolling I’m curious to know what tactics you used and what the results were. I’m all about calling people out and educating them, which it sounds like you were doing. However, when trolls are assholes as in Jeff Jarvis’ definition…

    The asshole
    1) has a target; (2) seeks to get a response—a rise—out of that target; and (3) believes he is acting out of some ordained moral purpose to destroy, to bring down his target.

    Then I do think new extremes and policing are necessary. A former boss of mine was the target of a troll, who made it her mission to take down his company by any means possible. With no personal relationship to said boss, the troll made up vicious lies about him sex trafficking and reached out to his business colleagues to try to destroy his reputation. He had to take matters into his own hands with the law because there was no one who could help police this woman. It took several years and several thousands of dollars to resolve this situation.

    My question is what’s the difference between a troll and a cyberbully or even a cyber stalker? Trolls can ruin reputations and be extremely harmful, but so can cyberbullies. Are they all the same? We know cyber bullying is a problem amongst teens, according to the cyberbully hotline 42% of teenagers with tech access reported being bullied last year. With social media and new technology, it might be a good idea to start having dialogue about cyberbullying and trolls earlier on.

    Though we all have different ideas of how to deal with trolling, I am unsure it can be stopped. So, I’m wondering what alternatives we can think of to handle them. I personally don’t have any interesting in trolling anyone, even if it is for “good.” Though I’m not great with confrontation on or offline. However, I do believe it’s a topic we need to keep addressing because if we can’t kill the trolls maybe we can cage them.

    1. That’s a good point, Erica. What is the difference between trolling and bullying and stalking? The better we understand these behaviors and the motivations behind them, maybe the more likely we are to be able to combat them.

  3. Ha! Funny you ask that Jay. My way of getting through this semester has been thinking about the summer and fall — my future and end goals of this program. I’m literally looking forward to all of the courses in the summer.

    As for thinking about them, I’ve been trying to flesh out our design thinking pitch, which we have to present as part of our community presentations tomorrow. More so, I’ve been developing like four story ideas for our summer “Writing for Social Media” class (reporting II). I started pre-reporting and researching for one while I reported on my final project in “Information Gathering & Reporting.”

    I’m spending the last seven days of the break with my family in Kansas City, Mo. I’m long overdue for that trip. It will give me time to reflect on the spring semester and my goals for next semester. Ultimately, I want to become a social media and engagement extraordinaire and continue to build my portfolio as such. I really want to focus my career on community engagement. So to ease my stress during the fall, I’m working towards that in the summer.

    1. Good, glad to hear you are doing some pre-research. Any thoughts about our trolling conversation? Do you see that happening in #BlackLivesMatter at all?

      1. I haven’t looked too deeply into trolling of Black Lives Matter or Black Twitter. Although, I might see it here and there, racists and jerks trying to spread their hate and ignorance using the hashtags.

        When I interviewed the co-founders (Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza) they talked about trolling as one of the challenges the movement is facing though. Now that you mention it, it’s something I’m definitely going to look into further.

  4. Nice job, my man.

    I like Erica’s comment. What is the difference between a troll and a cyber-bully? Is one easier to ignore than the other one?

    In class I brought up the point of the former soccer player who is now a pundit, who constantly gets racially abused. Every time it happens he reports it to the police. But he doesn’t stop there: he continues with the conversation with the “troll” “racist asshole” – any of them will do – and alerts them of the situation. I don’t really know how to handle the situation of trolls – at least not a long term solution – I do know that if you want to fix the problem – then we must dig deeper.

    I think that starting from middle school there should be a total social media class for young people and teaching them how to use it, how to learn from it and how to understand its ethical issues.

    In the end, it’s not social media that we must fix, but rather educating the people who use it.

    1. I do think that education is a key component of smart social media use. The tendency to downplay it as trivial by some educators – fewer now – or to present it *only* as a “dangerous” space divorced from the “real world” is also not helpful.

  5. First off, you and I have discussed this and I think it’s phenomenal that you were able to break that group apart.

    I’ve been studying trolling a bit with a paper I’m working on outside of school, and it’s been a really interesting endeavor. People like to hide behind the faceless nature of the internet. It seems to empower people, but not always in the right way.

    I totally agree with Luis on teaching young people the power of the internet. This sort of thing was just coming into its own when I was in middle school; I think it was Myspace back then? Anyhow, the new generations are really savvy and very connected, and the perception of life online and the comparison to the reality isn’t always something people who are so young can distinguish.

      1. Oh wow, how much time do you have? So here it goes…

        I’ve been working on research following the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 before and after the event. Research has shown that the YES side, while coming out on the losing end last year, continues to gain support. This is most often from younger people, who are social media savvy. The main party involved with the push for independence, The Scottish National Party, has used social media extremely well, participating in Twitter chats, Ask an MSP on Youtube (Member of Scottish Parliament) and even using the Ice Bucket Challenge before the referendum to drum up attention.

        This worked to ignite a group of independence supporters, particularly on Twitter and UK newspaper comment strings. Deemed “cybernationalists” or “cybernats”, they most often resort to insults or anti-English sentiment when referring to their cause. They’re loud, they’re unrelenting, and they’re threatening the 300 plus year old establishment with their use of Twitter. J.K. Rowling, beloved author and Scot, caught tons of abuse online when she revealed she favored the No side. Trolling is all about perspective though.

        Are the cybernats trolls? Depends on the side you take. I support the dissolution of the Union, but not abuse online. I think it’s a matter of tactic.

  6. I haven’t ever been trolled although I may have participated in some trolling. Within the queer community there are many cases where a situation happens that gets my blood to boil. A quick example would be a news anchor or anyone speaking out against the queer community. Even simpler: Westboro Baptist Church. There have been many cases where I felt the need to reach out against someone’s POV to try and prove him or her wrong. I don’t do this as often as I used to since it doesn’t get very far and instead I try to take a more positive approach, tweeting at the person who defended the community by thanking them.

    The thing about posting anything that’s opinionated is that you should expect feedback of all sorts. The more your name is known the more trolls you’ll be receiving and while it’s negative – this is a positive thing too. It shows what you do is being noticed. For trolls I’d say defend yourself but don’t run marathons doing so. If someone doesn’t understand a point you’ve made or a movement you’re supporting – how could you possibly get them to understand in fewer than 140 characters? I feel the way Jarvis responds to his trolls – by writing up detailed responses – is the better way to go.

  7. Poynter just published an article that would’ve been great to bring up in our trolling discussion. It’s about ways journalists have been trolled, and more seriously harassed, and some tips for protecting yourself.

    This quote from the article is both true and disheartening, and I’d love to hear all your ideas for how to address it.

    It invokes serious intimidation, harassment and threats against journalists that could interfere with their reporting, place them in real danger and, ultimately, drive them from the work they love.

    Expanding this out from just journalists, how would you help people in your community if they’re being harassed online, especially if it’s because of something you published about them?

    As for who I would troll, probably no one. Like Erica, I’m averse to confrontation in most circumstances, especially online.

    1. Good Poynter piece, Julia. Although it does worry me – a reporter that limits access to their contact information and some of the milder forms of personal information is sacrificing a lot. What should our cost/benefit analysis be for things like this?

  8. Are there any other terms that were created by and then changed by the internet? What group or business would you troll? What person? I already told you guys about my KKK trolling, so here’s an article about my pick for person to troll.

    We have 10 days before we’re back in class. Obviously, nobody has to do anything related to our classes, but if you were to, what would you do either to tie up loose ends from last semester or get a jump on the second? Do you think you’ll stop keeping up with news for Kate’s news quizzes? (Guys, don’t, news is so much fun! But honestly I probably will unless we form some sort of forum to keep up)

    I wouldn’t troll anything or anyone. I don’t think it is ever justifiable. Of course I would admit that I might have laughed from someone that I don’t like being trolled. But this is no different than chuckling when one of those big bankers were thrown pies on their faces. I’m a firmly believer of nonviolence as a better tactic to respond to violence.

    My former boss at Gizmodo had an interesting strategy: when someone attacked him violently on the comments, he would respond as gentle as it was possible. For some time, I tried to follow the lead. So, if someone wrote “You moron! How much company X is paying you to suck their b*?” I would answer something like “I’m not sure that I understood your problems with the article. What parts were you dissatisfied with?”, or something along these lines.

    This strategy worked because the troll was never expecting a response like this. So even if I have written a bad article, he, not me, would appear in front of the other commenters to be the original asshole. So his (always a men. Never met a troll women) only alternative was to rephrase his critique. If he insisted in being a stupid person, other commenters would called him out.

    That seemed to work, but after a while I’ve abandoned this strategy because it became very time consuming. I’ve started to outright block the guy that was offending everyone, without a “3-strike” law or something like that. And i started to see that even if the commenting section was a little more civilized, the trolls would remain trolls, even if I tried to talk them out of trolling.

    So I don’t know what is the better course of action. What I know is that dealing a lot with trolls, you get an emotional toll. The “ignore the haters” is way easier said than done, and I think when you got a large enough audience on the internet, and you are used to show your opinions, you can expect to encounter some crazy people.

    What I’m trying to say is that if you answer violent people (like stupid politicians or organizations based on hate-speech) with violence — and verbal violence is violence, you start to give more ammunition to the crazies. And in the end everyone loses.

    That said, I think some of our behavior online can attract trolls/haters/bad commenters. When you start your response with “that is stupid”, or “some crazy guys are trying to”, even if you are somewhat right (like, say, vaccines), you have to find a way to do that in a way that you form a bridge of dialogue. People can be offended pretty fast, and you got to try to avoid that in order to be heard.

    My plan for the next week is to visit Washington D.C. (never been there!) and, of course, comment in as many posts as I’m capable. =)

    1. Good points, Pedro. That technique usually works pretty well – but it is time consuming. That is hard.

  9. I’m dreaming of the day my online presence attracts trolls, haha. In the meantime, Rachel, Julia and of course Professor Jarvis had great suggestions on how to deal with this situation, should it ever happen. This included reporting the troll, connecting with fellow victims, and not giving them the attention they seek. Pedro mentioned the time, manpower and therefore, significant expense it takes to moderate comment sections of websites. It will be interesting to see which innovative solutions will best root out the problem, such as Tablet Magazine, which started a “pay for comment” policy, to discourage trolling. Concerning those who “trolled for good” via the Vice article relating to political or social views, well that just seems like a huge waste of time to me. There must be better, more effective ways to bring about change to issues you are passionate about other than online squabbles in the comment sections of articles you disagree with.

    1. I’m curious about that “pay to comment” policy as well, and how a strategy like that plays out long term.

  10. Thanks Jay for sharing your experience of trolling the kkk ! Like you, other people with good intention also try to troll other shady communities on the Internet.

    Mother Broad published and really good piece on how scientists try to troll conspiracy theorists work here.

    Scientists Tried Trolling Conspiracy Theorists

    According to the article, conspiracy theorists are more likely to engage with their own community members, even if they’re subject to be trolled. It’s very interesting to find out that how persistent and annoying their ideas could be, they don’t seem to convince opponent to debate with them. But I just found brilliant that researchers and science lovers to fight their ideas by trolling them.

    Conspiracy theorists is apparently some new form of coach roaches, they appear all of a sudden when the subject get hot and humid and they’ll tend to survive by hiding themselves into small cracks eating their own feces to survive until their next invasion.

    To continue the idea you exposed about the evolution of the troll’s role, I’d like to think that the technique will probably get more and more sophisticated – as we can see in the MotherBoard article scientists created a data journalism piece about conspiracy theorists behaviors.

  11. I don’t have too much experience acting out as a Troll, at least since my teenage years on Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger.

    I often read though the comment section on the NYC music blog Brooklynvegan.com, where there’s usually some form of written absurdity insulting bands and their fans. Why do I look if I know it’s absurd?

    As Ta-Nehisi Coates said in his conversation here on campus, that in order to take comment sections serious, we as an online community must treat comment sections to be ‘real spaces.’ This rings true in my perception of comment sections where, there is a feeling of suppressed responsibility for one’s words; we are ‘free’ to say what we want, but does that make it morally acceptable? I go to the comment section to see the stretched limits of acceptability.

    How can we treat comment sections like “real spaces?” Maybe comment sections are altogether a dated format held back by the traditional journalism approach. How does the act of reporting on instead of with a community and affect comment sections?

    The after comment is often one of an outsider, someone without a stake in what was published; an after thought. With the popularity of annotation platforms, such as Genius, it seems that the entire approach to comment sections could shift to give commenters more responsibility and opportunity to provide quality information.

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