Saturday, August 17, 2013

Internet Trolls: Understanding the Scourge

Nicole Smith IAKF
Satirical Cartoon of an Internet Troll
In recent months, more people than ever have begun to talk about the new scourge plaguing the internet: “Internet Trolling.”  Internet trolling is the penchant of some individuals who take pleasure in sowing discord and enjoy creating conflict through the use of the internet.  

Different sources define an internet troll as a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

Researchers have begun studying this new phenomenon and believe that internet trolls actually suffer from a multitude of mental disorders.  Some psychiatrists describe internet trolls as sad people, living their lonely lives vicariously, and constantly jealous of those they see as strong and successful.  They typically possess a poorly developed set of social skills and have difficulty viewing their actions from the perspectives of their victims. The chemical imbalances in their brains make them callous to the fact that they are harming real people and mentally cannot think beyond their computer screen. They feel no remorse for the harm they cause, and actually measure their "success" by the amount of harm they have caused those they do not like.  The disease makes them impervious to rationale, mature arguments against their wares, and will protest that their right to free speech is being curtailed if ever there is an attempt to call them on their trolling.  People with this disorder exhibit desperation in meeting their attention-needs, which are usually unmet in their real life. 

Here are some satirical pictures describing internet trolls. 
nicole smith IAKF
Satirical Characteristics of an Internet Troll

nicole smith, nicole smith iakf
Satirical Illustration of the Anatomy of an Internet Troll

Internet trolls also suffer from the "flamer personality disorder" which is closely associated with schizophrenia.  They also suffer from a host of other mental illnesses such as somatoform disorder, factitious disorder, multiple personality disorder, kleptomania and pyromania.  Ironically, pyromania and flamer personality are two distinct mental illnesses though they sound similar and can be easily mistaken for the other. Australian psychologist Karyn Krawford found that, though internet trolling signifies serious mental illness, the more the mentally ill spend online the less empathetic they become.  Others feel that internet trolling is no different than any other criminal behavior like stealing or murder where the perpetrator is insensitive to the suffering they inflict on a victim.  Steven Streight describes characteristics of an internet troll in his blog:
  1. Posts inflammatory comments, not to engage in serious conversation, but to "grief" or annoy an online community.
  2. An obvious glee and elated satisfaction is aroused in them when people join the fight and reply to their deliberately disruptive comments.
  3. Copies and pastes large blocks of text to exhaust the readers of a topic thread, thus driving away legitimate posters of sincere comments. These blocks of text are often recycled and appeared on a variety of threads.
  4. Tends to avoid complimenting people who disagree with them, even when those in opposition to the troll make some valid points.
  5. Shuns any conciliatory statements like "You have obviously spent a lot of time studying this subject, and I'm not certain how to reply to your last remark, so let's shake hands, part as friends, and move on."
  6. Never ends a debate with "Thanks for the discussion" or "I'll consider what you say" or any other finalizing remark, because they love arguing and disrupting civilized conversations.
  7. Keeps an argument going a lot longer than a normal person would, to the point where people will start asking a moderator to turn off comments or block the troll. However, sometimes people will do this just because they can't tolerate contrary opinions and are angry at seeing them posted to a thread they enjoyed reading. The mark of a troll is to keep hammering away at a point in an obsessive manner.
  8. Acts innocent when called a troll, and states "I'm just stating a contrary opinion, and you can't handle it", but the reality is they are not innocent, they are trouble-makers who only post inflammatory remarks, rarely contributing any real value or good information to a discussion.
  9. Starts saying filthy words and making wild accusations when confronted. Their hostility and provoking rhetoric escalates when you ask them if they might be a troll or if they are simply trying to stir up trouble.
  10. When you mention the name of another well-known forum, Second Life, or blogospheric troll, they defend them and accuse you of not understanding that person because you're a tyrannical censoring fascist or whatever.
  11. Will try to bring up issues that they are angry about, no matter what the topic of a thread is. For example, they will say things like "sounds like the Open Source movement" or "reminds me of Tea Baggers" or "you're sounding like a typical commie libtard now" or "you sound like some irrational Creationism crank" or "you atheists are all the same", or whatever it is they're hostile toward, in an attempt to start a new argument within the current debate.
  12. When people realize or are warned that the person is a troll, and the troll is then ignored, and nobody will respond to anything they say, the trolling person tends to give up and go to some other thread. They crave attention and they try to get it by being obnoxious in a juvenile, or scholarly, manner.
  13. They use a nickname, are anonymous, or use a real sounding name, but do not embed a link to their blog or website in their name, as is common in comment forms. This lack of accountability enables them to get away with saying anything they want, to anybody, and even tell outright lies about what they saw or heard.
  14. They, when not confronted or exposed sufficiently, will seek to have the last word in an online discussion. When nobody responds to their last troll comment, they will proudly proclaim that they "won" what they fantasize as a "content" or "battle.”
Though there will still be outliers, most internet trolls can be categorized into two broad types, “Precursor” and “Lackey.”  

Precursor:  These are individuals who are motivated by psychotic delusions or compulsions, or by a neurotic search for false self-esteem.  They suffer from a psychoneurosis marked by emotional excitability and disturbances of the psychic, sensory, vasomotor, and visceral functions.  Neurotic trolls try to obtain a false sense of self-esteem by manipulating the reactions of others.  They enjoy demonstrating their “power” to destroy what others enjoy.  Such trolls usually self-identify themselves in their hate campaign by posting pictures of themselves next to the hate campaigns they initiate on the internet.  These are usually compulsive liars who go to any extent to create hysteria over the internet.  They are often manipulative enough to make it past any initial moderation by website administrators.  They inject their own emotional turmoil into other people by luring them into negativity.  It's a way for them to feel some kind of control or power over their own disruptive emotions, at other people's expense,"

Lackey:  Also called brown-nosed internet trolls.  They tend to be servile followers of the precursor troll and are usually closely associated with the precursor troll.  They usually follow the former and encourage others to join in the mob.  They yearn for attention and approval of the precursor troll.  They have a longing for consideration of their posts as highly intellectual from the precursor or other lackeys.  Lackeys usually post anonymously or hide behind fake ids.  These types of trolls account for the majority of internet trolls.  Though they suffer from mental illnesses to the same extent as precursors, they lack the guts to self-identify.   Without the face-to-face presence on the internet, lackeys perceive others as a 'targets' rather than real human beings with real lives.

A comment by a CNN reader in relation to an article on internet trolls caught my eye. It reads, “I am trying to understand the mentality of someone that has to act in concert with others in a comment forum.  Are we all still in 5th grade? Even then, that behavior was lame. Adults needing to act in concert to be mean to someone else anonymously simply means their mother should have handled her business and spared the rest of us from her progeny.”

While internet trolls have many motivations, it is encouraging to see that society has begun to recognize the problem and is doing something about it.  It may also just be a matter of time before all individuals are required to undergo routine psychological testing by medical practitioners during annual physicals thus enabling them to identify mental illnesses early on and help treat them. 

The run of trolls may be finally coming to an end, though there will still be websites that thrive on promoting hate.   More and more online newspapers, blogs, and other websites are instituting anti-troll measures, to stop this pathological trend.  All reputed media outlets online have begun to monitor content in certain sensitive areas, and forbid the use of impersonation, targeted abuse, violence, and threats, and the revelation of others' personal information.  Most reputed websites have shut down comments as a way to keep internet trolls at bay.  At the New York Times, editors select a limited number of articles daily that may receive comments; two moderators keep an eye on things.  Facebook recently announced its plans to ramp up efforts to delete hate speech, particularly those against private citizens, on its site.

For now, as we continue to witness a tipping point against trolling on the internet, we should also believe that there are still a lot of sincerely good people left on this planet.  I think that there are more good people than misguided ones.  And when the good ones’ tolerance level ends, they rise up and bring about great social change for the greater good.  So, if you have been a victim of internet trolling, believe that you are not alone because every single truly good citizen in our civil society is here for you.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bullies, Bystanders and Innocent Lives Lost

Title states that internet bullies hurt real people

It has been a few months since I got involved in support groups promoting awareness about cyber bullying in schools. Apart from the volunteering aspect of my involvement, I have had to opportunity to learn a lot on the subject. Among other things, I learned that the term "Cyber Bullying" is mostly used when the victim of the alleged harassment is a child. When the alleged victim is an adult, it is called "Cyber Harassment." With the proliferation of the internet and social media, more adults than ever have become victims of internet harassment. Unfortunately, many cyber bullies or perpetrators conveniently cite their First Amendment right to free speech.  However, the game changes when this free speech causes harm to other private citizens and claims innocent victims.

Internet changed the bullying landscape by allowing harassers to take their hatred to whole new level. Harassment, in the name of free speech, today has morphed into ugly multimedia attacks. As a result, news of innocent victims of cyber bullying being driven to suicide by relentless well orchestrated internet hate campaigns is common today.

The story is all too familiar: The victim tries to complain about their plight to those in charge and have substantial authority over the perpetrators to stop them. However, their pleas too often are met with disdain. Most often the victim is met by statements from these authorities such as "Stop making such a big deal about it. I don’t understand why you’re upset."

Duh? The bullied are complaining because they are being harassed. They are complaining because they have become the victims of some very sick minds. They are complaining because they believe something can be done about it. They are not complaining because they oppose another private citizen's first amendment right. They complain because they are hurt. They complain because they haven't lost faith in the system and believe that the system would rise to the occasion and protect them.

By looking the other way and failing to step up, the authorities, in essence defend the bully. They attack the victim for trying to deny the bully the freedom to harass those that the bully apparently doesn’t like. They tell the victims that the best way out is to just ignore the attacks.

This sadly doesn't help the victim. It helps the authorities because they fear the bully. They are too afraid to deal with the problem, thereby turning into stoic bystanders. Such bystanders are totally unworthy of any respect because they clearly demonstrate their cowardice.

The victim, faced by public humiliation and shame, many a times ends up committing suicide.  Hindsight being 20/20, lives may have been saved if these bystanders "grew a set" and did everything in their power to stop the bullies.

Some more resources:

How to handle internet harassment 

Cyber harassment and the law