︎︎︎episode 48

The Troll Trend (pt 1):  The who, what, where, why and how of the troll epidemic.

July 13th, 2021

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You might (or might not be) surprised to hear that there has been an increase in people getting into fights more and more often than ever….at the beach.  This has been happening all of the United States this summer.  TREND ALERT! Beach brawling!

And airlines have been reporting a marked increase in unruly passengers, reporting more than 3000 cases to the FAA since the beginning of this year.  In late May, a Southwest airlines flight attendant was assaulted by a passenger, even losing some teeth in the process!  Everyone is on edge everywhere!  TREND ALERT: being a jerk on an airplane (although, TBH, this trend is almost a classic at this point). But let’s face it: we live in a really stressful, scary time.

Raymond Tafrate is a psychologist and criminology professor at Central Connecticut State University And he says, ““We are all more traumatized than we realize, and that puts people on edge. “The pandemic isolated people and caused all sorts of stress and problems in their lives. People are in worse shape than they were before.”  And think about it...there is SO MUCH stuff to disagree about right now: vaccinations, masks, the 2020 election, climate change, whether Crocs are cute or not...

But this bad behavior isn’t limited to the beaches and 737s...it’s also playing out every day across the internet, on social media and in comment sections. Seriously, DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.  I have been witnessing horrible meanness, bullying, trolling, snarking...whatever you want to call it ALL OVER THE INTERNET.  And while it seemed like it was increasing, I wasn’t sure if maybe it was just a function of me having more time to witness it. But it turns out, my feeling was right:

  • Half of women and non-binary people polled by online abuse charity Glitch and the End Violence Against Women Coalition say they've experienced online abuse since the pandemic began.
  • A poll for the UK’s  National Children's Bureau suggests that more people were experiencing and reporting online abuse as bullying in schools decreased - because most people were learning from home...and everyone found themselves with a lot more screen time.
  • 70 per cent of Australians said they have experienced a negative online experience since the beginning of the pandemic. I saw similar statistics for the US, Canada,UK, and India.
  • A study by AI-based startup L1ght (called”Rising Levels of Hate Speech & Online Toxicity During This Time of Crisis”) found some pretty disturbing trends:
    • They found a 70 percent increase in bullying and abusive language among kids and teens on social media and chat forums,
    • a 40 percent increase in toxicity on gaming platforms,
    • a 200 percent spike in traffic to hate sites
    • And a 900% increase in hate speech on Twitter directed towards China
  • I also found some hysterical (as in, super worried, not hilarious) local news stories about “tea accounts” on instagram, where students create fake accounts to spread gossip and lies about other students.  I’m not sure if this is another “teenagers use vodka soaked tampons to get wasted” kind of thing or not...meaning:  it happened once or it’s happened a ton of times. 
  • And last week, I read an article on Jezebel called Transgender Redditors Are Being Driven From the Site by Transphobic Trolls Exploiting Reddit's 'Follow' Function
    • Basically transphobic jerkfaces are finding people who regularly post on various trans advice and support subreddits, and then following them. These accounts have names like “I Jerk Off to Your Pictures,” with About Me sections featuring statements like “Yes, even if you’re underage. I love underage trannies. If you transition over 20 you don’t look hot to me.”
    • Each time someone “follows” you on reddit, you receive an email notification.  And various redditors are finding their email inboxes clogged with messages with the subject line “user u/your transphobic dad just started following you.” Just one after another!
    • Another way trolls are bullying the trans community on Reddit is by building bots to report inoffensive content, bogging down the moderators with needlessly flagged content to wade through and getting the accounts of trans members banned by administrators without cause.

I guess what I’m saying is: TREND ALERT!  Trolling is hot hot hot!  And all of this bad behavior takes a toll on the mental health of many, many people.  And realistically, the majority of us can’t just “quit the internet.” This is 2021 and it is a big part of our day-to-day lives.

How did people troll one another before the internet?

This is a complicated issue to break down.  I’m going to be honest here and say that while we are going to talk about this for two episodes, there’s still so much more to discuss. And I would love to hear from all of you with your own experiences, suggestions, feelings, etc.

In this episode, we’re going to break down just what trolling is and who is doing the trolling/why they are doing the trolling...and in next week’s episode we’ll debate the whether or not one should “feed the trolls.”

So let’s start where I always like to start….with my favorite online reference tool, Urban Dictionary.

I have to say that as I strolled over to Urban Dictionary, I discovered that they have  a “word of the day” and the particular day I was doing my research,  the word of the day was “shrigma male.”

Kim, what do you think that means?

“Shrigma male, also known as Shrigmus, is a male person that just doesn't care, and eats shrooms all day.

It's a rarest male type that exists.”

Btw in case all of you don’t know this, mushrooms (the psychedelic kind) are getting trendier and trendier, and I think we are going to see microdosing and other treatments using mushrooms pick up even more steam over the next few years.  I know that there is a ton of research and interest in funding research (for example, Dr. Bronners is going hard on psychedelic mushroom research).

So Kim, how would you describe a troll?

Here are some definitions from UD:

“Someone who deliberately pisses people off online to get a reaction.”

“A member of an internet forum who continually harangues and harasses others. Someone with nothing worthwhile to add to a certain conversation, but rather continually threadjacks or changes the subject, as well as thinks every member of the forum is talking about them and only them. Trolls often go by multiple names to circumvent getting banned.”

“A person who, on a message forum of some type, attacks and flames other members of the forum for any of a number of reasons such as rank, previous disagreements, sex, status, ect.

A troll usually flames threads without staying on topic, unlike a "Flamer" who flames a thread because he/she disagrees with the content of the thread.”

What I see as the common thread here--besides being an asshat---is a drive to get a response and to control a space (in this case a comment thread). Maybe a sense of entitlement, that they should be able to control the space and be the center of attention. That their opinion counts more than others.  And obviously a complete disregard for the feelings of others.

This sounds a lot like narcissistic personality disorder, whose “symptoms include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others' feelings, an inability to handle any criticism, and a sense of entitlement.”  Let’s put a pin in that idea  because we are going to come back to it.

Okay...back to Urban Dictionary… the term “trolling,” is described as “the deliberate act, (by a Troll), of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument

Trolling on-line forums as described above is actually analogous to the fishing technique of ‘trolling’, where colorful baits and lures are pulled behind a slow moving boat, often with multiple fishing lines, covering a large bodies of water, such as a large lake or the ocean. The trolling lures attract unsuspecting fish, intriguing them with the way they move through the water, thus enticing these foolish fish to “take the bait”. Not unlike unsuspecting internet victims, once hooked, the fish are reeled in for the catch before they realize they have been duped by the Troll/Fisherman.”

Next I want to define “snark,” another term that I think is used to describe an allegedly “softer” form of trolling (and often applied to conversations between women):

“verbal ingenuousness that is brief, subtle, yet quite stabbing. snark is often marked by deep creativity & use of psychological attack. It employs coldbloodedness and is best served unprovoked. Snark can contain hidden complimentary meaning under a mean face, but it hurts more than it strengthens.”

So we see that trolling is a sort of intentional act of getting people riled up, of starting fights, etc.  Meanwhile snark is almost catty and cruel, just being mean, but possibly pretending that it is a more “highbrow” form of online cruelty. It makes me think of Joan Rivers and her Oscars red carpet show where she would make fun of everyone’s clothes.  I know there are regular features in a lot of tabloids that are “funny” takedowns of celebrity style.

I’m bringing up snark because there are entire subreddits, blogs and instagram accounts devoted to snarking on celebrities, influencers, regular people, the way people dress, you name it.  And while in the early days of the pandemic I saw this stuff mostly just poking fun at dumb stuff that celebrities and influencers did and said, I noticed it picking up more momentum, more cruelty as time progressed. 

I’m not sure if I think it’s “fair game” to snark on celebrities, but it’s definitely not a good look to snark on regular people’s instagram posts!

Lastly, let’s define cyberbullying:  using the internet to seek to harm, intimidate, or coerce (someone perceived as vulnerable).

So we have these three behaviors that are highly prevalent on the internet...and while they might seem like independent phenomena, a venn diagram of them would have a ton of overlap. And TBH, I think they are often used interchangeably.  We might use troll to describe cyberbullying. We might accuse someone of snarking of actually being a troll.  It’s easy to use them interchangeably because they are kind of the same thing, or at least they come from the same place psychologically.

Unsurprisingly (I’m still thinking of all of those horrible online dating statistics), women are a major target of all of this nefarious behavior:
  • In 2017 Amnesty International surveyed 4000 women across eight countries. Nearly a quarter of those women had experienced online abuse or harassment.
  • The UN Broadband Commission put this figure much higher, saying ”[A]lmost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence.”
  • Amnesty International also found that 76 percent of women who experienced abuse or harassment on a social media platform made changes to how they use the platform. Some of those women who were abused online “said they’d stopped posting content that expressed their opinion on certain issues.”  Like when I told you never to use #feminism on our girlboss posts!!!
  • It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that women of color, along with trans and non-binary people of color also experience a lot of online bullying.

Okay, now we know WHO is being trolled the most...but who’s doing the trolling?

Well, let’s get the ball rolling with a 2014 survey by YouGov that found that 28% of millennials admitted “to malicious online activity against someone they don't know.” Bustle had a great headline about this: “Which One of Your Friends Is an Internet Troll?”

And that’s a really good question! Kim, have you ever “caught” someone you know being a troll?

This survey is now 7 years old...and we know now that trolling is even wilder, so what percentage of people are now engaging in mean internet behavior?  If 70% of people are experiencing some sort of online abuse during the pandemic, does that mean that the same 28% people are doing the bullying and the 2% of people are just not on the internet? What that means is that lots of ordinary people--definitely people we know--are engaging in bad behavior on the internet.

This survey (once again, totally from the prehistoric era at this point) makes some interesting callouts that are timeless! And they lead us to some of the root causes for bad behavior on the internet:
  • 77 percent of Americans think that anonymity contributes to trolling
    • Research has indicated that when we can’t be held responsible for our actions, we tend to act more unethically. For example, children wearing masks on Halloween (vs. children wearing costumes with their faces exposed) are more likely to steal candy from a communal bowl.
    • Anonymity, that quasi-security of a username, emboldens us to be jerks. 
    • There’s also the perceived safety of not actually being in the same physical space as the person you are targeting. 
    • Furthermore, the fact that you don’t really know the person you are insulting makes it even easier because you can’t actually witness their reaction to your insults.  So you don’t have that personal moment with them.  It makes it easier to heap on some more nasty behavior.  In real life, you would see the person’s facial expression and demeanor change when you said something cruel. 
  • About half of Americans believe a commenter has crossed the line if they are deliberately trying to upset one or more people.
    • While it might seem otherwise,  the majority of human communication is non-verbal: body language, eye contact, speech tone and language patterns.  Since we are left with so little “information” about an interaction when we’re merely reading a caption or a content, we assume the worst.  That makes us lash out!
    • And to be fair, research has indicated that we EXPECT people to be mean on the internet!
    • A study found that participants were much more surprised when a hurtful statement was delivered in person (vs. online). People expect hurtful statements online and therefore they aren’t as surprised by them.
    • Also, the more surprised one is by a hurtful comment, the more hurtful that comment ends up being.
    • And since people expect the internet to be a cruel toxic waste dump, they feel more empowered to be cruel there, too.  Basically: many people feel that the internet is THE place to go to be mean and take out your frustrations on other (faceless) people.
  • And one last thing:  psychologists believe that constantly presenting our “best selves”/the curated version of our lives on social media….and then collecting all of those likes and comments is giving us an inflated sense of self esteem! This empowers us to be mean to one another on the internet.  I’m not so sure about this theory...but the next one DOES make sense to me:
  • A lot of people don’t realize that the things they type into the comments or DMs are being said “aloud,” because our brains think we’re just typing.  In fact, a lot of people may be disconnected from the real, actual “this is happening now”-ness of the internet. 

Okay, so now we know that people get all troll-y because the anonymity makes them feel safe to do that, it’s easier to be mean to someone you aren’t sharing a physical space with, we’re all full of ourselves now, and since we expect the internet to be full of shitty behavior, we feel comfortable being shitty there!

So where do people like to troll?  Well, the answer (according to that same YouGov survey) is:  EVERYWHERE...even Yelp and TripAdvisor?! 

And while we know that OF COURSE people like to fight online about politics, the economy, the pandemic….well, it turns out that they want to fight about everything online:

And the same survey also found that men were more likely to argue with someone on the internet about opinions AND facts than any other group.  This study showed that the vast majority (72.5 %) of trolling victims are female.

So there’s definitely a gender gap when it comes to trolling...although, to be clear, a lot of the snark accounts and subreddits that I follow seem to have predominantly femme commmunties.

In 2017, a study from researchers at Brunel University London and Goldsmiths, University of London took the world by storm, generating headlines like “Why Most Trolls Appear To Be Men”. The findings suggested that narcissism is at the heart of trolling, with men more likely to display such characteristics than women.  Of course this study, like so many, was done with very binary assumptions about gender, so it already feels ancient and out of date.  Each participant rated themselves on a 13-point narcissistic personality scale, before also rating themselves on a relational self-construal scale.  Then they were quizzed on their social media behavior and usage.

Here’s what the study had to say:
  • Men were more likely to use social media in an antisocial way than women, who were more inclined to use it for prosocial activities, with women obtaining a strong sense of belonging and connectedness from the communities they participated in.  Basically women are more likely to use social media to build relationships with others, while men are there to make trouble. Something like that!
  • The study said, “The link between narcissism and stronger antisocial Facebook use might be connected with the general tendency of narcissists to hold extremely positive opinions of themselves which may alienate others. By posting self-promoting content on Facebook, narcissists may seek to cultivate an online profile which attracts admiration and views but ultimately isn’t really concerned with pro-social outcomes.”
  • The study went on to say that changing how men perceive status within the community might help to reduce their perceived need to troll.
  • And a clear profile for spotting a troll emerged:
    • A lot of their content will be self-promotional
    • They will often post frequently, with those updates including brags about their achievements
    • The more often they post however, the less likely they are to receive the validation they crave
    • They get frustrated when contacts don’t comment or like their content
    • They get very angry against negative comments
  • In my opinion, this feels like the profile of the “career” trolls, as in “people who do this on a regular basis,” and it’s not the same as the people who are having a bad day or feeling particularly passionate about something and then go to the comment section or slide into someone’s DMs to get #wildandmean.

Well, 2017 must have been THE YEAR everyone go obsessed with figuring out trolling (which is funny because if we thought people were jerks on the internet back then, the pandemic was like, “Hold my beer…”)

Another study by the University of Manitoba generated hot and spicy headlines like “‘Internet Trolls’ Are Actually Jerks in Real Life Too.”
  • The study revealed that...dum dum dum….online trolls exhibit antisocial behavior in their offline settings as well.
  • Those who trolled online also tended to have the featuring traits of the “Dark Tetrad” personality: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others). And furthermore, “cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.”

Over the last few years, we’ve seen more and more blogs disable their comments section, more IG profiles limiting comments to followers, etc.  But while that may remove the headache of having to moderate those areas, it doesn’t necessarily stop trolling.  Erin Buckels, who is one of the writers of the University of Manitoba study, told Slate, ““Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users) Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner”

So in summary:  some people troll because they are #borntotroll.  And others do it because they are stressed out/anxious.  But lastly, we can’t forget that trolls were literally weaponized to win the 2016 election, to make the 2020 election even wilder, and to get people to question climate change, masks, vaccinations, you name it.  There is a dark industry of “troll farms” that are creating fake accounts/pages and getting people really riled up.  And other studies have found that these trolls are successful in getting people to question science, policy, you name it. 

That’s all I have for today...but in our next episode, we’ll be talking all about the age old question:  To feed the trolls or not to feed the trolls?  And we’ll talk about how to curb our own troll-y impulses.

And if you have a troll story of your own please send us an email or call the hotline.  We would love to share it in next week’s episode!