The incident that inspired me to write about this topic wasn’t ‘internet trolling’ at all. A nine-year-old called it trolling though, and he had my attention immediately. On this day, my son had three friends at our house, and they were playing the open world video game Minecraft online. The four boys sat silently, side-by-side on the couch, and I was in the same room. After they had all put their iPads away, I noticed that one of them was crying in the next room. I asked him what was wrong. He replied that for the entire time they were on the iPads, one of the four boys had followed him (on Minecraft) and knocked over everything he had built. The result was that he hadn’t been able to finish anything. As the crying child explained this to me, another friend said, “yeah, he was trolling him.” I talked to the boys, calmed the one who was upset, and his friend apologised for targeting him. They went and played something else with no mention of the incident again. It may seem to be quite an insignificant event, but I found myself reflecting on what had happened later.
A few things shocked me about the situation. I know these children well; they’re ‘nice’ kids, and I was physically present in the room at the time but had no idea what was happening. After doing some research, I don’t think this behaviour constituted ‘trolling’ after all. It did highlight several issues that may be pertinent to these kids and their online lives as they get older though. It also prompted me to think about the ways our online and offline lives are often depicted as separate entities, when in fact, they’re not.
What is ‘internet trolling’?
We hear the word ‘trolling’ often now; in workplaces, schools, universities, and in print and online media. The term can pervade our daily conversations, and obviously, our kids have heard – and use – it too. But perceptions seem to vary greatly.
‘Internet trolling’ is a broad term with varied definitions. Naturally, you might think of a ‘troll’ as a creature originating in folklore, but modern versions of trolls are people who harass others online. Some sources define trolling as separate to cyber abuse and bullying, whereas others combine those behaviours under the same title. As with many internet phenomena, definitions vary greatly, and laws are still catching up.
Chen (2018) states that “the clash of definitions in the public and academic discourse has led to confusion and controversy over what “trolling” actually means. Is trolling just another word for online harassment or does it refer to a game of deception?” (p. 78). Furthermore, is it illegal to troll on the internet? The Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner website confirms that “many forms of cyber abuse could be considered illegal under state or federal legislation.”
For example, under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 (‘the Act’) it is an offence to menace, harass or cause offence using a ‘carriage service’. It is also an offence under the Act to use a carriage service to make threats to kill or cause serious harm to a person, regardless of whether the person receiving the threat actually fears that the threat would be carried out.
These provisions could capture instances of menacing, harassing or offensive conduct and threats carried out using landlines, mobile phones (including via MMS, SMS) and the internet, including via emails and social media.eSafety Commissioner (2019)
Chen (2018) explores the definitions further, finding two conflicting views. The majority view is that trolls are villains and antagonists, whose actions harm individuals and communities online. The minority view casts trolls “as (mostly) harmless pranksters who push the boundaries of taste and sensibility – acting upon the ethos that online interactions should not be taken seriously” (Chen 2018, p. 78). More practically, trolling is intentionally disruptive online behaviour designed to challenge, provoke, abuse, antagonise, deceive or harm others. It can be text- or image-based and is designed to elicit a response from the targeted person/s, with the impacts ranging from being mildly annoying to causing serious harm.
Why do people ‘troll’ others?
Buckels et al. (2017) relate trolling to the psychological tendencies of sadism, stating that trolls often underestimate the pain of others because of the pleasure it gives them. Ginger Gorman has examined the psychological profiles and motivations of those who troll and abuse others online in her book, Troll Hunting (Hardie Grant Books, London). Throughout the course of her extensive investigation, Gorman gets to know several ‘trolls’ with very different personality profiles and motivations. Those who feel the need to lash out at others online may be motivated by politics, racism, religion, or could be former victims of abuse themselves. At the most severe end of the spectrum are ‘trolls’ who fit the profile of a ‘psychopath’ whereas others cite boredom as a motivator, and don’t necessarily continue ‘trolling’ long term. Their true identities may surprise you too; imagine a white, middle class man with a wife and children who works full-time but ‘trolls’ in his spare time. Perhaps most surprisingly, Gorman states that ‘trolls’ are “[F]ar from being ill-informed, this is an intelligent cohort who read and retain information, stacking up the facts and twisting them in the service of intolerance and aggression,” (Gorman 2019, p. 50).
Although it is illegal to abuse someone online in Australia, law enforcement agencies don’t always act fully on reported incidents – or worse, dismiss them completely. Trolling or cyber abuse victims may be told to ‘stay offline’. Staying offline may seem like a simple directive, but it’s not practical in a world where we rely on the internet and ‘being online’ for work, social connections, and other opportunities. For many victims, staying offline ‘would make their lives worse’ (Citron, cited in Gorman, 2019).
So, if avoiding the online world isn’t practical, what can we do to combat cyber abuse?
As Gorman so aptly puts it, ‘this is a human problem, with a human solution’ (2019, p.256). Contrary to popular rhetoric, social media isn’t the problem, although it can amplify some of humanity’s darkest sentiment. Problematic ideas and behaviours already existed offline, long before the internet came to be. This is a social problem.
One of my eldest son’s favourite YouTubers is ‘Unspeakable’ (Nathan). You will often hear Unspeakable refer to trolling in his videos but as his YouTube bio states, it’s all about being able to ‘see me pull pranks on my friends’. The reason I raise this is because Unspeakable is an excellent example of someone who has built an online identity around positive narratives and an acute awareness of his (very young) audience. He reveals little private information online, using his pseudonym or first name only and avoids profanity when streaming or filming. The way he has built his profiles and interacts with his fans and community of friends online exhibits many hallmarks of good digital citizenship; something that can be a powerful antidote to cyberhate.
There are many other high-profile examples of good digital citizenship too. One of those is the #CelebratingWomen movement, initiated by Dr Kirstin Ferguson, Deputy Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In 2017, Ferguson wanted to do something about the hatred and misogyny she was witnessing online. Ferguson is quoted as saying that “without any clear plan or idea of what a campaign might look like, I made a public commitment last year. I was going to see if I could celebrate two women, from all walks of life and from anywhere in the world, every single day of 2017” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2018). The campaign was highly successful in celebrating women’s achievements and has resulted in Ferguson writing a book with Catherine Fox, titled Women Kind. This has also highlighted how positive messages can be amplified on social media in the same way as negative ones can be.
As individuals, we can all be a part of this amplification process, leading by example through positive online engagement.
Besides being positive and proactive online, there are other strategies we can use to protect our personal information online, and deal with cyber abuse if/when it happens. The eSafety Commissioner’s website has many resources for a variety of uses and targeted to specific demographics. You can find tips for protecting your personal information here.
If you have experienced some form of trolling or cyber abuse, there are some basic steps you can follow:
- Don’t respond
You might have heard the phrase ‘don’t feed the trolls’ – it’s a good rule to follow. If you react swiftly, chances are you will be charged with emotion and your words are likely to ‘fan the flame’.
- Collect evidence
Before you block, or mute and/or delete anything, save the evidence through screenshots and the like. It’s important to do this straight away because posts and comments can quickly be deleted.
- Block and Report
You can block or mute the user and if they appear under a different user profile, block or mute them again. Report the post/s or incident to the social media platform on which it occurred. You can also report online abuse to the eSafety Commissioner.
- Find more information and seek legal advice
Once again, the eSafety Commissioner has a number of useful links here. There is also specific information about what to do in different cases (ie. image-based abuse, domestic and family violence, threats of violence and more).
When talking to kids about online safety, it’s important to tell them that they should always report incidents to a trusted adult. Talk regularly about your online interactions, and theirs, and discuss strategies for dealing with ‘nasty comments’ or threats. At the same time, putting undue attention on potential negative online interactions may cause anxiety for some kids so it’s important to empower them with as much age-appropriate knowledge as possible around the positive ways they can make, share, learn and connect with others online. Google has some great videos, games, and other learning resources on their site, ‘Be Internet Awesome’. My son’s school has featured a fact sheet from this site in their newsletter titled Be Internet Brave, which lists five tips for reporting ‘things that make you feel uncomfortable or worse’ to a teacher, principal, or parent.
I am a huge advocate for talking about issues such as trolling and cyber abuse so that in the future, there may be better ways for dealing with them. There’s no doubt that these are complex, multi-faceted issues and no single measure will fix them or ensure everyone’s safety. Debates are ongoing about balancing filtering and deleting of defamatory, hateful or threatening comments, while protecting free speech rights. There is also a long way to go for governments, law enforcement agencies and societies in general to legislate and protect against online abuse. Despite this, I believe advances are being made and the more that we can promote positive digital citizenship through education and action, the closer we will be to finding a better set of solutions.
As we’ve seen here, trolling definitions can run the full gamut of behaviour from relatively harmless online pranks to persistent, ‘predator-trolling’ that can result in real-life harm. I want to make it very clear that I am not an expert on trolling, cyberhate, or online abuse, but this little research and writing exercise has broadened my view on the topic somewhat, and I hope it has done the same for you.
I’ve discovered some fantastic resources that are helping me to teach my children to become good digital citizens. This enables them to protect themselves online – and call-out bad behaviour when they see it. There is a list of these resources below and if you know of others, please share them in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
Gorman, G 2019, Troll Hunting, Hardie Grant Books, London, UK.
eSafety Commissioner< https://www.esafety.gov.au/>
Be Internet Awesome with Google <https://beinternetawesome.withgoogle.com/en_us>
Online News and Articles
‘Internet trolls are not who I thought – they’re scarier’ by Ginger Gorman (Feb 2019) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-02/internet-trolls-arent-who-i-thought-ginger-gorman-troll-hunting/10767690
ONLINE HATE: What is the law around internet trolls and trolling? The Sun, UK (Sept 2019) https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/9915679/what-is-the-law-around-internet-trolls-and-trolling/
Victoria’s new anti-vilification bill strikes the right balance in targeting online abuse – The Conversation (Sept. 2019) https://theconversation.com/victorias-new-anti-vilification-bill-strikes-the-right-balance-in-targeting-online-abuse-123014
A selection of articles on trolling (63 articles) on The Conversation (links to various sources) https://theconversation.com/au/topics/trolling-3815
Online trolling used to be funny, but now the term refers to something far more sinister – The Conversation (Feb 2019) https://phys.org/news/2019-02-online-trolling-funny-term-sinister.html
Scott Morrison declares war on social media trolls – SBS News (May 2019) https://www.sbs.com.au/news/scott-morrison-declares-war-on-social-media-trolls
Buckels EE, Trapnell PD, Andjelovic T, Paulhus DL 2019, ‘Internet trolling and everyday sadism: Parallel effects on pain perception and moral judgment’, Journal of Personality, no. 87, pp. 328–340, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12393
Chen, Y 2018, ‘“Being a Butt While on the Internet”: Perceptions of What Is and Isn’t Internet Trolling’, 81st Annual Meeting of the Association for Information Science &Technology, Canada, pp. 76-85.
eSafety Commissioner 2019, Adult Cyber Abuse, Australian Government eSafety Commissioner, retrieved 28 October 2019, <https://www.esafety.gov.au/key-issues/adult-cyber-abuse>
eSafety Commissioner 2019, Classroom Resources, Australian Government eSafety Commissioner, retrieved 7 December 2019, < https://www.esafety.gov.au/educators/classroom-resources>
eSafety Commissioner 2019, ‘Protect your personal information, Australian Government eSafety Commissioner, retrieved 7 December 2019, < https://www.esafety.gov.au/key-issues/how-to/protect-personal-information>
Ferguson, K 2018, ‘#CelebratingWomen shows the power of women boosting women’, The Sydney Morning Herald, weblog post, 20 September, retrieved 7 December 2019, <https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/celebratingwomen-shows-the-power-of-women-boosting-women-20180919-p504s2.html>
Google, Be Internet Awesome, Google, retrieved 7 December 2019, < https://beinternetawesome.withgoogle.com/en_us>
Gorman, G 2019, Troll Hunting, Hardie Grant Books, London, UK.
YouTube 2019, Unspeakable, YouTube, retrieved 7 December 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwIWAbIeu0xI0ReKWOcw3eg>