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The Dangerous Evolution of Trolling

By Darlena Cunha March 23rd, 2016

“This woman is twisted beyond reason. Typical progressive…”

“Stick to telling bored white ladies how to raise their children, you don’t have the mental capacity for actual issues.”

“Darlena Cunta, i hope your neighborhood is looted, raped and pillaged.”

If you’re wondering what’s going on here, this is my Twitter feed. I write about topics in a way some people don’t like. And technology gives them the freedom to harass me, call for my death, and threaten my children. Let’s keep scrolling:

“#UglyCunt obviously #affirmativeactionhire has no writing skill.”

“Wow. What an argument—did you forget to take your meds today?”

Publications used to be the buffers between writers and outraged readers, but now the trolls have direct access on social media. As a journalist who publishes online, I’ve come to accept that part of my job is to deal with the Internet mob’s anger.

But the issue is not that trolls exist, it’s who they are and how they’ve changed.

Old trolls

Nick Price is a 29-year-old web developer who moonlights as one of Facebook’s favorite trolls. His writing for the joke page Hope That Helps, where he poses as a customer service rep answering ridiculous complaints with even more ridiculous replies, has earned him Internet fame. Price remembers a time when leaving threatening comments on an article wasn’t the definition of trolling.

“I find myself getting a little upset when I see these hateful kids calling themselves trolls,” he said. “It’s a dark, sinister thing nowadays, far closer to bullying than what I’d call trolling. I think the Hope That Helps stuff really feels like trolling used to, just a few friends collaborating to make people laugh without hurting anyone in the process.”

He compared Hope That Helps to the trolling of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the point “was intelligent and playful, and maybe involved just a little bit of breaking the rules.”

Price started his trolling career at age 9 on IRC (Internet chat relay), which became his outlet for his angst growing up. “I dealt with depression for a long time,” he said, “and when it would hit me, I’d get online and be a terrible person.”

Many of the old-brand trolls were just like him—seeking asylum from their real lives and banding together to shake up the digital world. But that’s no longer the case.

Elle Bianchi, a 33-year-old research and data technician who moonlights as a part-time troll, told me that trolling is now a way to engage those with opposing views. “One thing I’ve learned is that being loud and obnoxious is an easy way to get someone’s attention,” she said. “Once you have that, you can manipulate anyone.”

New fears

Trolling has received renewed attention in the past few years with movements like GamerGate, Anonymous, and Sad Puppies, which have gained notoriety for their sometimes extreme methods. Writers, in particular, have become easy targets of the hate and criticism because of their public activity on social networks

These days, trolls and commenters have direct access to a writer’s social media accounts and can accost us directly and immediately. This results in a lot of heat-of-the-moment cruelty. A quick Google search of “writers and trolls” calls up pages full of links that advise writers how to deal with their immediate critics. Publications from Forbes to The Atlantic have covered the issue, and there are even services like the newly released Troll Busters meant to help writers—particularly female writers—fight back against an increasingly pervasive trolling community.

“People started to get more and more spiteful,” Price said, “and the baseline was pushed farther and farther from its origin in fun. As more people got into it, that new baseline was just where they started from. Meanwhile, the consequences became more drastic.”

Two of the most high-profile examples are “swatting,” when a troll convinces the police to have a SWAT team raid someone’s location, and “doxing,” when a troll releases personal information online. Last November, a New York Times Magazine piece on the practices captured just how insidious trolls can be, ruining lives and costing the police time and money.

Some trolls, like Bianchi, maintain that they troll for the greater good. “In some situations, I push them so hard to see how easily they’ll break, but in other situations, I push them to try to open their eyes to something I think they’re blind to,” she said. “I just don’t do it nicely.”

Trolls like Bianchi may be trying to bring others to their point of view with force, bullying, or mockery. And when people have such fervent opinions, it doesn’t take much for forceful typing to evolve into legitimate threats.

Writers need to be vigilant against trolls in the new age and keep their personal information as private as possible. Because we never know which trolls will stop at threatening to burn our houses down, and which ones will actually do it.

Image by Shutterstock
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