Bully

A troll is a bully by another name and not the sole responsibility of social networks. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

Australia apparently has a troll problem. When footballers call prime ministers, attorneys-general get involved, it seems.

Originally internet “trolls” got their kicks from provoking newer members of the online community into a furious defence of some well-worn topic. Delight was taken by the older members in watching the zeal pour out. Traditionally, “trolling” was a Usenet hazing ritual - the victim came through a little bit humiliated and a lot more aware of how the community operated.

I have been trolled in this way more times than I wish to admit, and I learnt that when joining an online community it pays to “lurk”, to read and ponder the workings of the group for a while before jumping in, opinions blazing.

As the World Wide Web developed and more people started to participate, trolling started to change in character. Trolling became more about drive-by-like incitement, where the troll had no intention of being part of a community, rather they derived pleasure from how far they could drag as many people as possible from the original discourse, often into intellectual back alleys. The tone became darker, the methods less like gentle poking and more hostile and provoking. At this point, the endgoal of trolling was to maximise the ensuing vitriol.

Trolling is now the internet pastime of the bored, insecure and antisocial trying to bait members of the community into descending to their level - gutter boors. It is bullying and puerile name calling, pure and simple.

Sadly, trolling is now about growing your own status through hurt.

Social networks have provided the audience that can turn your nasty tweet into an avalanche.

We have been told that this is all because we don’t use our real identities, that we hide behind anonymity as cowards. I don’t buy into this reasoning at all. Real names might make the individual easier to track down, but even well-known and validated identities will still bully if they think it will earn them status in their community. Using your real name doesn’t magically make you less of a jerk and it isn’t a guarantee of accountability. Nor does it necessarily lessen the hurt felt by a bully victim. 

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) last week released a five-step plan to reduce the impact of internet bullying. These steps, which include "Ignore the troll; block the troll; report trolls; talk with friends and family; and protect friends from trolls", are all good advice but the most important in my opinion is “protect friends from trolls”.

Trolls need a passive audience, it is their oxygen. If they feel they can say what they like without censure then they will. It’s one thing to escalate policing the problem to the likes of Twitter/Facebook and Google, but the most immediate and long-term solution is, as a society, to call them out and say that it is not OK, and sideline them.

When a spiteful tweet is targeting someone, the troll's pleasure is increased when the victim's own network is a silent witness, or even prolongs it by sharing it. Nasty comments can be diluted and the heat dissipated by your network of friends running interference so to speak. Fellowship is the key - early intervention in the event is preferable to legislation.

My own experience in these matters can be distilled into the following points. When witnessing someone being bullied online:

  • Don’t ever share/retweet nasty comments - even “funny” ones.
  • Give the target of the online attack some positive attention to balance out the negative. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with their position, but acknowledge they don’t deserve this level of disrespect.
  • Don’t spin nasty comments into some form of comedy and then share them.
  • Don’t follow/friend a troll and if you do, unfollow/unfriend them as soon as they start. They will soon get the message that their comments are negatively affecting their social status.
  • Encourage the victim to log off and take a break for a few hours. Bullies get easily bored. Remind your friend that this is not a sign of surrender, there is no war, the troll does not win when you do nothing; they win when you keep raging at them. Invite your friend out for a coffee and laugh at the bully in real conversation.
  • Don’t troll the bully.
  • Don’t tell the victim to harden up or “get over it”.

A person who feels part of a community has less to gain from trolling behaviours, regardless of what label (real name or alias) they use to identify themselves. Often the bully reveals more about themselves in the exchange than they do about the victim. A solid online community has its own defences against trolls.

Swords and Laser co-host Tom Merritt suggested at a recent panel that his approach to troll messages is to remove all the inflammatory and charged language, if there is anything left in the comment, respond to that in a reasonable manner - at least give them the option of rising above their initial comment. If, after you remove all the hatred there is nothing left, down-vote, ban or delete the message and move on.

In closing, hate language, bigotry and defamation is just that. There is no need to put it under a new and nebulous banner of trolling - call it what it really is and deal with it as the current laws have specified.

It is wrong no matter what medium is used to express it. However, putting all care and responsibility on the social network providers isn't a sustainable solution and it doesn't relieve the wider community of looking out for, and coming to the aid of, all targets of bullying - cyber or otherwise.

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