Why are people online so awful, so often? What makes a person a troll? And can they ever be redeemed?
Speaking at the SXSW Online Harassment Summit, Joseph Reagle, author of ‘Reading The Comments: Likers, Haters and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web,’ outlines the three key factors which he believes contribute to the making of an online harasser: media, personality, and culture.
1. Media. Any form of technology or platform that allows instantaneous communication can be leveraged for harassment or bullying, and sometimes that potential is unwittingly designed into the medium. Case in point: the highly addictive Twitter, where inflammatory remarks can become memes. Reagle even cites his own short and to-the-point text messages and emails as trollish when compared to the formal, courteous letter-writing of his parents’ generation.
2. Personality. According to a report published in 2014, there is a “strong relationship between online commenting frequency, trolling enjoyment, and trolling behaviour and identity.” Measures of sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism all positively correlate with trolling, says Reagle, and that can range from someone posting mean comments on YouTube all the way up to dangerous narcissists like Luka Magnotta.
“These people are out there and they can have a very real, disproportionate effect,” says Reagle. But that isn’t to say all trolls are evil as such; we all fit somewhere on these scales. Which leads us to…
3. Culture. “An apple in a rotting barrel is likely to go bad,” says Reagle. “So is someone in a rotten subreddit.” When you’re surrounded by people doing and saying the same things as you, it is much easier to accept this behaviour as the norm; even if you are not the active perpetrator of bullying, you might attempt to rationalise that the victim is to blame, as you don’t want to think of yourself as a bad person.
Oren Segal, Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Centre on Extremism, sees numerous parallels between the profile of an online extremist and that of a garden variety cyber-bully; just as certain people are susceptible to radicalisation, so too are certain people likely to begin harassing others online. Segal describes it as a “cognitive opening”; these people are looking to find some meaning in their life, to feel like something bigger than themselves.
While many might simply take up a hobby, others get that feeling from trolling, or from extremist ideologies, and are rewarded by gamification elements such as retweets and upvotes. ISIS in particular are years ahead of white supremacist groups in the US when it comes to identifying and recruiting people online, crowdsourcing propaganda, and encouraging users to “level up.”
“The profiles of extremists in this country are as diverse as you can think,” says Segal, listing young people from all racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. “Monitoring the Muslim community is the last thing we need to do,” he adds; “that would be taking our eye off the ball.”
So what can actually be done to fight this? It is no longer sufficient to say “don’t feed the trolls,” firstly because it places responsibility on the victim rather than the harasser, secondly because the trolls need no provocation, and thirdly because online harassment behaviours and technologies are far more sophisticated than they were even ten years ago.
Reagle’s advice is to “assume good faith” and to engage in responsible forums with pro-social norms and moderation. Segal, meanwhile, believes that providing counter-narratives will be critical in mitigating the threat of online harassment and extremism. And we can’t just rely on the victim to be strong and savvy enough to counter attacks, it has to come from witnesses too. “It’s an idiosyncratic process,” says Reagle.
But it is possible for a cyber-bully to see the light. After making writer and activist Lindy West’s life hell, her troll actually came out and apologised to her, saying: “It finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way.”