The nature of web trolls

Angry man online31 July 2013

'Trolls' who abuse people online are motivated by boredom as well as feelings of power, amusement and revenge, new findings show. Research by Dr Claire Hardaker at the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) explores the motivation for trolling - such as the recent case of campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez who was subjected to death and rape threats on Twitter.

Dr Hardaker looked at almost 4,000 cases involving claims of trolling. She found that trolls thrive on the anonymity of the web and can come from all ages or backgrounds. They don't always just want to abuse or shock, and they can use more covert methods to wreak havoc on online discussions.

"Aggression, deception and manipulation are increasingly part of online interaction - yet many users are unaware not only that some of these behaviours exist, but of how destructive and insidious they can be," says Dr Hardaker.

"Few of us realise that trolling comes in a wide variety of flavours. A small handful of those in my research include 'RIP trolls', who spend their time causing misery on memorial sites; 'fame trolls', who focus all their energies on provoking celebrities; 'care trolls', who purport to see abuse in every post about children or animals; 'political trolls' who seek to bully MPs out of office; and many others besides.”

In her study "Uh. . . . not to be nitpicky,,,,,but…the past tense of drag is dragged, not drug": an overview of trolling strategies, which is published in the Journal of Language, Aggression and Conflict, she warns that trolls are becoming more sophisticated in the strategies they use.

Dr Hardaker has compiled a list of how to identify troll attacks:

  • They digress from the topic at hand, especially onto sensitive topics
  • They criticise others excessively, often for faults that they then display themself
  • They take up an alienating position, asking pseudo-naive questions that covertly manipulate egos, sensitivities, morals and feelings of guilt, usually to trigger emotional responses
  • They endanger others by giving dangerous advice which encourages risky behaviour, so that others have to respond to prevent harm. It relies on the target's social responsibility and moral obligation
  • They shock others by being insensitive about sensitive topics such as religion, death, and animal welfare, or they are explicit about taboo topics
  • They are aggressive towards others by insulting, threatening, or otherwise plainly attacking them without provocation.

The next stage of Dr Hardaker's research will look at the various methods that ordinary individuals use to cope with trolls, and the risk/effectiveness of these strategies. In the meantime she hopes that society will begin to take the issue of trolls and cyber-bullying more seriously.

"Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of my research is the general view – not just socially, but legally and politically too – of online misbehaviours and crimes. Trolling is yet to be widely accepted as involving 'real' perpetrators, 'real' victims or 'real' harm. It's 'just the internet' and 'you can switch it off," she comments in the Guardian.

"If we are to realise the internet's full potential for good, we must start taking seriously the many ways in which it is used for harm."