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Trolling: Identity Deception

What Is A Troll?

Within last week’s discussion of anonymity/identity, one concept we spent considerable time on was the idea of online “trolls”.  Perhaps the best way to describe a troll is as an online entity who, in simple terms, posts something out of the ordinary on the Internet within an online community solely for the purposes of: a) eliciting and garnering an emotional response from others; b) bringing attention onto themselves with no thought of or for anyone else; and/or c) interrupting what would have otherwise been a normal online interaction.  As Judith Donath wrote in her article “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”, trolling is a game of identity deception led by the troll his/herself at the expense of the other, reluctant and unaware, players who become disrupted by said trolling.

Trolling is most commonly known to be a virtual action of anonymity and, regardless of the purpose and/or intention of the troll, it is usually done with the intent to shock.  Incidents of trolling seems to most often be found on websites which secure and potentially guarantee the anonymity of the poster, though as I will further elaborate, this might not always be the case.

What Does Trolling Usually Look Like?

Yahoo! Answers, which is set up as a forum in which users can post questions which other users can “answer”, is arguably the first website which comes to mind in regard to online trolling.  Usually on a website such as Yahoo! Answers, anonymity is granted through its animated avatars (which can be described as generic images of men and women with the option of hair color, glasses or no glasses, ponytail or no ponytail for women, spiked or slicked hair for men, etc.) accompanied by names such as “Lee S.”  This is an example of someone who is likely a troll.  Yahoo! Answers user “sammy”, who has a default avatar, claims that she has just been diagnosed with “stage 5 brain cancer” and asks for advice on how to tell her best friend, whose mother has just recently died from breast cancer.  Little does “sammy” seem to know that there is no such thing as stage 5 brain cancer, a mistake which highlights this apparent trolling incident, for which some Yahoo users fall and many others criticize her.  One user, “Craftylass”, writes to “sammy” that stage 5 brain cancer does not exist, expresses her amazement that she, or he (remember, we must take into account that online anonymity easily frees one of their physical identities like gender) would go to that extreme to gain attention, and finally disclosing that she herself has stage IV breast cancer.

Below is another example of trolling found on Yahoo! Answers, which speaks for itself.

Judith Donath also points out several examples of trolling in her article; one in particular deals with a user who posted on an online forum about cats suggesting that another user should train/discipline their cat not to chew on furniture by spraying hydrogen peroxide at the cat. Many other users of the cat forum were quick to accuse the person of being a troll, while others fell victim to the troll and either reprimanded him/her or courteously enlightened the troll that hydrogen peroxide to the face was unhealthy for the cat.  Donath elaborated that trolls could corrode the integrity of a forum, disintegrate the trust within an online community, and give out bad or misleading advice, all of which the above examples emphasize.  The presence of trolls, in this regard, can threaten or extinguish what would otherwise be considered a viable medium (i.e., trolls are a common factor of Yahoo! Answers, which could potentially discourage Internet users from even bothering to utilize the site).

“Troll Alert”?

Donath writes, however, that we can become sensitized to trolls, stating “many honestly naive questions may be quickly rejected as trollings”.  The interesting thing about this is that we the audience have such little information about the poster and their actual situation that we cannot be sure if this person is sincerely confused and/or lost, simply crazy, or very well-aware of their bizarre online nature but are intentionally trolling.

Take the website Formspring as an example.  The site is set up as a forum where users have the option of sending anonymous questions to another user’s profile page, with that question and the receiver’s answer then being posted on their profile page (at the user’s discretion).  Through the anonymity with which the website runs, there is nothing stopping one from trolling another’s Formspring account, therefore sensitizing the environment to trolls.  I recall one question on the Formspring of a friend of mine, in which an anonymous user asked him why he never accepted his/her friend request on Facebook, to which my friend simply replied, “troll”.  This was only after he had received numerous “questions” on Formspring which were clearly trolling incidents, but I remember seeing this and wondering whether the anonymity of Formspring oversensitizes us to trolls, therefore causing us to jump at the first suggestion of a troll, for “the rate of deception is high”. (Donath)  Indeed, one could argue Formspring is a trolling medium rather than another form of social media in that its setup (asking an anonymous question to a known user) beckons/promotes trolls, thus catering to antisocial behavior.

Why Do Trolls Act This Way?

In speaking of trolls, one might speculate what it is that causes people to outwardly exhibit proper social norms while engaging in the antisocial behavior of trolling.  The psychology behind trolls, according to this video posted on PR Daily, stems from a few contributing factors – the first and most noteworthy being dissociative anonymity and invisibility – the idea that “you don’t know me, and you can’t see me”, which allows the troll to hide behind an anonymous veil.  Another factor is the safety which this anonymity secures – the idea that “it’s all in our head” and that there is no accompanying face-to-face communication.  There is also the idea that trolling is “all just a game” and may be done for superficial reasons of personal entertainment.  Minimizing authority is another idea; people hired by political parties to launch direct attacks at political figures online could serve as an example in this regard.  Given these factors, while difficult to individually assess what incites one to be a troll, we can easily use this anonymity to be exploratively disruptive in a way in which we wouldn’t dare act in a physically co-present environment (going off of the idea that there is a dark and/or immature side to all of us, depending on the nature of the trolling).

Furthermore, author Alan Martin argued that online aggression associated with trolling comes from the sped-up environment of the Internet, writing:

the speed at which people spit out their venom online doesn’t allow time for reflection or self-censorship, and even less time to consider the consequences or who might end up reading their heat-of-the-moment remarks.

Are There Different Kinds of Trolling?

Many different forms of trolling exist.  For one, while trolls are often associated with anonymity and are usually so, this might not always be the case, especially once you add Facebook to the equation.  It’s entirely possible that one’s virtual “friends” who perhaps frequently comment absurdities to their friends’ statuses, or even post statuses of their own with the desire to disrupt or shock, could be considered a troll even if their only goal is to gain attention.  Given the nature of Facebook, anonymity is unlikely, while trolls can still be easily found.  In this same regard, trolling isn’t always an intentional action.  As editor Howard Fosdick writes in his article “Why People Troll and How to Stop Them”:

The traditional definition of trolling includes intent. That is, trolls purposely disrupt forums. This definition is too narrow. Whether someone intends to disrupt a thread or not, the results are the same if they do.

For example, let’s say I posted a status with a sarcastic joke about a high-profile celebrity, and a friend commented that he/she didn’t “get this joke”.  This has the potential to awkwardly disrupt any further comments on this status, but this friend can be considered to have been unintentionally trolling.

Furthermore, while many of the trolling examples above were lighthearted and funny, there is a dark side to trolling, as this video below shows.

Thus, another distinction between forms of trolling – there is quite a difference between this type of sociopathic trolling, and playful trolling (such as the constipated sandwich bag troll) – while both disruptive, the former is much more harmful, disturbing and poisonous of the online environment than the latter.

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