The privilege of living in an era referred to as “The Information Age”, having endless access to information at our fingertips, comes at a price such as cyber-bullying in the form of internet trolls. Trolling by definition refers to a specific type of malicious online behaviour, intended to disrupt interactions, aggravate interactional partners and lure them into fruitless argumentation.
In online communities, antisocial behaviour in the form of trolling disturbs constructive discourse. It is not confined to an antisocial minority but other people can engage in such behaviour as well. The drive behind such activities is the person’s own emotions and the context surrounding a discussion. It could also be due to their experience of prior trolling. By ensuring their anonymity these ‘keyboard warriors’ do what they do using the comments section of online forums. In psychology, this behaviour is known as deindividuation. The safety of having their identity concealed gives them another reason to indulge in such activities without being identified. Not only that, but they can also connect to people with similar dispositions towards sadism and anti-social behaviour.
Another motive can also be a false and inflated sense of self-worth which is typical of narcissists. By sparking heated arguments on different subjects they want to enhance their perceived status amongst the online audience. The subjects of trolling are neither fixed nor decided, they change with what the trending topic for that certain period is, but the most commonly observed ones are body-shaming, homosexuality, gender discrimination and patriotism/nationalism. In Pakistan, supporters of a certain political party often troll the supporters of the opposing political party. In doing so they may not necessarily want to harm someone but they get carried away in their desire to win the argument. Though many of them exhibit toxic personality traits, they may not always want to troll someone. It happens as a consequence of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of someone else’s point of view while socialising online.
According to a theory of criminology called “The Broken Window Theory,” the areas with rampant vandalism (or broken windows) will lead to more vandalism, as compared to areas within a more civil environment. This theory applies to online environments as well. If a layman sees everyone else ranting about racism and homophobia, he may be more likely to engage in similar behaviour. Social media which once was a medium for exchanging ideas and learning has more or less turned into fights only. If someone has a different point of view they will most probably come under the radar of trolls. Bottom line, triggering mechanisms here are the individual’s mood, jealousy or surrounding context of a discussion.
Mental health is the fifth greatest contributor to the global burden of diseases. While trolling has become a common online behaviour, the number of people affected by mental illness is on the rise. This, in turn, leads to an increased risk of suicides. These consequences are seen in the form of anxiety and lower self-esteem. Often people who get trolled are more depressed, irritable and most importantly lose their confidence to speak publicly in fear that they might receive backlash. As a result, once very opinionated, the affectees either deactivate their social media account or lose interest in it.
Where Online trolling behaviours are affecting online communities, they also raise myriad of questions including: What falls in the category of trolling? Who is a troll and why do they troll? What are the aggravating factors of online trolling? Is there any forum to detect these and if yes how do members and administrators of these communities detect, interpret, and react to trolling? How can we handle it? What impact does it have on socio-cultural and technological environments?
Though cyberbullying is an offence under the Malicious Communications Act, it is unstoppable to a greater extent. Different countries have implemented different penalties for internet trolls such as in 2014, the UK imposed up to two years jail penalty for those creating or spreading offensive content. While cyberbullying is a matter of concern there still is a bigger challenge to ensure proper implementation of the legislations against trolling so that people think twice before doing it.
Meanwhile we, the users, still have a choice. A choice to word difference of opinion in a kind way instead of belittling or knocking others. The meaningless arguments can instead be healthy debates. Needless abusive language and hate speech should never be encouraged or supported. Moreover trolling shouldn’t stop you from putting yourself out there online because for every troll that we encounter on a daily basis, exists dozens of people you are more humane.