LONDON – Two thousand, three hundred and ninety-three years ago, in 380 B.C., Plato wrote the myth of the Ring of Gyges, in which the shepherd, Gyges, discovers a ring that makes him invisible at will. Gyges promptly uses the protection this offers to infiltrate the royal household, seduce the queen, assassinate the king and take the kingdom. Plato goes on: “If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice.”
Plato felt that the protection of being unidentifiable could corrupt even the most morally upstanding person. After what she’s gone through, Caroline Criado-Perez might well sympathize with that bleak assessment. After she had successfully petitioned to have Jane Austen’s image appear on the new £10 banknote, Twitter trolls used the anonymity of the Internet to inundate her with threats of rape and violence.
It took another petition and a media storm to overcome the inertia that seems to exist when social networks and the police are asked to deal with online abuse. When member of Parliament Stella Creasy stepped in to support and defend Criado-Perez, the Twitter trolls began to target her too. And in the final twist, several female journalists were sent bomb threats. So who are the trolls sending these messages? And what motivates them to behave like this?
The Gyges effect — the way that the Internet can encourage a disinhibition people simply would not experience face to face — is only part of the explanation. Linked to that is the way the Internet allows us to shut down our sense of empathy. In a nutshell, we are sending words through a screen, and seeing words come back. No tone of voice, facial expressions or body language. This makes it easy not only to pretend there isn’t a real, emotional, possibly fragile human being at the other end, but also to play down any emotional reaction that they convey back as an exaggeration or a lie.
In fact, we’re all capable of shutting off our empathy when it suits us. When someone we love to hate suffers some minor inconvenience or self-inflicted trouble, we can choose to enjoy their misfortune rather than feel sorry for them. The Internet, however, drastically increases that ability, and allows us to emotionally divorce ourselves, not just from the people we don’t like but also from those we don’t even know. It is, after all, it’s a rare person who hasn’t written an online review, e-mail or comment that was more abrasive than anything they would ever say in person.
But this still doesn’t tell us why someone would do this. Many of us have Internet access, yet few of us choose to troll. So what motivates those who do? One difficulty in trying to discover the motives behind socially unacceptable behavior is that the individuals in question will usually be reticent or deceitful about their motives — even to themselves. Trolls are not often in a rush to discuss their behavior with a stranger who might spill their darkest deeds to the world.
This is hardly surprising. There are potentially serious consequences to being outed as a troll, ranging from mere social stigma and relationship breakdowns to job losses and prison sentences. The result, however, for anyone trying to analyze and understand trolling, is that we’re left to either investigate the few cases that have come to court or divine motives and intentions from the data the trolls provide. So, on review of both of these, what reasons suggest themselves?
One motive for trolling, and perhaps one we’re all most familiar with, seems to be simple boredom — too much free time after school, at work, or between jobs. These are the individuals who are trolling to kill a few hours, entertain themselves, and even impress others of a similar mind-set.
Groups of trolls coalesce on bulletin-board sites such as 4chan, where they post links to targets that might prove “fun,” and compete with each other to see who can be the funniest, cleverest, or most extreme. Interestingly, those same sites also tend to be the powerhouses that generate Internet “memes” — popular concepts that spread beyond the Internet to become part of our offline culture.
A second motive appears to be a need for attention, a craving that will accept any kind of attention, however positive or negative, as long as that person is at the centre of it. Such individuals may not just post offensive messages, but also annoyingly implausible stories, grand claims and obvious lies.
A third motive seems to involve a sense of disenfranchisement. In a climate where even graduates with good degrees are struggling to find jobs, and house prices make getting on the property ladder an impossible dream for many, it’s little surprise that a selection of the population may consider themselves short-changed. It would take a strong character not to feel a sense of injustice at the fact that, a generation earlier, their exact counterparts were walking into secure, lifelong employment and able to buy nice homes.
For some individuals, this sense of being cheated may extend into pure epicaricacy, a malicious desire to try to make those enjoying greater success feel as miserably trapped and oppressed as themselves. The rather sad logic of this is that by dragging the more successful person down, the damaging contrast with their own failure is lessened, and they won’t feel quite so bad about themselves.
Are they all angry young men, as the stereotype suggests? When we look over cases that have gone to court, we do find some evidence of this: Reece Messer, 17, who tweeted that Olympic diver Tom Daley had “let his dad down”; Matthew Woods, 19, who posted sick jokes on murdered child April Jones’ tribute page; Reece Elliott, 24, who threatened to shoot 200 school children only weeks after the Sandy Hook incident; and Sean Duffy, 25, who posted offensive images on a Facebook memorial page. Here we have reports of the broken homes, substance abuse and/or social disabilities that are often linked with trolling, as though they were natural bedfellows.
However, when we look at further cases, we also find Colm Coss, 36, who defaced reality TV star Jade Goody’s memorial page; Frank Zimmerman, 60, who e-mailed threats to a range of public figures; Jessica Chantelle Cook, 22, who posted offensive comments on tribute pages; and teenager Jasmine Vanmidde, who lied about being a cyberbullying victim to get on to Australian TV show Today Tonight, then boasted of her success in a YouTube video.
This second group of individuals — young women, and men easily old enough to be fathers and grandfathers — don’t readily fit the classic troll image. Our nice cat-loving neighbor, that funny work colleague, or the nerdy cousin we went to school with could just as easily be trolls too.
A final important issue that these cases raise is the lack of agreement over what the word “troll” means. It is being used to describe everything from playground insults, sick jokes, and deliberate insensitivity right through to threats of violence, rape and murder. We don’t have a fixed definition for the term “trolling,” and while some may think of this as a mere detail, it is one that can have far-reaching legal implications. If we are to take the meaning of trolling to include everything from the merely irritating to the clearly illegal, then this definitional issue will only become more important as more cases are prosecuted.
Despite the potential harm trolling can inflict on others, as long as the Internet offers the appearance of protection from consequences, it will, for some, also present itself as an opportunity to kill a few hours by being abusive to strangers.
Of course, we could simply refuse to understand such behavior, and even ignore it, but that offers little hope of stemming the tide. Instead, it seems both morally and logically better to face the problem head-on. This could take the form of training and education for those amenable to change, or convictions and prison terms for those who are not.
But perhaps most usefully, it might start with considering how much trolling is symptomatic of social injustice, economic disadvantage and political disenfranchisement.
Claire Hardaker is a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, who specializes in researching online aggression.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.