Have you ever scrolled through the comments section on social media and shaken your head at the vile comments that seem to take everything to a needlessly personal level? Congratulations, you’ve witnessed a troll at work.
Trolling has a history nearly as old as the internet itself. And we all know it had its real-life predecessors in the forms of hate mail, harassment, scammers, and all manner of ne’er-do-wells. These people have always existed; the internet just gives them a place to act anonymously. By being able to protect their identities, they get the illusion of invincibility and the comfort that comes with it.
It can be quite puzzling to think about the motives behind trolling on the internet. Any sane person would wonder why someone would spend their days online trying to upset others.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the mystery.
It all started in the late 1980s and early ’90s with something called “flame wars.” (Have you ever heard of getting “burned?”) A flame is a cruel, personal attack on someone because you disagree with him or her, or perhaps for no reason at all. Flame wars were trolls’ first experience with the protections of the internet, and not just from external consequences, but also internal ones.
Without a human face on their victims, they lacked the inclination to feel empathy for those they harassed. A study in Elsevier entitled, “Constructing the Cyber-Troll: Psychopathy, Sadism, and Empathy” even found that this lack of empathy may be predetermined. People who engaged in internet trolling already had lower levels of affective empathy.
While the above trolls seem scarily harmful, other early trolls became known as “net.weenies.” The net.weenies, true to their name, were perhaps less vicious than those who engaged in flame wars. Their trolling centered on things they thought were funny. In other words, they were just being obnoxious on the internet. Annoyingly long email signatures, non-sequiturs, and being irritating just for the sake of it were their hallmarks.
The Troll as We Know It
Sadly, trolls couldn’t stay (relatively) harmless forever. As the ’90s progressed, the actual term “trolling” came into existence. And trolls discovered the magic of targeted harassment. Instead of hanging out in their own online communities, they searched for others with whom they could ignite the type of flame wars they lived for. It began with a strange post in a cat chat group and, in 2010, progressed to making death threats to an 11-year-old girl.
In a study conducted a few years later by Omnibus, over a quarter of Americans admitted to malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know. The original trolls weren’t the only ones around anymore. And as the years go by, the internet troll population doesn’t appear to be lessening.
The term “trolling” can cause us to group all similar behavior under this one umbrella term. However, we know it’s dangerous to equate an extra-long email signature with death threats to a child. That kind of thinking may also make us believe our own feelings are invalid, too. Blame should be placed on the perpetrators. But instead, statements such as “don’t feed the trolls” make victims responsible for avoiding and/or mitigating the trolls’ attacks.
The reality is that internet trolls can be and are harmful. A troll’s traditional intention is to be cruel just for the sake of it. But what they do has measurable effects on our sense of safety and self-worth.
How to Protect Yourself
The typical troll is, in essence, harmless. But it doesn’t hurt to be safe. Trolls may even go so far as to learn private information about their victims. That way, they can threaten them more effectively. What can you do besides ignore them?
You can perform a criminal records check to try and see if a troll has a history of acting out in real life. You can report the troll for violating social media policy. And ultimately, if you feel your personal safety is actually at risk, contact the police.
For more information on ways to keep yourself and your family safe online and how to keep yourselves emotionally healthy, read more on the PeopleFinders blog.
Image attribution: Adeus Buhai – stock.adobe.com