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Dublin: 5 °C Saturday 19 April, 2014

Column: Why internet trolls exist and why they’re unlikely to go away

Ciarán Mc Mahon writes on the theories behind internet trolling and explains why, as long as there is a free and open internet, they’re probably not going to go away.

Ciarán Mc Mahon

THERE’S SOMETHING OF an assumption that the current internet is the beginning of a gradually unfolding utopia, one that start-up companies always seem to overhype – ‘and then, once you’ve logged in, you can connect everything with everyone! won’t that be amazing?!’

It’s as if the internet will help us discover our true, deep and meaningful selves, where information is free and we can all just hang out and play with kittens.

The reality of is quite different: long before one might consider exploring things like the ‘deep web’, one will inevitably encounter a troll or two. Definitions differ about what constitutes a troll, but suffice it to say that a troll is generally understood as someone who uses anonymous identities when online in order to insult others or intentionally stoke debate. The term is originally old Norse – see the old Three Billy Goats Gruff fairytale – but has been used in an online context for over twenty years.

The question is though, why is such behaviour so prevalent online? There has been remarkably little academic research into trolling, but we can point to a few concepts which might lie behind it.

Firstly, we have to recognise the fact that online communication is the most profound shift in human communication yet invented. Marshall McLuhan recognised 40 years ago that this would change us. What makes it so different is that it is carried out privately, yet is instantly public, which we struggle to comprehend.

I just looked here and got the fright of my life – my last 50 tweets made a total of 36,902 impressions. Unlike other technologies, like radio, anyone can do this, and it’s all done silently – you can be chatting on Facebook in total quietness. This is a weird way to communicate and it’s going to take a while to get used to it.

Provocative

This also relates to the one per cent rule – for every person creating content online, there could be as many as 99 more simply watching. Participation inequality like this means that when you post something and two or three people reply, it might feel like a private conversation, but there’s probably three hundred people watching. Moreover, when no-one replies, you might write increasingly provocative posts – to simply see if anyone is listening.

That leads on to what’s known as hyperpersonal communication. In the early days of computers social scientist expected that that they would be little used for communication, because through such a medium it’s hard to convey emotions, which necessary for human relationships to develop.

But we found ways – lol :) – and what often happens is the complete opposite. Because we can’t see facial expressions, vocal tone and body language, we make an extra effort to fill them in. As such, we can get angrier or more annoyed and simply more emotional when communicating online than if we had been doing so face-to-face.

Furthermore, the fact that we can so selectively present who we want to be online means that you can make a reasonable attempt to be an entirely different person. It’s quite possible to simply lose yourself as there is absolutely no obligation to use your real name.

No punishments

This is engenders things like disinhibition (opening up, saying and doing things that you normally wouldn’t) deindividuation (losing your sense of self and becoming more likely to go along with the mood of the crowd) and possibly even dissociation (losing awareness of one’s surroundings and context). It’s also possible to be an asshole on the internet. Most don’t, some do – but why?

There’s no straightforward answer, but I believe it goes back to the super dreamy wonderclub idea of the internet that we’ve bought into. It assumes we’re all nice people, and the reality is that we aren’t: some people actually are assholes. The reason why this is more prevalent online is simply because there are no rules, no morality, and no punishments.

Offline, ‘in real life’, because assholes exist, we have laws and a legal system to deal with them; online, there is barely a clear code of conduct: nothing really happens when someone is an asshole. Only recently has it actually happened where people have been convicted of crimes online, which for decades they would have been instantly arrested had they done so anywhere else.

While there will be calls for ‘rules on the internet’, these will continue to be resisted as it is impossible to remove rights from people who have gotten used to exercising them. Watch how ‘internet rights freedoms’ are vociferously defended in the face of any attempt to curtail anonymity online – the very anonymity that allows trolls to survive.

The simple fact is that it’s impossible to have a free and open internet culture without providing opportunities for trolling behaviour. As internet dude Anil Dash puts it, ‘don’t hate the troll, hate the bridge’.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon is a psychologist and researcher in politics and social media. He blogs both at candidate.ie and ciaranmcmahon.ie and can be followed @cjamcmahon

Column: How I came to shake the hand of a troll

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