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


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

What is an Internet Troll? The Answer Might Surprise You


What is a troll? It seems like a simple question, and one that those of us online wouldn’t even give a second thought before answering.

“In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” or so Wikipedia tells me.

But I think this is a definition that is changing before our very eyes, and if we’re not diligent about understanding what trolling is, we could have a very serious problem on our hands. Maybe we already do.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be posting a series of articles about trolling, online harassment, and Internet behavior, so I think the logical place to start would be here, with the very definition of troll.

Definitions from Twitter

To start, I asked Twitter. Twitter knows everything, right? So I asked, “In the length of a tweet, give me your definition for “Internet troll.” Here are some of the responses I received:

@Seth_Waite: ugly little monsters with nothing better to do than leave mean spirited, off topic, and nasty remarks across the web

@elvestinkle: someone seeking reactionary response rather than than a meaningful back and forth discussion #likeafisherman

@ManyaS: One who makes comments specifically designed to generate an often defensive, argumentative or opposing reaction from someone.

What A Troll Is Not

So a troll is argumentative, a troll is a troublemaker, a troll is mean. But are we applying this term too loosely to people online? I’d like to make an argument for people who are often called trolls, but who are not.

Not everyone who disagrees with you is a troll, even if they disagree in a mean or nasty way.

We need to be clear about whom we are calling trolls, because a lot of people who are not trolls are getting lumped into that mix. In my opinion, a troll has to satisfy the following points:

  • A troll does not add to the conversation in any way.
  • A troll’s main purpose is to cause trouble.
  • A troll is not angry or otherwise emotional about the topic. In other words, they have no horse in this race, nor do they care about the “outcome” of the debate. They will say whatever gets the biggest reaction.
  • A troll does not respect your comment or community policy. They do not care if they get banned.
  • A troll is not trying to be funny.

I bold-faced the most important point, the one that can most easily tell you if a commenter is a troll or not.

Sometimes, people leave really negative comments on my blog posts, but at the end of the day, if they are adding something to the conversation, I can’t justify calling them trolls. Even if the conversation is off-topic. Because they’re emotionally involved.

So let’s say that someone comes to my blog, reads a post, and leaves a comment about how my post makes no sense, how they disagree with everything I’ve said, and how everything I do is wrong. They end it with a comment wishing my demise. Stuff like that is not uncommon online.

But is that a troll? I would argue no. They are not commenting in order to disrupt the conversation or get a rise out of me. They truly feel like I’m a horrible person and they hate what I do. Now, if it’s my blog, I have every right to remove that comment if I want, but the person isn’t there to just make trouble. They’re voicing an opinion because they feel emotional about a topic.

Often we say to one another, “don’t feed the trolls,” when we really mean is, “don’t feed the haters.” Haters and trolls are two different beings.

The Rise of the Troll Kings

What scares me is the new level of “troll” out there. Or, at least, they’re often called trolls, but I don’t think that’s the right term for them. These people aren’t trolling. Trolling is annoying, but typically harmless. What these people are doing is harassment.

If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to check out this tale of “trolling,” which tells the story of a feminist blogger named Anita Sarkeesian who has been harassed and attacked since she posted a (since successful) Kickstarter project to raise money for a research project involving the portrayal of females in video games. Anita’s Wikipedia page was vandalized, her inbox was filled with drawings of her being raped, her site was attacked in an attempt to take it down, and her persona information (including phone number and address) were posted in online forums. Someone even made a “game” where the player’s only mission was to click on Anita’s picture to “beat her up” – with clicks revealing increasingly black-and-blue images of the blogger.

This is not trolling, people. This is something far above trolling. If you call that activity trolling, those must be the troll kings, at the very least.

Yet, one of the problems we face is that these attackers are being called trolls and many of them think of their actives as trolling, nothing more. Trolling does not have consequences (beyond occasionally being banned from a website), but harassment does.

So What’s Next?

Like I said, over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to be publishing a series of posts about this very topic – online harassment, trolling, and Internet activity in general. For now, though, I’d love to hear your thoughts on trolling. What is your personal definition of Internet troll? Do you agree with me that not all negative commenters are trolls? Do you think there’s a difference between trolling and harassment?

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