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Anonymity: An Experiment in Trolling

As Twitter user @Doncates tweeted on February 9th, “the internet allows us to be whoever we want to be. How interesting that so many of us choose to be a**holes.” This quote essentially sums up the idea of anonymous internet-trolling: people can decide to “stir the pot” on any website just because they can be whatever kind of a**hole they want to be, thanks to the anonymity of the internet. Trolls can be anywhere, but in my experience, are most often found staking out the comment section of articles, waiting for “prey” to bite. While it is very common to find trolls on political websites saying controversial things, or on sites like 4chan saying incredibly obscene things, they can even be found on the most random and innocent of websites, such as the “teen news” website Oceanup.com.

To get first-person, hands-on experience with trolling, I went “undercover” as anonymous, comment-section troll on this certain ridiculous website for “teen gossip.” Me and my roommates check up on Oceanup every once in a while for the sole purpose of reading the amusing comments, many of which are from trolls and angry responders to the trolls. The site writes absurd, fan-submitted “news” about tween celebrities, such as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and the Jonas Brothers. The website, due to its content, is intended for young teenagers, and therefore, the commenters presumably fit into this demographic. These teens can be brutal to each other in the articles’ comments, all thanks to the anonymity of a screen name and a photo avatar of a random celebrity (rather than a personal photo of the commenter). I signed in as a “guest user,” chose a few post on the website to comment on, then sat back and waited for replies. One such post was a picture of Kylie Jenner (of the Kardashian clan) wearing no make-up. Wanting to blend in with other rude trolls, I commented, as “Anonymous14,” that “some people should always wear make-up,” even though she actually looked just fine in the posted photo. Within only a few minutes, I was met with an angry response from commenter “kdashi” saying that I myself am probably “UGLE” without make-up, and that I should “ask my mommy for permission before using the internet!” By the username, I would assume the “kdashi” is a fan of the Kardashians, and that my comment therefore annoyed her. As a troll, this is the intended result: to make those who read the comments angry enough to reply something stupid and aggressive back to the original comment.

A second user, “Cerenagee,” wrote that “she looks just fine without makeup wtf” after my original comment, which was frankly much less amusing than “kdashi’s” relpy. It was when I read “Cerenagee’s” reply, and felt almost disappointed in “her” (I assume it was a female, but due to the anonymity of the internet, there is no way to ever know for sure!) response to mine that I realized that I was hinking like an actual internet troll. I just wanted to “stir the pot” more and see what other crazy responses I could gather, and the feeling that no one could possibly know who I was absolutely fueled my want to keep trolling.

I commented two other times, once as “Anon” and once as “nope,” on a post about the pop singer Nick Jonas, and called him a “terrible musician,” said that his “new album would flop,” and yelled that he should “get out of the limelight.” The replies I got back to both of these posts were from the same user (“Naty”), who was very angry at me. She told me to “shut the f*** up,” and that my life is sad (not that I have any grounds to argue with that one, as I am a 20 year-old trolling a teen gossip site…but I was trolling for science!). Thanks to anonymity, “Naty” can yell expletives at me, and tell me things that would probably never be said to my face, just because I insulted a “great musician” whom she evidently loves.

My trolling experiment was originally going to continue until I got myself reported, but then I realized that that would require me to be a whole lot meaner, and would probably verge on cyber-bullying at that point, which was not part of this experiment at all. My trolling on Oceanup was not cyber-bullying (which is another use for anonymity) to any other Oceanup readers, because I did not reply to any of my angry responders, and I did not call out any users in particular. Technically, my posts could be seen as cyber-bullying toward the celebs (Kylie Jenner and Nick Jonas) I rudely commented about, but this was not meant to be part of the experiment. Trolling is annoying, but actual cyber-bullying is much more dangerous and destructive. Trolling can turn into bullying when a troll goes from wanting to annoy and upset a user, to actually wanting to harm the other person.  According to Trulioo.com, a website that protects its customers from toxic hidden internet identities, cyberbullies use their anonymity to exert authority over others, while trolls use theirs to disrupt and vent, as well as for attention. I also did not want a side-effect of the experiment to be myself actually enjoying being a troll, so I stopped commenting after these replies.

Trolling is not only annoying to other internet users, but can apparently even be a felony, if done in a certain way. A British women made the news this week for being the first person sent to prison for trolling: Michelle Chapman made fake Facebook accounts for some of her relatives, and then abused herself on Facebook with these accounts. Of course, the illegality of the strange situation came not from the trolling itself, but from the fact that she called the police to report the abuse, which was a complete falsehood. Chapman underestimated the police and their computer forensic skills, and overestimated the anonymity that her fake Facebook accounts gave her. While other Facebook users may not have known that Chapman was hiding behind these other fake accounts, the police had resources to discover her weird secret life of harassing herself on Facebook. Chapman’s case is unusual, but shows that trolling can lead to police intervention and possibly jail time, if the situation gets bad enough.

My experiment with trolling stayed harmless, and the reason I chose the type of site that I did for my trolling, instead of a news or political site, was because I wanted to see how worked up commenters could get about topics as trivial as Nick Jonas and Kylie Jenner. As it turns out, I got angry replies to my comments regardless of how insignificant the topic of the article was, and regardless of how the comment did not insult any Oceanup users/readers personally. The best way to ignore trolls is by “not feeding them,” because trolling is all about using anonymity to get attention from other users. Those who replied to my dumb, attention-seeking comments, “kdashi” and “Naty” especially, played exactly into what a troll is looking for: anger and frustration that turns into nasty, brash replies. By using their own anonymity to “get back” at me, these commenters stooped to my “troll” level. My “study in trolling” essentially proved exactly what tweeter @Doncates wrote, because all of us, including my troll-self, could be whoever we wanted to be with our internet anonymity, and yet we all chose to be total a**holes.

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