Online Trolling Is An Epidemic & It’s Threatening Our Way of Life
It’s the nastiest by-product of the social-media revolution, and one that far too many experience either passively or directly on a daily basis. It’s called trolling, but despite its somewhat whimsical name, it has become a modern-day plight that ranges from the harmless to the heinous. As explored by Ambrosia For Heads recently, the topic of internet trolling gained an influx of recent mainstream attention when comedian Leslie Jones became the target of a vitriolic attack waged by countless Twitter users who harassed her with sexism and bigotry so ugly, she felt the need to retreat entirely from social media to escape.
Her story (and the millions of similar experiences others have had) has helped inspire Time magazine’s latest cover story. Joel Stein’s “The Tyranny of the Mob” is prefaced with the statement emblazoned on the August 29 issue: “Why we’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate.” Complemented by an image of a troll creature maniacally staring into a laptop, it’s a six-page investigative spread that takes a look at how online harassment, aggression, and violence is beginning to have an effect on our individual and collective psyches as well as society at large. Trolling has exposed a weakness in our ever-evolving tech-obsessed world, and as we continue to develop into a society in which all things large and small, personal and extra-personal are shared on the web, our weakness could very well have dire implications for our ability to self-assess and heal.
As Stein writes, it all begins at the beginning, when the world-wide web was a place “with lofty ideals about the free flow of information.” But then, something curious happened. What began as a bastion for open and free communication became a hotbed for hateful words, and eventually it became so omnipresent, a name was needed for the trend. “Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building,” he writes. “The people who relish this online freedom are called trolls, a term that originally came from a fishing method online thieves use to find victims.”
The fact that finding victims is a part of what makes a troll a troll signifies how harmful their behavior can be. Stein lists “clever pranks to harassment to violent threats” as being the spectrum of behaviors trolls engage in, but it’s their potential side effects which truly have the lingering effect. These can range from the relatively benign like hurt feelings or an embarrassing photo to the far more severe, such as depression and in many cases, suicide. While not all cases of trolling are particularly newsworthy or extreme, they are no less indicative of a troubling trend in which enjoyment is taken in the anonymized, online mistreatment of others. Stein includes a list of such examples including the experiences of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist who received bomb threats and rape threats after launching a Kickstarter aimed at diminishing misogyny in video games; former deputy Washington editor of the New York Times Jonathan Weisman, who quit Twitter after “a barrage of anti-Semitic messages”; and “feminist writer Jessica Valenti said she was leaving social media after receiving a rape threat against her daughter, who is 5 years old.”
All of these examples are anecdotal but they are indeed representative of a global experience being had by millions of internet users. According to a recent Pew Research poll cited by Stein, 70% of internet users between the ages of 18 and 24 reported online harassment, and a staggering 26% of women in that age group reported being the targets of online stalking. The scariest component of this data is not the frequency necessarily, but the kinds of people doing the harassing and stalking. As a society, Mercer University literature professor Whitney Phillips says, we tend to think of trolls as “aberrational and antithetical to how normal people converse with each other. And that could not be further from the truth,” adding “[t]hese are mostly normal people who do things that seem fun at the time that have huge implications. You want to say this is the bad guys, but it’s a problem of us.”
The world of politics is one in which trolling has become a popularly utilized strategy. But it spills into nearly every imaginable realm. “In this new culture war, the battle isn’t just over homosexuality, abortion, rap lyrics, drugs or how to greet people at Christmastime. It’s expanded to anything and everything: video games, clothing ads, even remaking a mediocre comedy from the 1980s,” writes Stein. It’s “become the main tool of the alt-right, an Internet-grown reactionary movement,” a movement embodied by Milo Yiannopoulos, who was recently banned from Twitter for taking part in the assault of Leslie Jones. Twitter “said Yiannopoulos, a critic of the new ‘Ghostbusters’ who called Jones a ‘black dude’ in a tweet, marshaled many of his more than 300,000 followers to harass her.” He emphatically denies inciting anyone to harass anybody and furthermore, “says being responsible for your fans is a ridiculous standard.” He accuses Jones of “faking hurt for political purposes” and says “it’s very sad that feminism has turned very successful women into professional victims.”
Stein’s article goes into great detail about the history of some of the more notorious examples of alt-right trolling and he includes quotes from insiders whose voices have helped contextualize the modern debate about trolling. All of it is insightful and illuminating, but one point in particular highlights why trolling is a potentially fatal epidemic for modern, progressive society. “When sites are overrun by trolls, they drown out the voices of women, ethnic and religious minorities, gays–anyone who might feel vulnerable.” That is not good.
Bonus Beat: on a 2015 episode of his show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver took a deep dive into the topic of online harassment and discovered an underworld that is downright criminal.
More research about the psychological elements of online trolling can be seen in a 2014 report from Psychology Today.