Here be trolls: Hunting down online haters
"It's just exposing the nasty. It's not bullying you; it's exposing you for what you are." So said Charlotte Dawson to her Twitter trolls when confronting them on Australian television.
The New Zealand-born television personality, who was driven to a suicide attempt in August last year because of vicious online abuse, publicly launched a campaign to expose cyber-bullies and trolls. She did so by retweeting offensive messages to her more than 46,000 Twitter followers, and face-to-face confrontation for Australia's Seven News in October.
"The thing that I got out of visiting these people and them agreeing to talk to us is the fact that their online bravado is completely polar opposite to what they are," Dawson says in the report.
In response to criticism that the TV report was pure publicity seeking and a form of bullying in itself, Dawson said: "I did the story . . . for a sense of closure and ownership. The message is that if you want that freedom of speech and you want to lash out at people, well, you can be easily traced and if someone wants to find you, they can."
An internet troll, by definition, is a person who posts seditious, provocative comments on blogs and social media pages to elicit outraged responses.
"Trolling is the posting of provocative or offensive messages electronically such as on the internet for the purposes of entertainment," says Jonathan Bishop, founder of The Trolling Academy, an initiative based out of Britain's Swansea University to promote free speech while reducing cyber-bullying.
Remote abuse isn't new to civilisation, Bishop explains. "Trolling is simply the latest means we use to abuse one another. We have sent hate mail and made abusive phone calls in the past and no doubt there will be a new technology in the future we will use to do the same."
Trolling and cyber-bullying are related phenomena, although not interchangeable terms, argues David Farrar of the Wellington-based Kiwiblog.
"The intention of the troll is to disrupt, be provocative and get a reaction," he says. "Trolling can be mixed with bullying, but cyber-bullying requires very personal, very vindictive behaviour; either of someone the bully has met in person, or someone in the public eye where there's lots of personal information out there about them."
Cyber-bullying often involves a sustained campaign against an individual, while trolling has no rhyme or reason, says Netsafe's chief technology officer, Sean Lyons.
"We talk about cyber-bullying being an extension of real-life bullying, whereby a victim is exploited because of a real or perceived imbalance of power between the bully and that victim," he says.
A troll, conversely, deliberately goes against the grain of the other posts, with a goal of creating outrage among other commenters, Farrar adds. "Trolls say inflammatory things in lots of places: on popular blogs like Kiwiblog, in sections that allow comments on Trade Me, on Facebook and Twitter.
"They're persistent for one or two reasons. Either they do it simply for the reaction or they use it as a weapon because they're ideologically against whatever that blog or page is about."
Any online channel that opens itself up to comments is susceptible to trolling, from forums and news websites to the comments section on video sites such as YouTube.
"It's difficult to understand the motivations of trolls," says Lyons. "Some do it because they've got an agenda or an opinion contrary to what's popular. Some do it because they're angry and spiteful, and some do it just for kicks."
Trolling begins with de-individualisation, the concept of social psychology thought of as the reduction or loss of one's self-identity, a virtue made possible by the anonymity of the internet. When our sense of self is pushed aside, we're much less likely to stick to social norms, manners or even laws.
This anonymity leads to a lack of inhibition, Lyons says. "When we think our actions aren't traceable, we type things we'd never say face to face.
"We can remove our inhibitions, because we have no connection to the emotions of those we affect."
Cameron Slater runs the highly read Auckland-based blog Whale Oil Beef Hooked. He has several trolls.
"You've got single-issue trolls; they're dedicated and one-eyed," he says, noting marriage equality is a favoured topic of his to blog about because of the response it elicits.
"They might be conservative Christians or, on the other side, militant homosexuals. They post frequently whenever a gay marriage post goes live, just to wind everybody else up."
Some trolls do not fit into this category.
"Random trolls aren't regular commenters, or they comment under various or changing usernames," Slater says. "They're stalky in their behaviour, watching what you write in order to catch you out. When they can latch on to something, they'll try to hijack the thread.
"You can liken those trolls to the story Three Billy Goats Gruff. They aren't necessarily bullies; they just want to jump up from their bridge and disrupt what you're trying to achieve."
Slater had a vigilant and self- proclaimed troll on his blog, whom he regularly identified by real name to hold him to account for his actions.
"He started as a classic troll: off-topic comments and basic inflammation to counter other comments. He then moved to more personally vindictive behaviour," says Slater, noting his troll's move to cyber-bullying.
"In a Facebook poll about US politics, he jumped in to disagree with the post, then said, 'Have you considered pulling a Charlotte Dawson yet?' " That comment was made on World Suicide Prevention Day.
Slater, who "holds grudges" against anyone "with the appalling nature of wishing someone would kill themselves", then embarked on his own campaign to discredit his troll, tracking him down and confronting him in public.
His troll later apologised and asked for his offensive comments to be removed. Slater refused, saying: "To remove it would only leave an apology hanging without the context in which it was given."
A world expert on the matter, Bishop has witnessed women with less-than- popular opinions become the subjects of trolling. "We have seen, across the world, how women who utter any controversial opinion can face some of the most vile trolling.
"In the UK, we have had the cases of Suzanne Moore and Julie Burchill, and also Mary Beard, who were all subjected to sexist and misogynistic comments.
"The internet has always been hostile to women, as it is was once the preserve of nerdish men, but everyone should be expected to have an opinion without personal attacks for holding it."
Topically, issues on government, politics, race, and sexuality garner the most troll activity. "Marriage equality has been massive troll bait," says Slater, referencing his previous comments.
Farrar says his posts about religion always elicit trolls. "I have one troll, who goes by many fake identities, who I call a 'Christian baiter'. He'll jump into a post and say something like, 'All Catholics are paedophiles', then sit back and revel in the chaos caused."
Aaron Hape, Wellington-based social media co-ordinator for advocacy group Monarchy New Zealand, often experiences trolling issues on the Monarchy NZ Facebook page.
"Around Queen's Birthday last year, we got a lot of trolling from New Zealand republicans," says Hape.
"They were mostly hit-and-run commenters. They jumped into our Facebook conversations and posted negatively about the monarchy, solely because they know most followers of the page are supporters."
Typecasting the typical troll is difficult. "The presumed profile of the troll is a single, unemployed, overweight white male with two cats," says Greer Berry, former social media editor of stuff.co.nz.
"But in reality, trolls are working people, and they're just as likely to be women - though they often go by male usernames online."
Trolls are also often teenagers or students, as many examples prove. Irish writer Leo Traynor famously confronted his troll, who had hurled anti-Semitic comments on his blog for months, publicly in July, after he traced the troll's IP address. The troll was a 17-year old boy, who broke down in tears and sobbed, "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing."
Slater's troll was a law student. "He was a young NZ First advocate who thought because he could use Facebook, he was technically literate. He thought he was anonymous, and he thought he was bulletproof.
"My guess is he came through school with that kind of behaviour and no-one ever stood up to him."
Several New Zealanders who regularly exhibit troll-like activity were contacted for comment for this article, but all of them declined or did not reply.
"Being unmasked is the biggest fear of the troll," says Lyons. "The best thing you can do [to a troll] is 'call them out' in a thread. Tell them you know they're trolling and tell them that conduct isn't on. Don't give them the emotional response they seek. If you do this in a calm, un-emotive manner, the troll will lose interest."
The adage "Don't feed the trolls" here appears most relevant. "Trolls are only there for the response and the reaction. If ignored, eventually they'll run out of places to ply their trade."
Hape actively deletes trolls' messages on the Monarchy NZ Facebook and Twitter pages.
"We're a positive organisation for supportive messages," he says. "There are plenty of other places to be an anti-monarchist."
Hape doesn't deny, however, that trolls can be useful. "Trolling really rallies the troops on the other side. This leads to stronger and more concise arguments, which is empowering for an individual and a group."
Slater agrees having trolls has some benefits. "They generate debate, and they generate activity," he says. "And from a purely corporate point of view, they generate page views. That's good for business."
Lyons wants trolling stamped out. "It's harmful behaviour, and it's unacceptable in the real world and shouldn't be permissible online."
A set of recommendations has been written by the Law Commission on cyber-bullying, which includes trolling. This has been put to Justice Minister Judith Collins and "we're not far from a conclusion," Lyons says.
Across the ditch, the discussion of prosecuting Australian trolls under the law has been raised.
The nation's so-called "most prolific troll", New Zealand-born Tristan Barker, is 18 years old. The son of former Split Enz drummer Michael Barker, he is being investigated by the Australian police for online stalking. Via his Facebook and Twitter pages, he has encouraged the harassment of celebrities, Muslims, murder victims and even those who have committed suicide after online bullying.
His personal Facebook page has almost 240,000 likes and he has said "I would consider myself an entertainer".
Aside from extreme examples, Farrar believes prosecution isn't necessary in most trolling cases.
"Prosecuting someone under the law for saying nasty things on the internet is excessive, but inciting suicide, like in Charlotte Dawson's case, crosses the bullying line and is closer to a death threat. That should be punishable offline and online."
Farrar's solution is similar to Slater's: public identification. He even wrote about Slater's infamous troll on Kiwiblog, also giving the troll's real name, to further disrepute.
"What makes trolls break down is when you take them from a low profile to a high profile," he says. "When you blog about them like we did, they suddenly realise that their name will be associated with trolling in Google forever."
As trolls realise their digital footprint is with them for a lifetime and can negatively affect their real-life reputation and future prospects - whether they are teenagers entering the workforce or 30-somethings looking for a career change - "suddenly, the consequences of trolling are a lot more important", Farrar says.
"The internet isn't a place you can hide," Slater says. "Just look at how we can trace music pirates. Everybody can be found."
TROLLS, BULLIES & SNERTS
Trolling comes in diverse forms and carries varied magnitude.
The Trolling Academy defines trolling as either "cyber bantering" or "cyber trickery".
The former is done in the moment and is quickly regretted, while the latter is tactical, comes without regret and continues via various online channels.
Trolling moves into cyber-bulling when it gets strategic - a person goes out of their way to harass - and the worst form of such bullying is called "cyber hickery" or "snerting", a sustained campaign of domination that targets one or more specific individuals.
The Dominion Post