The phrase ‘internet troll’ has changed in meaning over the years - and now the original meaning, someone who stirs up controversy with deliberately provocative posts, has taken on a more sinister edge.
The word ‘troll’ is now widely used for acts of harassment such as defacing Facebook memorial pages or persecutiing vulnerable people.
The origin of the word is thought to be in ‘trawling’ for reaction, in the same way a fisherman trawls for fish - and both sorts of troll are looking for a reaction.
That’s the key to dealing with the online pests - don’t react. Or if you react, don’t do it directly to them - do it to site moderators, and if necessary, law enforcement.
Internet trolls - a troll-spotter's guide
Trolls vary from individuals who post deliberately annoying or controversial comments in an effort to stir up online discussion up to criminals who harass vulnerable people online.
Cybercriminals are known to mimic trolling with social posts with deliberately controversial content, containing links which can contain malware.
Trolls are found everywhere online, from Facebook comments to online games. In most cases, they are guilty of violating site terms and conditions. In extreme cases, such as posting offensive comments on Facebook memorial pages, or posting racial abuse, they are criminals.
The one thing trolls are not is people who hold opinions you disagree with.
The word ‘troll’ is frequently used as a term of abuse online - and it’s tempting to imagine that people who hold opinions you find unpleasant are trolls. They’re not. Trolls are people who are posting purely to annoy, hurt, and amuse themselves.
What can you do?
One popular piece of advice - and it’s good advice as far as it goes - is ‘Do not feed the trolls’, meaning that one shouldn’t respond to trolls, or argue with them.
This is true - but there are sanctions you can take if someone is being genuinely offensive.
Laws on harassment and cyberbullying vary widely by country, and it can be difficult to press charges as abusers can be outside the jurisdiction you live in. It is possible, though.
Trolls who post sexually harassing content or racial abuse can fall foul of laws such as America’s Violence Against Women Act or cyberstalking legislation.
For anyone who feels they are being victimized by trolls, the first step should be to contact site administrators. Site administrators will have tools for dealing with such individuals - and are also well-placed to help you take legal action if they believe that it is required.
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, will take action against the individuals concerned. You can use built-in functions such as Facebook’s ‘Report’ button to report users who are deliberately bullying someone, posting private information about other site users, or using non-humorous “hate speech” or encouraging violence.
Facebook will often ban such users, and if applicable, report them to law enforcement.
News sites will usually also have a clear policy on offensive posts, and trolls are often in violation of these. Even if they are not prosecuted, they will often be banned from the site, and have their computer’s internet address blocked.
Who are trolls?
Information on who posts criminal and offensive comment is usually only available on a case-by-case basis - but Canadian data on cybercrime, spanning a population of 27 million people offers some useful insights.
Firstly, a relatively large percentage of cybercrime involving abuse or threats is perpetrated by people known to the victim - or at least, a large percentage of crimes where charges are brought.
If you are in a situation where an abuser seems to know details of your personal life, it might pay to think about people who might have a grudge against you.
The Canadian study found more than one-quarter (28%) of those accused of intimidation violations were under the age of 18, with the proportion of accused declining with increasing age.
Victims were often young – 42% of victims of violent incidents involving a cybercrime identified by police were aged 17 and under, while 17% of victims were aged 18 to 24 – and attackers, using intimidation or threats, were people they knew.
Overall, almost three-quarters (73%) of victims of violent incidents associated with a cybercrime knew the accused. For most incidents, the accused was known to the victim as a friend or acquaintance (45%), a current or former intimate partner (24%) or a family member (5%).
What should you do when you see a trolling post?
Trolling posts are not a signal for you to engage in intelligent argument. Trolls are childlike in their attempts to offend and provoke reaction - you will not be able to debate with them.
Replying to a troll is as risky as replying to a spammer - it signals, simply, that there is a target there.
If it is on a site you control (such as a Facebook Page you manage, or a personal blog), hide, block or unfriend people to conceal their content.
Above all, do not click on links in such posts.
Cybercriminals are known to use ‘trolling’ posts - such as comments on memorial pages for accident victims - as a way to fool victims into clicking on malicious links.