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Online Trolls, Toxic Disinhibition, and How We can Change the Internet

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This is the story of how Leo Traynor met a Internet troll, and how we can use this as a launching pad to change the Internet. It’s a story every blogger – no, every Internet user – needs to hear, understand, and take action upon.

As he outlined on his blog, Leo decided to leave Twitter. He and his wife were getting derogatory messages from trolls, and although they brushed things off in the past, things got serious when Leo started getting deliveries to his home.

Delivers like a Tupperware container full of ashes and a note that said “Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz” and a bunch of dead flowers with his wife’s Twitter handle on it. Twitter messages calling him a “Dirty f*cking Jewish scumbag” had now escalated to say “You’ll get home some day & ur b**ches throat will be cut & ur son will be gone.” and “I hope you die screaming but not until you see me p*ss on ur wife.”

Leo was scared. I would have been too, petrified.

And then, with the help of a friend who knew how to trace IP addresses, he found out who his troll/stalker/harasser was: the 17-year-old son of one of his friends.

And so, Leo got the opportunity most of us will never have. He got to confront his troll. Over tea with his troll’s entire family, Leo showed him the screenshots of the abuse, pulled out the pictures of the mail, and told the boy how scared and physically sick he had been.

Then it happened…

The Troll burst into tears. His dad gently restraining him from leaving the table.

I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him “Why?”

The Troll sat there for a moment and said “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry. It was like a game thing.”

A game thing.

Leo’s story isn’t the only one out there. Remember the story of feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who so angered the Internet with her kickstarter project that people threatened to rape her and kill her. They even created an online “game” where the entire point was to punch her likeness in the face? Or how about the story of Patrick Frey Patterico, who’s critical remarks on his blog led to a SWAT team showing up at his house after phoney calls about him killing his family?

And this isn’t a new threat either. Back in 2007, developer and author Kathy Sierra famously cancelled her O’Reilly ETech conference appearance after receiving death threats on her blog, and other instances of online content creators dealing with trolls both online and off date back even farther.

When are we, as the users of the Internet, going to stand up and say, “Enough”?

Disinhibition, Turned Toxic

The barrier of the screen creates a sense of disinhibition among Internet users. For most of us, this disinhibition means that we let our guard down and share struggles and triumphs with online communities even when we wouldn’t share those same experiences with our friends in a face-to-face setting. But for some people, this turns into a toxic disinhibition.

The best explanation of toxic disinhibition I’ve found in my research of this topic is this piece from John Suler’s The Psychology of Cyberspace. According to Suler, toxic disinhibition happens for a number of reasons, which include:

It’s Just a Game (dissociative imagination) – Like in Leo’s story, some people create this “game world” where the person online is just a character to them, and other people are just characters as well. Just like turning off a game, this manifestation of toxic disinhibition leaves the user feeling like they can turn it off because it isn’t real. And just like shooting zombies in a video game, how can someone be held responsible for something they did in a game world?

You Don’t Know Me (dissociative anonymity) – Because users can often be completely anonymous, they don’t feel vulnerable. Their actions can’t be linked to their “real” identity, so they can act out feelings of rage or hatred with no consequences even if those action are completely out of line with who they feel they really are.

We’re Equals (minimizing authority) – When you’re online, other people can’t tell if you’re the CEO of a major corporation or a fifth grader with no friends. The Internet is the great equalizer, and people believe they can say things without disapproval or punishment. They have the ability to be powerful online, even if they aren’t in “real” life.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. I really encourage you to check out Suler’s full article for further analysis of toxic disinhibition.

Beyond toxic disinhibition, it’s simply human nature to want to be part of a group. We have this pack mentality where we don’t want to stand out as the lone person not doing something, and when someone is being attacked, we don’t want to be the next target. It’s easy for lots of people online to gang up on someone when there’s a ringleader (or at least not say anything in opposition). All it takes is one bad egg and a few followers for an entire community to quickly dissolve. This is as true online as it is offline. We all want to be on the “right” side, and sometimes that leads us to make bad decisions.

What We Can – And Should – Do About It

We have a responsibility as online content creators. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it on your blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, or anywhere else online.

We obviously can’t stop other people from acting in certain ways online, but here’s what we can do, beyond ensuring our own actions are responsible:

  • Stop referring to face-to-face interactions as “real life.” Online is real life too.
  • When you see someone bullying someone else online, speak up, the same way you would (I hope) say something if you saw a bigger kid bullying a little kid at the playground. It’s really hard not to get sucked into the group, but be brave.
  • Vote for politicians who understand the Internet and the laws that govern it, and who will make responsible decisions about trolling laws in the future and appoint judges who can adequately deal with Internet cases.
  • Don’t allow trolls to attack you or others on your blog under the banner of “free speech.” You get to decide what comments are approved on your blog. This doesn’t mean that you should delete all negative comments, but it does mean that you take responsibility for every word published on your site. There’s a difference between debate and trolling.
  • Call the police if someone is harassing you online. Do not be too ashamed. These are real, dangerous situations, and police need to take them seriously.
  • Boycott sites that allow trolling and harassment among community members. Tell the owner (politely) why you will no longer be a member of this community.
  • Reach out to people dealing with online harassment and offer words of encouragement and support.
  • Apologize for past wrongs. If this guy on Reddit can do it after laughing at a woman with facial hair, you can do it too. Admitting that you’re wrong is hard and uncomfortable, but it can make a huge difference.
  • Blog, podcast, or create a video about these issues. If you don’t have a blog, share this post or another post like it. Spread the word that trolling and harassment online isn’t cool. Encourage others to commit to troll-free actions online.

I’ve always identified with the Gandhi quote, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” In other words, be the change you want to see in the world. I’m an optimist to a fault, but if everyone reading this post takes action, we can make the Internet – and the whole world – a better place. So let’s do it!

Photo Credit: Bigstock

Allison Boyer freelance writer and content marketing consultant. She also runs the food blog The PinterTest Kitchen with her mom and sister. You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter (@allison_boyer) or contact her at allisonmboyer@gmail.com.


Feedback

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  • Carol

    THANK YOU! This – I needed to read this today. Yes, please lets raise arms…keyboards? Let’s change the Internet! I fear for it is slowly becoming: the place where anonymous trolls can roam free instilling fear and negativity into people’s lives. Where shaming others, their lifestyle, their person is a platform that often leads to profitable gains (gasp!) Where feelings are hurt and confidence is shattered. Where bullies rule with their words and ability to publish content to the angry mobs. Let’s stand up against it. So that the world, both online and off, is a place I can proudly share with my children too.

  • xenubarb

    I don’t think the internet is “slowly” becoming anything. I’ve been online since 1991, and there were trolls back then. They’ve always been among us. The interweb has always been a cross section of humanity, trolls included.

    They’re like fleas. They will always be with us.

    • Allison

      I think you’re right that the trolls have always been there, but I do think we’re seeing an increase as more and more people use the Internet daily and as sites become more social and interactive. Crappy people will always be online, just like they’ll be around in the face-to-face world, but the problem I’m more worried about is people who are generally nice in a face-to-face situation but horrible online. This kind of toxic disinhibition is a problem that can’t be ignored.

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