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15 Truths About Online Trolls

As long as there have been online communities, beginning with bulletin board systems, there have been trolls. According to Whitney Phillips, a New York University lecturer, Usenet users first used “the word ‘troll’ to describe someone who deliberately disrupted online discussions in order to stir up controversy.” Whenever 4chan rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, users began to proudly describe themselves as trolls.

Since then, Internet users have had to deal with trolls in a number of ways, in nearly every corner of the internet. What have we learned from these experiences over the years? Here are 15 of these lessons.

1. There are many types of trolls.

If you’ve ever dealt with an online troll, and chances are you have, then you may have noticed there are many different types of trolls. For example, there are the trolls who just like to cause mischief online. However, there are the trolls who are hateful, correct grammar or spam a forum/social media account. We can’t forget about the know-it-alls, the stalkers, and the ones who are just genuinely funny. Finally, there are trolls looking to make a quick buck, such as patent trolls.

The point here is that there are many different types of trolls. Knowing which kind of troll you are dealing with can help you plan your defense against them.

Related: Fighting Trolls, Spammers and Troublemakers Online

2. They have “Dark Tetrad” personality traits.

According to a 2014 study entitled “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun” from psychologists Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell and Delroy Paulhus, “trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism,” which are a part of the “Dark Tetard” of personality traits. According to Time, “Sadism means delighting in the harm of others, psychopathy is an antisocial personality disorder, and Machiavellianism means a person’s tendency to be unemotional and deceitful.”

In a previous study, Buckels stated, "These people aren't necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others' suffering."

3. There are more trolls online than you think.

According to a recent study of 1,125 adults conducted by YouGov, “28 percent percent of Americans admitted (to) malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know.” That means more than one-quarter of Americans could be classified as Internet trolls.

The survey also discovered that “(23 percent) admit to having maliciously argued over an opinion with a stranger, while 23 percent have maliciously argued over facts and 12 percent admit to making deliberately controversial statements.”

4. Not all trolls are really trolls.

Are you really dealing with a troll? Or, are you just being overly sensitive to someone who is either just mean or offering constructive criticism. This is something that you’ll have to decipher and learn to deal with when dealing with an online community. As Whitson Gordon notes on Lifehacker, "Being mean isn't the same as being a troll, and sometimes it's okay to give someone the benefit of the doubt before ignoring them altogether.”

5. You should focus your energy elsewhere.

While trolls can be detrimental for your brand and online community, you shouldn’t devote too much time in dealing with them. Instead, continue to offer the best product/service available and building a strong online community. Even if trolls come around and stir up trouble, they can never take away everything you’ve accomplished. If you have an army of loyal supporters, not only will your troll likely be ignored and will go away, your audience will support your brand no matter what.

6. Reserve special treatment for supporters.

Here’s some great advice from Tera Kristen, “Special treatment is reserved for the people who truly support you and share your vision.” Tera recalls the time she gave a troll a second chance after they were banned from posting on a Facebook page. The troll apologized and went right back to spamming the community. Instead of giving this individual special treatment, Tera should have been giving her supporters this type of extra attention.

Related: A Rant, and Some Suggestions What to Do, About Patent Trolls

7. Trolls can influence credibility.

According to an online experiment of 2,338 Americans supported by the National Science Foundation, “introducing name calling into commentary tacked onto an otherwise balanced newspaper blog post, the study showed, could elicit either lower or higher perceptions of risk, depending on one's predisposition to the science of nanotechnology.”

Ashley Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, stated that "When people encounter an unfamiliar issue like nanotechnology, they often rely on an existing value such as religiosity or deference to science to form a judgment."

In short, expect a fair of amount of bashing or debate from people whenever you discuss a controversial or unfamiliar topics. While some members of the online community can harm your credibility, that shouldn’t influence your standing in your industry.

8. Young adults are being harassed.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, “60 percent of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names.” Furthermore, “27 percent of Internet users have been called offensive names.” But, who exactly is being harassed? The study states the 18-29 age demographic experiences the highest level of online harassment. In fact, 65 percent have been called an offensive name, been purposefully embarrassed, physically threatened, stalked, or sexually harassed.

The study also found young women experience severe forms of online harassment more than men, such as being stalked or sexually harassed.

9. Harassment occurs mainly on social networks and apps.

That same study from the Pew Research Center found “66 percent of Internet users who have experienced online harassment said their most recent incident occurred on a social networking site or app.” Other percentages of harassment on online environments include:

  • 22 percent mentioned the comments section of a website.
  • 16 percent said online gaming.
  • 16 percent percent said in a personal email account.
  • 10 percent mentioned a discussion site such as reddit.
  • 6 percent said on an online dating website or app.

10. The question of anonymity.

The Pew Research Center discovered that “92 percent of Internet users agreed the online environment allows people to be more critical of one another, compared with their offline experiences.” This question of anonymity is one of the biggest debates surrounding trolls. Are trolls so outspoken because they remain anonymous and do they have the right to remain so?  In fact, that’s why Anne Applebaum suggests on Slate “we may also be forced to end Internet anonymity, or at least to ensure that every online persona is linked back to a real person.”

11. The law is trying to catch up.

Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, states in the New York Times, “Hateful, offensive and distasteful ideas enjoy constitutional protection.” While online perpetrators can be criminally investigated or sued, it takes significant resources for lawsuits to happen. While the UK has passed stricter laws when it comes to trolls, it remains a challenge here in the United States. Besides free speech, every state has different laws when it comes to abuse on third-party sites.

12. Not all online systems deal with trolls appropriately.

Unless you monitor your blog, social media accounts, etc., there may be no system in place to effectively deal with trolls. This becomes an issue for large platforms like Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, which are pretty solid at blocking trolls. Last year, Twitter experienced some much deserved backlash after failing to take any action on a number of cases where women were sexually harassed and threatened. That’s to say Twitter hasn’t handled situations in the past, it is just not all reports were considered a violation of it’s abuse and harassment policy.

Soraya Chemaly of the Safety and Free Speech Coalition, informed Lindy West on the Daily Dot that, “The system is predicated on the idea that the harassment is going to be fairly benign name-calling.” Soraya also added that, “It is not built to capture context or sustained harassment. It’s also not built to recognize trauma or re-traumatization, especially as it’s linked to violence.”

13. Do your diligence.

We’ve also learned over the years that one of the best ways to deal with trolls is having a system in place to prevent them from taking over your online community. While there are some precautions, such as have posting guidelines or using anti-trolling software, you also need to do your due diligence. For example, before applying for a patent, you should make sure that no one else has applied for a similar patent by checking the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s database. If you’re a blogger or author, then make sure that you know about copyright.

By doing your due diligence, you have an advantage over trolls since they won’t have evidence you infringed on their work.

14. Trolls are humans, too.

As I mentioned earlier, trolls may have “Dark Tetard” personality traits, but you have to remember that they’re still human. Take what happened to writer Lindy West. After publicly discussing one of her cruelest trolls, Lindy received an apology via email. Not only did Lindy get an apology, this individual also donated $50 to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where her father had been treated. She even talked to him for over two hours on an episode of This American Life where he explained his actions.

While this isn’t always the case, you have to remember that we’re all human and can sometimes let our emotions take over. Heckling someone online isn’t the answer to making people feel better about themselves, but it does show that not all trolls are terrible all the time.

15. Trolls can be costly.

Whether it’s hiring moderators or purchasing software to block trolls, it takes money to defend yourself against online trolls. While these costs may not be that substantial, there are times when trolls can cost you or your business thousands of dollars.

According to a 2013 study published in Justice Quarterly, cyberstalking victims cost victims an average of $1,200 due to “legal fees, property damage, child care costs, moving expenses, or a change in phone number.”

When it comes to patent trolls, however, the costs can be in the millions. The Harvard Business Review found, “patent trolls cost defendant firms $29 billion per year in direct out-of-pocket costs; in aggregate, patent litigation destroys over $60 billion in firm wealth each year. While mean damages in a patent lawsuit ran around $50,000 (in today’s dollars) at the time the telegraph, mean damages today run about $21 million.”

personally get attacked by trolls on a daily basis. Trolls are not likely to go away anytime soon. As long as we have an Internet where people can be anonymous, we will likely have to deal with trolls. Using the tactics above can help you stay focused on your goals instead of the trolls.

Have you been harassed by trolls before? How did you handles it?

Related: Are Online Comment Trolls Actually 'Psychopathic Sadists'?