Over the past week I have been thinking about the topic of ‘internet trolling.’ According to Wikipedia, an internet troll is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community…with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.” While there may have been a time in the past when internet trolling was an obscure and marginal activity, the fallout from “gamergate,” the Internet’s response to the death of the gorilla Harambe, and Trump’s numerous tweets calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” because “it drives her crazy,” illustrate how it has permeated society.
This type of behavior, whereby people are tracked, harassed, and in extreme situations forced to hide because of hostile online interactions, has led some to claim the internet is an omniopticon, where the many watch the many. Just like Bentham’s panopticon prison, this system enforces a certain type of behavior, and ensures that certain ideas are ‘off the table’ since people who express them are attacked by individuals with no interest in informed, rational discussion. What ideas tend to be off the table? Those outside the norms accepted by the internet community. As many have pointed out, much of what is normal on the internet is both racist and sexist.
There is still much work to be done in order to understand internet trolling, and to combat its dangerous effects. Yet my investigation this week into what motivates online trolls led me to some interesting publications that have begun to examine this question. I recommend the following:
- “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun” by Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, and Delroy L. Paulhus. Published in Personality and Individual Differences.
- So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson
- “Trolling the trolls: Online forum users constructions of the nature and properties of trolling” by Bryn Alexander Coles and Melanie West. Published in Computers in Human Behavior
What are you reading?