Internet trolling, or the practice of disrupting internet discussions with off-color or provocative comments, has been a mainstay of the internet since the service became available to the general public in the late 1980s. While some trolls claim their games are purely innocuous, acts of trolling have been implicated in suicides, voter intimidation, and more.
Are trolls social artists who disrupt the tapestry of the internet to reveal important realities about society and human nature, or are they merely schadenfreude-obsessed bullies? Below, we’ll explore three argument to support each perspective.
Internet Trolls Are Social Artists
Trolls make us take a more discerning stance about media
More than poking fun at individuals, trolls mock media-driven culture at large, often times exposing glaring inefficiencies. Trolls reveal media’s propensity for sensationalism (and sometimes, a concerning lack of fact-checking) by getting mainstream news outlets to pick up fake stories. For example, ABC’s “Good Morning America” ran a story which claimed that Kanye West fans do not know who Paul McCartney is. More recently, the controversy surrounding Russia’s role in using trolls to spread fake news to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections has forced internet users to question what they read. Trolls thusly warn us be more cautious consumers of information, whether dealing with outlets big or small.
Trolling is a valid way to express dissent
If you’ve got a bone to pick, why not pick it on the internet? Thousands of disaffected Americans took to Amazon.com to express their discontent with then President-elect Donald Trump via mock product reviews for his “Make American Great Again” Christmas ornament. This lighthearted trolling helped disappointed citizens blow off steam in a positive way.
Citizens on both sides of the political spectrum continue to use trolling to express dissent. A Florida lawyer and Conservative created internet Congressman Steve Smith of Georgia’s fictitious 15th District to vent his frustrations about media biases and the Republican establishment. When Rep. Smith’s commentary was picked up by mainstream journalist Christiane Amanpour, trolling’s power to draw attention to unpopular messages became acutely apparent.
Trolls are funny
Not all trolls wield negativity as their weapon of choice. Some trolls use their art to spread joy and light-hearted humor. Named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people on the internet, Ken M, has been peppering comments sections with off-beat, uniformed, and hilarious remarks for years. His humorous remarks, he says, were initially a response to the “toxic” negativity he found in Yahoo’s comments sections. Hollywood celebrity couple Ryan Reynolds and Black Lively have taken trolling to a whole new, romantic level, letting fans in on their habit of trolling each other in good, humorous fun. In this way, troll comedy can unite and inspire others to also make lemonade out of the digital world’s lemons.
Internet Trolls Are Sadists
Trolling can quickly become cyberbullying
The line between trolling and cyberbullying is paper thin. All too often, trolling goes beyond mere provocation, and becomes personal, mean, or downright threatening. Studies have shown that women in entertainment and media bear the brunt of such cyber abuse. Ghostbusters’ star Leslie Jones took a very public hiatus from Twitter after trolls drowned her account in an onslaught of racist and sexually explicit posts. They also created an impersonator account from which they spewed vitriol of all manner. Celebrities are certainly not the only people to suffer abuse from internet trolls. The wide repertoire of tactics trolls use to demean and harm their victims – from doxing (releasing an internet user’s contact details) to leading online shame campaigns – leads to real damage that cannot be dismissed as mere fun and games.
Trolling brings out the worst in people
Trolls do everything for the lulz – the joy of laughing at another person’s expense. A psychology study of self-identified trolls found that people who deemed themselves “trolls” scored high levels of sadism and psychopathy on a personality test. This is not to say that only certain personality types troll. One study found that certain conditions (and not personality types) predispose people to trolling: if a thread of comments begins with a trolling comment, if a person is in a bad mood, or if it is simply the start of the work-week, people are more likely to troll. By propagating negativity, trolling brings out not only the worst in individuals, but in the entire online community.
Where trolling begins, facts end
A reader’s perception and comprehension of a text are easily swayed by the tone of its comments section. As one study noted: “uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.” Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon “The Nasty Effect,” and it gives trolls incredible leverage in shaping opinions across the internet (and the world). And trolls don’t always use this power responsibly. Many a troll has discovered that their attention-getting tactics are highly profitable, and deliberately peddle fake news items to bait readers and please advertisers.
The Bottom Line: Trolling can highlight the inadequacies of media but because trolling thrives on social interaction, there is likely no such thing as victimless lulz. Should we thank trolls for helping us to realize the limits of internet communication, or find ways to get them back under their bridges?