Why do trolls troll?

Why are people abusive online?
27 August 2019

Interview with 

Claire Hardaker, Lancaster University


A statue of a trolls head in grass


It’s not just our bank accounts or our computers that we risk. Being online so often, it can get into your head. It’s not uncommon for people to start the day looking through social media, which can often feel like beaming hellfire directly into your cortex. What can that do to us? Now we’ve talked about scam artists, and cybercrime, and people who do cruel things for the purpose of gaining something. But what about those who are just cruel, ostensibly for no reason? We call them internet trolls. People who just hurl abuse. But trolling has changed in recent years. It used to be a troll was someone who posted a link to one thing, only to have it redirect to Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley. These days it’s abuse and threats, or political leanings. So what’s going on? Why do this, and what strategies are there in dealing with them? Adam Murphy spoke to Claire Hardaker, a linguist at Lancaster University, and she talked about all the ways one person can troll another...

Claire - There are actually a very wide variety of different kinds of trolling behaviour. So you have people who will just nitpick and criticise, and find little faults, and niggle, and they just continually needle away. They're never really overtly aggressive, they're just really irritating. You then have the people who do the 'whatabouting', so they go off... like you're talking about Donald Trump and politics, and they keep saying, “yes but what about Hillary? What about her emails?” And they just always continually go off-topic.

You have people who introduce incredibly shocking, taboo subjects; so you're talking about something quite anodyne and they'll bring in something really extreme and quite horrific. You have people who will post advice that's dangerous - so someone will say, "my computer is doing such a thing," and they'll say, “get a big magnet and wave it near your computer and that should help fix the problem.”

You have people who are just flat out aggressive, they’ll just swear at you, they'll just hurl onslaughts of abuse and death threats. And basically there's as many different strategies to trolling as a person can sit and think up.

Adam - How do people respond to trolls, then? What is the family tree of counter-trolling?

Claire - You do get the class of people who just... they bite. They are the classic victim that the troll is looking for. The trolls say something horrific or outrageous and they become desperately offended, outraged, they start shouting - those are the classic engagers and it's like the gold win for the troll, that's who they want.

You then get the James Blunt category of respondent, as I call them. That's the kind of person who finds trolling hilarious and they turn it into a joke, so they turn the entire mechanism of being horrible back on the person who is trying to be offensive. So for those... take care, if you've got a sensitive aversion to strong language you might not want to go and see James Blunt's account, but if you want to have a look at this, go see James Blunt in action responding to people who are trying to send him abuse online. It's magical.

Adam - Of course that's a riskier strategy. People like James Blunt usually have enough followers to gather around them, and enough money to buy some time and a private island if they want it. Most of us can't afford that luxury. So what else can we do?

Claire - Other people go in for reciprocating. So they meet trolling with abuse and trolling of their own. It's like, "if you're gonna swear at me, I'm going to swear at you. You're going to find my address? I'm going to find your address." And it becomes a very escalating conflict situation that can get really out of hand. So I can't say I recommend that either, but for some people that's a very much more therapeutic way of responding.

And the final one, the one that's really interesting because it's viewed very much as a very powerless strategy, is where you use silence. And it's the classic response: we're always told, “do not feed the trolls.” But for a lot of people that feels like, “I have been silenced. I have lost my voice. This person has driven me off of this platform.” Whereas from my perspective, if you reframe that as, “I am not giving this person the air of attention. I am not giving them my headspace. I'm not letting them degrade my mental health.” So for me, this is very much about: you are not validating them. You are not feeding them. You are not giving them the thing that they're craving.

Adam - So remember: block and mute with impunity. If you think someone is trolling you, why give them the time of day? Let them boil in their own little dark cauldron. And what about counter-counter-trolling?

Claire - Oh, there's so many. There's probably about five different classic ways. So the classic is, “I'm not a troll, I'm a good person.” The next one is: they try and force an investigation. “You prove to me where I've done something wrong. I want you to go over all my posts, and you do this work and show me how I got this wrong or what I did wrong.” So it's sort of making the other person do all the emotional and cognitive labour of proving the case. The next one is excusing. “I'm new to this. I just didn't know how it works here. I didn't realise that you guys don't do jokes like that. I thought you were wittier kind of people, I thought you could take a joke.”

Another one is basically turning the accusation around. “I'm not the troll, you're the troll. What you're accusing me of is the exact thing that you say I am.” It's like, you know, you see this because you are this. And then the final one is the people who just don't care. And they're like, “yes I am. You... go die, fall in front of a bus.” And they just... the gates are opened and all the abuse is unleashed in a big, massive torrent.

Adam - You have to be tentative when drawing conclusions about any large group of people, but why might someone behave this way? Especially when they've ostensibly nothing to gain?

Claire - One of the classic ones seems to be disenfranchisement. So people felt like they were silenced, like they didn't have a voice, like the political process wasn't addressing their needs or requirements. This was their way of having a voice.

Another really toxic key factor - which may coincide with these other ones as well - was where people were basically doing it as a form of validation. So I found that these networks were forming, really transient networks. So let's say something starts trending on Twitter. People click on the trending topic, whatever that topic is. They then see loads of tweets that are abusive. They find those tweets funny and engaging and entertaining, and then they join in because they've seen lots of other people already doing it.

Those people then start to form this really transient network. It might only last 10 minutes, it might last an hour, sometimes it can last days if it's going really badly for the person involved. And they start liking, retweeting, and laughing and joking with each other going, “haha, isn't she an idiot! Well she should never have done this, then.” And they are sort of pouring fuel on their own fire. They're all encouraging each other to continue to be even more abusive, and they're seeking more and more likes, more and more retweets by getting ever more extreme. So it has this polarising factor of, “I have an audience and I want to impress them even more, and I want to be the wittiest, the nastiest, the most extreme.” And so that can really exaggerate people's behaviour.


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