Traditional wisdom says bullies are cowards. People who cause dissent and outrage online are also cowards, often working anonymously or under a pseudonym to undermine individuals and businesses. It’s called trolling, and it’s an increasingly serious issue online.
A number of trolls have been jailed for, amongst other things, mocking dead teenagers online. Sean Duffy was jailed for posting comments about fifteen-year-old Natasha MacBryde on social networking sites, after her taking her own life, causing distress to her family. And Colm Coss was jailed for posting obscene messages about Jade Goody, amongst other dead people, on Facebook tribute pages and causing bereaved families terrible pain.
Online forums, social media, chat rooms, blogs and newspaper comments are all affected, with offensive insults, provocation and threats made by trolls. Celebrities are vulnerable too, as are businesses. So why do people do it?
Who trolls most?
Trolling is most common amongst the young, mostly teens, who do it for amusement or revenge, or just because they’re bored. Professor Prof Mark Griffiths, the director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, believes that people feel anonymous online, and this can lead to fewer inhibitions as users lower their emotional guard and either react to a situation or go further and proactively troll others. Since anonymity in itself is a form of power, it is open to abuse by people with immature minds. Does the cloak of anonymity lent by the internet directly encourage people to behave in more extreme ways, magnifying everyday mischief-making until it reaches harmful levels? It’s entirely possible.
Why is most trolling by youngsters?
Scientists have known for some time that the human brain matures slowly. Some feel the process completes somewhere in the mid-20s, but recent research hints the brain might not fully mature until we’re in our forties. One of the last parts to mature is the area of the prefrontal cortex responsible for understanding risk, reward, thinking ahead, self-evaluation and regulating emotions. Like traditional offline bullying, the immaturity of the people who do it is probably fundamental.
Angry, sad, abused?
One school of thought says many people who bully others have themselves suffered some form of abuse, or simply feel angry or unhappy, both emotions that are common in troubled teens as they struggle to get to grips with the complexities of adult life and the hormonal chaos adolescence can bring.
Does social media encourage trolling per se?
Social media psychologist Arthur Cassidy believes social networks unwittingly encourage the practice simply because young people forget about secrecy and discretion when online, letting it all hang out in an effort to create attractive and interesting online identities. When you indulge in unwise levels of self-publicity, it opens the way for nasty stuff like ridicule, jealousy and betrayal.
Adults get involved in trolling, too. Take a look at almost any sport, music or fan site and you’ll find people of every age taking part in attacks.
Trolling as an extension of normal human behaviour
Some experts believe that trolling is simply an online extension of ordinary human behaviour. Rob Manuel, who co-founded the B3ta website, on which you can alter photos for fun, believes it taps into people’s natural desire to tease, cause trouble and annoy.
Driving social change?
Some trolls, typically the adult practitioners, insist their trolling is all about driving social change, justice and equality, but it’s hard to see how such wholly negative contributions can result in positive change, and most experts think their claims are disingenuous.
Whatever the reason for their behaviour, all you need to do is search online and you discover that most people have a healthy disrespect for trolls. While one in ten young people admitted to trolling in a recent vInspired survey, the results reveal nine out of ten youngsters don’t get involved. While trolling might be on the increase, it’s thankfully still in the minority.