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The ugly side of the internet.
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Out from under the bridge
The internet is often a very unpleasant place. We’ve come to call the online bad apples trolls, and their provocations are labeled as trolling. Acting like a jerk is an inescapable part of human nature. Trolling was accepted as normal, if undesirable, even as evidence of its harmful effects—suicides and intense trauma—mounted.
That changed with the 2016 US presidential election. In November of 2016, online searches for “troll” peaked, according to Google trends. The US election was grounds for well-organized, coordinated trolling, including Russian troll farms. Since then, trolls have become associated with the alt-right, disinformation campaigns, and online hate speech. When there are enough trolls to have broad political impact, it seems, their tactics aren’t quite so funny.
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By the digits
2,000,000: Trolls the Chinese government is suspected of hiring to add disinformation to social media
70%: Share of 18-to-24-year-olds who have experienced harassment online
300,000: Followers right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos had when he was permanently banned from Twitter
150,000: Members of the Reddit discussion group ”fatpeoplehate” when it was banned in 2015
10.4 million: Russian tweets reviewed in a report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate interference in the 2016 US presidential election
300,000: Followers the Russian Instagram account @blackstagram_ amassed ahead of the 2016 election
40,000: “Words of hate” British comedian Stewart Lee gathered about himself by reading online comments for six months
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The psychology of trolling
Excluding a handful of identifiable leaders, the vast majority of trolls are anonymous, hiding behind either fake identities or internet avatars. This anonymity is key to the psychology of why people troll. When individual identities are hidden, psychologists say this “deindividuation” allows social norms to collapse. It happens offline too—one famous experiment shows children are far more likely to steal money on Halloween when they trick-or-treat in groups wearing masks, as opposed to unmasked and alone.
Not everyone who can hide behind an internet mask devolves into trolling, though. Research has shown a link between self-identified trolls and specific personality traits including sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Sadism—the enjoyment of others’ suffering—has a particularly strong link with trolling behavior.
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“Boys throw stones at frogs in fun, but the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.”
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Department of Jargon
Merriam-Webster dictionary includes “to harass, criticize, or antagonize (someone) especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts” as a definition of to troll.
The world “troll” refers both to the ugly, menacing figures who live under bridges in Scandinavian folklore, and the method of fishing by trailing a baited hook from a moving boat. The word has been used to describe antagonistic behavior since at least 1992, when it was an established term on Usenet. Several other languages refer to similar concepts for trolling. “Tsuri” in Japanese and “naksi” in Korean both translate as “fishing” and are used to describe online trolling. Those who engage and take the bait sometimes refer to themselves as “caught fish.” The concept is hardly universal though; in Thailand, the word “krian,” which literally describes a close-cut schoolboy hairstyle, is the term for troll.
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1970s: CommuniTree, a pre-internet forum on modem-linked computers, is invaded by teenagers. The founders decide to shut it down because of an overwhelming onslaught of insults and abuse.
1993: AOL offers Usenet access to its users, leading to a massive expansion of trolling tactics.
2006: When 18-year-old Nikki Catsouras dies in a car crash, online trolls harass her family, emailing them photos of her corpse.
2007: Megan Meier dies by suicide after receiving unkind messages from a boy on MySpace. The account turns out to be fake, and created by Lori Drew, the mother of one of the 13-year-old’s classmates.
2012: A British man is jailed after posting abusive “jokes” about a missing child on Facebook.
2014: Women in gaming are subject to an unrelenting series of coordinated attacks and doxxing, which forces them from their homes in a harassment campaign that becomes known as Gamergate.
2015: A Russian troll farm, where people were hired to post pro-Putin messages online, is exposed.
2019: The founder of neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer is ordered to pay $14 million in damages for ordering his “troll army” to attack a Jewish woman.
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A political weapon
Trolls have been wreaking online havoc for years. Their tactics of spreading disinformation and harassment, which were largely dismissed by authorities when they were targeted at women and people of color, came to be seen as less impish and more evil when they were directed at the 2016 US election.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which is devoted to spreading propaganda, overwhelmed social media in 2015-2016 with memes designed to discourage voter turnout, misleading some Americans into texting their votes. A report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that IRA accounts had millions of engagements on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Many of their accounts were popular: 40% of IRA Instagram accounts had more than 10,000 followers, and the agency amassed 3.3 million followers on Facebook. Of the 33 most popular IRA Facebook accounts, half were focused on black audiences. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed these messages to show how Russian trolls successfully influenced the 2016 US presidential election.
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Zoë Quinn is a game developer who was one of the central figures targeted by online threats of violence that crossed over into very IRL harassment in Gamergate. She wrote a book about Gamergate, online misogyny, trolls, and the internet called Crash Override that came out in 2017. She spoke with Adi Robertson at The Verge for this Q&A, and with Sarah Jeong at the New York Times for an article that was part of a larger series about the legacy of Gamergate.
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