Beware of the troll

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Stylist Team
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Abusing people is rife on the internet and no amount of police action seems to be inhibiting the behaviour. Stylist asks, are we entering the new age of nasty?

Words: Helen Lewis

"Slut of Twitter.” That’s what Frank Zimmerman called Louise Mensch in an email in August last year. The 60-year-old agoraphobic also said one of her children would be killed if she refused to leave the social networking site. Mensch – then still an MP and one with a very high profile – called in the police and Zimmerman was hauled before the courts this summer and given a 26-week suspended sentence (for the charge of sending by public communication network an offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing message or matter), and made the subject of a restraining order preventing him from contacting various well-known figures, including Mensch and The Apprentice’s Lord Sugar.

And there we have it. A vile introduction to the world of trolling. But he was just one man, just one ‘internet troll’. Unfortunately, cases like Mensch’s have been cropping up with increasing regularity in the media. Other celebrity victims include TV chef Lorraine Pascale (in November she was called “an ugly unevolved animal” by a particularly enlightened tweeter from America), Olympian weightlifter Zoe Smith was called a “lesbian” and “bloke” while she represented Team GB this summer, and Cheryl Cole has spoken of “vile” bullies who labelled her “fat”. The internet is no longer just an information highway – sadly it has also become, without intention, an ungovernable network of cruelty.

While trolling didn’t start out being this abusive, it’s not a new phenomenon. The word was originally an angling term meaning “to draw a baited line through the water”. Early trolls did something similar: as anonymous users, they posted deliberately provocative, or inflammatory statements on bulletin boards and forums, in order to derail conversations and wind up their peers. It was little more than (childish) games. A Guardian comment thread asking trolls to out themselves uncovered dozens of these stories; one man confessed to logging on to a forum for teenage Christians, where he convinced a poster to “offer up penance for watching Herbie: Fully Loaded because I claimed that a car with a mind of its own was blasphemous”. Another classic trolling technique is to pose a seemingly naive question, drawing in ‘newbies’ to answer it patiently, and then pretend not to understand their increasingly exasperated explanations.

These days, that type of trolling looks almost innocent, in light of more serious cases of abuse and harassment. Trolling is now the catch-all term for attacking people on the web; assaults which veer between threatening female writers with rape to logging on to Facebook tributes pretending to be the murdered children those very pages commemorate.

You can retweet some hilarious jibe about a newsreader’s outfit before you’ve even considered if he/she might be reading

And we are all outraged. How inhumane are these people who use personal tragedy (Gary Barlow’s stillborn child, for instance) to “have a laugh”? How disturbed do people have to be to joke about Matt Lucas’ former partner who committed suicide? Yet, while these are extreme examples, they are symptomatic of a growing trend in our behaviour as a society. It’s not just disturbed, introverted men who find the time to verbalise their darker thoughts on the internet. Women, too, join in with the abuse. Australia’s Herald Sun interviewed “Sarah”, who bullied another mother on the parenting website. When confronted by other users, she apologised, saying, “I randomly targeted a lady for no reason, humiliated her for no reason – just to be a bitch.” And even your friends, your colleagues, could be accused of trolling. “When I watch Made In Chelsea I discuss the stars’ weight on Twitter,” confides Sarah-Jane, 31, from Twickenham. “It does cross my mind they might retweet me, but you feel tougher online. I don’t lose sleep over it.”

Many of us may be guilty to some degree of writing something online than we would never say in real life. Even those who wouldn’t dream of being abusive themselves are guilty of following people on Twitter who are bitchy – it makes for good reading; we are friends with people on Facebook who ‘like’ offensive virals, heck we’re sure you’ve laughed then forwarded on the odd one yourself – it all begs one question: is the internet making us nastier than ever before?

It would appear so. A 2012 study by The National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire found that 63.1% of women they spoke to said they’d been harassed online compared to 34.7% in a physical environment. And while 22.5% of the women claimed their harassers were an acquaintance, 20.7% said their abusers online were strangers.

The alarming rise in online hostility has roots in several arguments: that the anonymity of the internet allows us to unleash the worst sides of ourselves on strangers; that the inflated sense of self-worth that comes from being ‘liked’ and retweeted means we think our comments shouldn’t be challenged, and react irrationally when they are; or that simply, the immediacy of online communication means we fail to think before we post online.

Nastier by half

The explanation that is most commonly given for trolling is that being anonymous removes our inhibitions. But psychologists say that’s too simplistic: after all, you’re anonymous on the train to work, and yet you wouldn’t dream of screaming abuse at other passengers. “Anonymity has never had that effect of reducing self-awareness,” says Tom Postmes, professor of social psychology at the University of Groningen. A quick search of Twitter confirms his words: there is plenty of sexism, racism and homophobia there, right next to a user’s real name. Perhaps our lack of self-policing is because there’s no-one ‘in charge’. Moderators of comment boards say that if they get involved within the first dozen posts, the thread is far less likely to descend into the gutter. People know that ‘the authorities’ are watching.

Another problem seems to be the absence of normal senses when you’re faced with a computer screen rather than a human being. “People have always said what they say about each other but what happens in normal offline interactions is that the person receives immediate non-verbal feedback,” says internet psychologist Graham Jones. That includes tone of voice, pitch and body language to which humans instinctively react. “That tempers what people might think of saying and reduces the rudeness. Online, the issue is not anonymity but lack of human-to-human feedback.”

Think about it; before social media, emails and texts, when you had a row with someone, you might have gone through an argument in your head, but by the time you came face to face again, your choice of words would be very different. “If you make a major transaction – say buying a car – you have, by law, what’s called a cooling-off period,” explains Jones. “The law recognises that people can change their minds.” But there’s no such safety net with social media (as footballer Ashley Cole will well know, following his October Twitter rant at the FA which was only posted for 90 minutes but retweeted more than 20,000 times and resulted in a charge of misconduct).

There’s an immediacy to our communication now that makes us impatient, angry, ill-thinking. We’re allowed – we’re even encouraged – to pass comment on everything that flicks before us on our phones and tablets. You can ‘like’ funny skits on Facebook, ‘love’ pictures on Instagram which celebrate a bit of schadenfreude and retweet some hilarious jibe about a BBC newsreader’s outfit before you’ve even considered if he/she might be reading. We feel we have a right to pass comment, to criticise – everyone else is doing it, and it feels good to be part of a pack. But that’s another problem – the tribe mentality; as in real life, disruptive and abusive people online can egg on virtual bystanders to behave in a way they normally wouldn’t. If you spend time on a site where the general tone is callous or threatening, you might be that way yourself.

Don't Feed Them

We’re all aware the internet has made us more connected than ever before. But the numbers are astonishing: Facebook has 950 million active users, and Twitter over 140 million. That’s a lot of people to be just a few clicks away, and a certain percentage of them are bound to be offensive, disruptive or plain rude. The big question now is: how do we deal with them? “Don’t feed the trolls” (meaning don’t follow them, like them or – god forbid – join in) has become an internet mantra, but while it might be the sensible solution for individual cases, it’s clearly not working overall. Postmes points to the experience we’ve gained from crowd control in the real world.

It boils down to knowing who is in the crowd and why; targeting problems early and decisively; and communicating, so that if authorities do intervene, people know why.

It’s not always a hopeless battle. In September, Reddit user “european_douchebag” posted a photo he’d taken of a Sikh woman with facial hair on a thread of funny pictures, adding: “I’m not sure what to conclude from this.” A few hours later, the woman herself appeared in the thread. “Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture,” she wrote. “Yes, I realise that I look different than most women [but] baptised Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being.”

Just like that, the tone of the conversation changed dramatically. Instead of being a “freak”, this was a real human being, with feelings. The man who took the photograph eventually left an abject apology: “It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.” See, the internet trolls don’t always win. And sometimes they can even change.

Have you ever experienced trolling? Let us know by tweeting @StylistMagazine.

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Stylist Team