It is easy to be flippant when we talk about Internet trolls. The name itself sounds like a medieval monster (although the supposed origin of the verb ‘trolling’ refers to a fishing technique where bait is dragged from a moving boat). The word has become so embedded in our daily jargon that its danger is easily lost.
Make no mistake, trolling, whether with careless or malicious intent, is very dangerous.
Because the definition can often get muddied, a troll is a person who deliberately incites ‘flame wars’, posting at-best irrelevant but often inflammatory and offensive messages in online spaces. Their sole intent is to provoke a response.
This can look like many things: an expletive-laden, misogynistic comment on a social media post.
A deliberately defaced online tribute to a deceased person. Abusive threats of death or rape. Stalking.
And although trolling feels like a faraway concept, something which you think couldn’t happen to an ordinary person like you, it is a growing form of harassment.
Not Your Average Bot
After her own experience of being trolled, Australian Journalist Ginger Gorman set out to research and write a book—Troll Hunting—about who trolls are. She went straight to the source, even forming a rapport with some of them.
These trolls are far from the uneducated, lonely, ignorant people that the general public assumed them to be. On the contrary, they are educated, well-read and often acting with a network of allies.
Trolls conduct careful, malicious research to find their victim’s weakest point. They target minorities and at-risk people groups (such as sexual assault survivors and mental health sufferers). It is the furthest thing from a mindless activity.
Sometimes they want to cause harm. Sometimes they want to silence certain people. Sometimes they want to mock the media.
‘While you can make some generalisations about serious trolls, they aren’t all the same. They can be left or right wing or in-between. They can be psychopathic. But sometimes trolls I met were helpful, interesting and empathetic,’ Gorman states.
They are not random bots calling out into the abyss; they are real people sitting behind the screen, carefully plotting their next move.
The results of trolling do not always stay online. Gorman found predator trolling was linked to cases where shootings, suicide, murders, injuries, stalking, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), mental illness, animal abuse or killings and many more horrific acts transcended from online bullying into real-life crimes. The resultant trauma from trolling costs us all.
A 2018 Netsafe report estimated the cost of cyberhate and online harassment in New Zealand was a whopping $444 million (at least).
Frighteningly, the same report revealed that although cyberbullying victims are most likely to turn to a friend for help, the next most common response is to tell no one.
The Monster Mash
To some level, controlling the trolls is at the hands of law enforcement and online moderators. But there are still actions we can take.
First, we can ensure that we aren’t the troll, and behave online in a way which is fair, accurate and—as believers—reflects Christ. Always read the content to get the facts from the source and form your own opinion before you comment. Colossians 4:6 reads, ‘Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone’. It is important to apply the same wisdom we use in spoken conversation to digital interactions.
Ask yourself: if someone was to look at your online behaviour—not just your curated timeline, but every comment and like and reaction—would it reflect someone who lives by the teaching of Jesus? Is your digital persona peaceful, open to different opinions and willing to engage thoughtfully and meaningfully? From that posture, we are in the best position to safely participate in a digital landscape which trolls inevitably belong to.
Don’t Feed the Trolls
We are constantly fed the rallying cry of ‘don’t feed the trolls’. To some extent, this is true. Theoretically, if you don’t react, trolls will move on to greener pastures. But ignorance is not a one-stop solution, especially when it might not be feasible to remove yourself from the digital space due to school, work or life necessities. Plus, when victims are typically minorities, this silences voices that need to be championed.
Therefore, one way to support someone being trolled is to amplify their voice. Reshare. Retweet. Openly support them and encourage others to do the same. Reclaim a hashtag that has been derailed. Even if you don’t know the person being targeted, you can reach out to show support, and report abuse to the platform or website host.
If this is happening to a close friend, support them by gathering evidence. Take screenshots. Save links to webpages. Have tangible proof of the offences which can be used to report the abuse and recruit help. Flag the troll’s behaviour with the platform or website’s page owner, administrator or moderator. They might not be able to act on individual comments but reporting it highlights repeated behaviour.
Never do anything to escalate the conflict or amplify risk. Safety comes first, and you should never mimic the troll’s behaviour. In 1 Peter 3:9, we are told, ‘Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult’. This can be hard when a faceless troll is attacking you or someone you love, but if you can’t ignore them, remain respectful. Above all, reach out to somebody—a friend, sibling, parent, leader or teacher. When you can’t see any hope, they can often approach the problem from a different perspective and help you find a solution. Never let trolls, or any form of cyberbullying, go unseen.
Sources: netsafe.org.nz, abc.net.au
According to NetSafe, a digital communication should not:
- disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual
- be threatening, intimidating or menacing
- be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual
- be indecent or obscene
- be used to harass an individual
- make a false allegation
- contain a matter that is published in breach of confidence
- incite or encourage anyone to send a message to an individual for the purpose of causing harm to the individual
- incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide
- denigrate an individual by reason of colour, race, ethnic or national origins, religion, gender sexual orientation or disability.
If you’re being trolled:
- Ignore it.
- Report it.
- Record it.
- Get support.
- Take a break from social media.
More Info: https://netsafe.org.nz/what-is-the-hdca