The Troll

Mountain Troll, John Bauer, 1904
Mountain Troll by John Bauer (1904)

Darkened room — screen throws light
Unsuspecting victim to select tonight
Find online discussion — become a part
I’m a connoisseur of this disruptive art.

I was once the stuff of fairy tale
Unfriendly monster of mountain trail
Now the internet has made me real
With such reach, my power they feel.

Once in a group I seek to agitate
Or pick on someone to deflate
A scurrilous comment may well do
While posing as a real review.

They find it hard to make me cease
Untroubled by that country’s police
Because my range it is just so great
So many others can share that fate.

It’s my right to have some fun
As agent provocateur number one
They can’t find me in my room
As virtual ‘me’ makes them fume.

Wait — a furious knocking of my door
People entering — just what’s the score
Now they’re grabbing all my kit
Pushed in car – between two I fit.

I’m held responsible for the death
A distant person who drew last breath
Because of something that I said
Struck like a missile in her head.

Now they want to extradite
I can’t believe they have the right
We must recruit all my friends
It was just fun – I’ll make amends.

Social inadequate – limited intelligence
My lawyer promotes that defence
Such spurious arguments are rejected
And so by marshals I am collected.

So here I sit to wait my fate
Much time now to contemplate
What lies deep within my soul
That moulded such a cyber troll.

I was once the stuff of fairy tale
Unfriendly monster of mountain trail
While the internet made me real
It’s now their reach, their power I feel.

[To listen to this verse select below]

Commentary

A good starter for ten is to enter “Trolling” into the BBC web site for a useful primer of short media articles illuminating the issue from 2011 until today.

Within a few days of producing the above verses the UK media had reported on a 19 year old UK man whose anonymous Google Maps review of a US lawyer’s practice resulted in him being identified and then sued for the damage to the firm’s name and loss of income. He described the US lawyer as a “scumbag who loses 80% of his cases”. The alleged troll challenged the suit on the basis that his account must have been hacked. The UK court, however, did not believe him and awarded the complainant £50,000 damages and £50,000 for legal costs on 7 March 2015.

The damage can go well beyond reputation, e.g. Ask.fm advertisers to quit site in cyberbullying row, BBC News, 8 August 2013.

From a more academic perspective what motivates such behaviours? Inadequacy? Psychopathy? Narcissism? Sadism?

Buckels et al suggest that cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism. In Trolls just want to have fun, Erin E Buckels et al, 2014, Personality and Individual Differences, 67 (2014): 97-102 they say:

Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!

The interesting circa 4 minute long animated presentation The Psychology of the Internet Troll (Academic Earth, 2013) considers the contribution of perceived anonymity in disinhibiting from social norms.

Whatever the psychological or social drivers, legislation and penalties look set to be toughened, e.g. Internet trolls face up to two years in jail under new laws (BBC News, 19 October 2014)

The last line “It’s now their reach, their power I feel” is meant to highlight two issues.

Firstly, anonymity can be an illusion; even international state agencies can be motivated to considerable effort when they perceive a threat to resources or reputation (or through embarrassment). Secondly, extradition treaties can make for a very long and punitive legislative reach; as several people have found to their cost, e.g. the Gary McKinnon case. Even if they ultimately escape extradition the stress of the process and potential consequences can be a punishment in its own right.

In conclusion, it’s worth reflecting on how easily in the age of so-called ‘social networking’ we could all slip into something akin to troll-like behaviour. Technologies amplify human capabilities and this amplification can sometimes have devastating and life-changing effects. Consider, for instance, group virtual ‘attacks’ on assumed miscreants. Such attacks can arise from perceived insults, misguided comments, breaking of explicit or tacit group rules, conformity pressure, or simply self-righteousness on the part of the attackers. Participants that would never undertake such attacks in the real world seem to lack such inhibitions in the virtual. For those so tempted then John Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed may make a worthwhile read – because the consequences for the attackers can also be as (or more) severe and life-changing than for the victim. An extract from a recent review of this book makes for a worthy penultimate quote:

“… it is an eye-opening education for the reader into the dreadful touchiness of the social-media world, forever on the lookout for something to be outraged by, avid for trouble, thirsty for schadenfreude, a flaming-torches gang longing for the signal to attack.” (John Walsh, Book Review, Culture p30-31, Sunday Times 8 March 2015)

A similar point about the destructive effects of our readiness to be offended is made by Dominic Lawson; while I don’t always agree with his political viewpoint, I always admire the clarity of his writing:

The truth is that those who howl that they are offended generally want to be offended and search for ways to be insulted.” (Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times p22, 11 January 2015)

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