By Mike Canavan
Ancient folklore in Scandinavian and Norse mythology speaks of trolls as: “ugly deformed creatures who dwelt in isolated rocky outcrops, mountains, or caves. They apparently lived together in small isolated family units, and were rarely helpful to human beings”.
Alas, today trolls have taken on a far more sinister path than just living in the isolated mountains and rocky outcrops. Today they invade our real personal human space daily.
The term ‘trolling’ stems from the internet slang ‘troll’, which is a person who starts arguments or upsets people by posting inflammatory, extraneous messages online. The aim of a troll is to provoke other online users into an emotional response often for their own amusement or evil ends.
Given the recent spate of high-profile internet abuse through trolling, I thought it was timely to explore and probe into this vile practice.
The recent high-profile attacks on Brisbane Rugby League’s former coach Anthony Seibold, has led to a number of major events in his life. He has severed his relationship with the Brisbane Broncos and according to just released press reports: “Seibold’s legal team has sent a dossier to the NRL after the ex-Broncos coach hired a team of European cybersecurity experts to investigate a slew of defamatory attacks on him on social-media platforms.
It was claimed in the press yesterday that the dossier “includes three names with links to the NRL”.
Seibold is not the only one in the NRL rocked by sickening attacks.
Nine sports presenter Erin Molan has said trolling has had a had a profound effect on her. Molan has made a passionate call for a rethink on combating online trolls saying: “that the onus to act was still being forced on victims. We as a society must take this most insidious virus much more seriously than we currently do, and act accordingly”.
Molan in another statement said: “that trolls should face the prospect of jail time”. She went on: “that children should be strongly dissuaded against becoming online bullies via school education programs”.
After the most recent attacks of relentless and vicious in nature Molan said: “that victims could no longer be asked to cope with abuse while action against trolls was inadequate”.
Molan told ‘Weekend TODAY’: “I’ve been lobbying the government for probably over a year now on this topic. First of all, this isn’t about me. I’ve been the victim of some of the most horrific trolling and abuse online for the better part of a decade. I am essentially immune to it. I see it for what it is.”
“This is about other people. This is about young people this is about every Australian having the right to feel safe online”.
“I just think there’s real issues at the moment with what we are doing with this”. She went on to say, “I think the entire focus of campaigns at the moment in schools should be about, coping mechanisms for the victim”.
I suppose the most obvious question to ask is what do we know about internet trolling? What are the laws? And how do they protect us?
So, what do you do if you become a victim of this despicable practice?
According to the conventional wisdom of the internet, there’s one simple guideline for responding to trolls: ‘don’t feed them’. Ignore them, don’t react to them, don’t give them the attention they want. The axiom has become such a reflexive piece of advice and assumed knowledge that it can often be difficult to see the misperceptions and dismissiveness at its heart. There is an ignorance and misunderstanding it is only serving to perpetuate the cycle of the grim, cruel reality it has helped to enable this vile online culture.
One of the greatest lie’s online, is that trolling is harmless.
Trolling is broadly defined as: ‘a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.’ That can imply a lot of different things. Typically, it speaks to insincere motives, like saying something you don’t mean in a political discussion just to upset someone. But trolling can also encompass any kind of wilfully obtuse nonsense that’s designed to confuse people.
The truth is all trolling, whether we admit it or not, has a meaning and a target. You are inherently saying; ‘This subject is worthy of mockery’.
The American Television host of ‘Last Week Tonight’ John Oliver, uses trolling tactics to promote social activism. His particular brand of trolling stunts are specifically laser-targeted focused and then claims the highest of moral ground.
He takes on bureaucratic institutions, high-powered tyrants, homophobia and other social issues in an approach that embodies the very definition of “punch up” in comedy (to give energy or forcefulness to jokes or a speech). It also reveals the core problem of trolling many choose to ignore. It pre-ports to be an act of satire, however it is something that comes with real targets and real responsibility.
But the core intent of trolling is the opposite: it’s not just to provoke, but to run away from the responsibility of the joke itself. The very notion of unaccountability rests in the anonymity of this coward’s castle.
Defenders of trolling insist it’s all just a joke, but if trolling is inherently designed to get a reaction out of someone, then that’s what it really is. In many cases, it is designed to look and feel indistinguishable from a genuine attack. Whether you believe what you are saying or not is often immaterial because the impact is the same — and you are responsible for it, regardless of how funny you think it is. It is a lesson children learn time and time again in the playground, and yet, it is ridiculously difficult for such people to accept the same basic notion in online culture, no matter their age.
So why is that so?
While some clearly use “joking” as a justification for abuse or even violent threats, there’s little larger comprehension or interest among huge swathes of internet culture about how satire, irony, or intent actually function, much less in the distinction between what they consider “trolling” and actual abuse. Drawing such lines would be against both the protocol and the intent behind the creation of internet culture at large — a culture that was designed to escape the responsibilities of the social order.
Another great lie is about what fixes it.
One of the most popular solutions that arose in online culture was, again, the mantra of “don’t feed the trolls.” This meant that any time a troll popped up in an online situation making inflammatory remarks, you were supposed to ignore them because responding would derail the thread and give them the attention they wanted. What no one seems to understand is it never works practically. There was always someone who wanted to troll back in the opposite direction, someone who genuinely got offended for a personal and valid reason, or someone who wanted to try to be reasonable. Instead of solving anything, “don’t feed the trolls” became a motto for people who want to act above it all or regale us with stories about how much harder it was to troll back in their day when they had to troll uphill, both ways! But most of all, it became the mantra of how to ignore online abuse completely.
The premise of “don’t feed the trolls” implies that if you ignore a troll, they will inevitably get bored or say, “Oh, you didn’t nibble at my bait so I will just go away”.
Erin Molan’s very point was she ignored the trolls but that only encouraged a persistent harassment online, ignoring the issue just made it more prolific. Her trolls kept pushing and pushing to get the reaction they want with even more tenacity and intensity. It’s the same pattern on display in the litany of abusers and stalkers, both online and off, who escalate to more dangerous and threatening behaviour when they feel like they are being ignored. In many cases, ignoring a troll can carry just as dear-a-price as provocation.
Not only does this sort of ignorance function as a kind of tacit permission, but it also ignores the inherent threat of the troll’s true intent.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” John Stuart Mill 1867.
What the troll, stalker, and abuser really want out of the situation is to feel powerful and in control. And they will not stop until they feel it. Therein lies the most horrible aspect of the “don’t feed” mantra: rather than doing anything to address the trolls, the more tangible effect is to silence the victim and the reality of their abuse, or worse, to blame them for it. For far too many who promoted this idea, the true goal was silence, to avoid facing what is happening and the impossible responsibility of it.
“Don’t feed the trolls” also ignores an obvious method for addressing online abuse: skilled moderation and the willingness to kick people off platforms for violating rules about abuse.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now so large that they are considered “unmoderatable” communities. We like to pretend this was a pure facet of their size, but it is inescapably a part of their ethos. They are platforms forged in the fires of troll culture, founded and operated by techno-libertarians who didn’t understand why they had to care about any of this. They set out with no intention to moderate at all. Zuckerberg just wanted to rate hot girls, after all. But in 2020, the staggering effects of non-moderation are just starting to hit them, and they have little idea how to address or even intellectually engage with the idea.
It starts by acknowledging that these systems are so large and pervasive and such an important part of people’s forward-facing lives that it is intrinsically necessary to protect the well-being of the people on it. For many, social media networks are a huge part of not just how we socialise and connect with other people, but how we do our jobs. These platforms have succeeded in making themselves indispensable to many users, which renders absurd the suggestion that the abuse festering there is something people can easily “opt out of” by not participating.
Telling a victim of a mob calling for their head online to not go online anymore is like telling someone who has a hate group camped in their yard to ‘just not go outside’. The consequences of this attitude are very real. In today’s online world, people can claim the power of a threat with none of the consequences of actually making a threat. On June 29, 2018, Milo Yiannopoulos called for the shooting of journalists. The next Thursday, a gunman opened fired in a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people and injuring several others.
He quickly insisted that “he wasn’t being serious.” This is the heart of trolling, especially when it’s built around the intent to terrorise.
The last lie is the one that says any of this is simple.
It is not. Online abuse is infinitely complex and human, and there are no easy life hacks for solving it. No one can “stop” it as though it’s a singular entity careening down a street. Nor can they address it without addressing larger societal problems. It is part of a systemic reality, and as such, it needs large-scale systemic solutions. But any solution needs to start with honesty and identifying the given problem as it exists: we are simply too permissive of “troll culture,” and we always have been.
It’s easy to confuse this sobering despair with cynicism. We have to fight to claim space for decency. But like democracy itself, that means fighting a war with one hand tied behind your back. Occasionally, it means acknowledging the most horrible truth of all: that once in a blue moon, talking works. Whether with a troll or those that give permission to them, sometimes you can actually get through. But this work also comes with its own grinding weight, which is why we can never make it ‘the job’ of the abused to defend their humanity or explain over and over why decency should be the norm. That’s why it’s so critical to step up and do what you can to defend or empower marginalised people in our community.
The biggest mistake we ever made with trolls was making the question of abuse about how to placate and fix them instead of how to empower the people they hurt or manage your own well-being in the face of them.
This brings us to the only thing I know for sure: often, the online abusers win because the game is set up for them to win the moment they decide to play. What we have to do is hold those responsible to account, the law must recognise that internet trolling is as dangerous and damaging domestic abuse, and the one coward punch. Those that are involve in this particular form of abuse must face the full weight of the law and our court system and be punished accordingly. Anything else is an abrogation of our responsibilities and our duty of care to the community at large.