A University of Manitoba study in September 2014 revealed what we already instinctively know about trolls: They just want to have fun.
It even went on to say that online trolls, whose behavior extends from the digital world to the real, tend to manifest behaviors of sadism more so than psychopathy (the inability to feel empathy towards others, unemotional) or Machiavellianism (the tendency to manipulate or deceive others).
In a recent New York Times article entitled “The Agency”, journalist Adrian Chen recounted his experiences in St. Petersburg, Russia while following several leads on hoaxes which sprung from the Internet that he later on found out were campaigns spun by paid trolls.
The piece was a true eye-opener for the unaware, and the chilling twist at the end of Chen’s journey made us realize several points: one, anyone can fall prey to trolls; and two, more often than not, targets are not aware that they’re already getting played.
What is trolling?
Trolling is generally seen as a behavior or an act of intentionally starting arguments meant to upset, defame, disrupt, or provoke.
This is done by posting off-topic remarks on social networks, the comments sections of online news outfits, forums, and chat rooms.
Although popular media equated trolling with online harassment, it shouldn’t be mistaken with cyberbullying.
Psychologists looked into and studied trolls in order to understand what makes them tick. Personality types emerged as a factor and so was environment.
On the Internet, anonymity and being with a faceless crowd can make people do and say things that they normally wouldn’t do or say under the watchful eye of polite society. Being able to act out, thanks to these, is what psychologists call deindividuation.
There are several faces of trolling, according to Netlingo, a highly popular Internet dictionary. They listed four types, which we replicated below:
• Playtime Trolls: an individual plays a simple, short game. Such trolls are relatively easy to spot because their attack or provocation is fairly blatant, and the persona is fairly two-dimensional. • Tactical Trolls: This is where the troller takes the game more seriously, creates a credible persona to gain confidence of others, and provokes strife in a subtle and invidious [sic] way. • Strategic Trolls: A very serious form of game, involving the production of an overall strategy that can take months or years to develop. It can also involve a number of people acting together in order to invade a list. • Domination Trolls: This is where the trollers’ strategy extends to the creation and running of apparently bonafide mailing lists.
In recent years, we’ve seen trolls emerge from causing mischief to fulfilling a collective cause, under orders with a generous monetary compensation tied to it. Chen’s experience with paid or sponsored trolls is merely one of the few we’ve only heard or read about on the Internet.
Astroturfing, the deceptive tactic wherein an individual or a group would express support for a product, idea, or cause mainly for the purpose of reshaping public opinion, is currently practiced by some organizations in order to make people believe what they want them to believe.
One example is what we now know as the Discredit Bureau, which one Monsanto lead revealed they employ in order to discredit scientific findings that are in disagreement with the company’s.
State-sponsored trolls—who are also tactical trolls, in this case—can not only help disseminate false information but compromise security as well.
In the middle of 2012, Malware Intelligence Lead Adam Kujawa shared in a post that trolling tactics were used to lure Syrian activists to download and install a piece of software that claimed to encrypt Skype conversations.
This BlackShades variant was also capable of hijacking the affected user’s Skype account in order to spam the PIF download link to his/her contacts for further infection.
“Don’t Feed the Trolls”
We often hear people advise others to not react or resort to counter-punching trolls with equal vitriol.
Some find that doing this is not easy, and it never really is. Not feeding the trolls doesn’t mean one should take the abuse quietly either.
There are better ways to handle a troll encounter other than verbal retaliation.
Keeping calm, as a matter of fact, helps a lot. If needed, step back and take a break. We’re none the wiser if we react out of emotion. Realize that sabre rattling with trolls ends in futility as it’s what they want to happen.
Moderate comments, block and blacklist trolling parties if you can. Majority of social networks have ready functions you can use to do this, and more.
Setting your profile to private (temporarily or permanently) is another way to nip trolling at the bud.
Falling for and (worse) propagating ideas spun by paid trolls can be seen as feeding or siding with them. More often than not, such thought-out and highly organized campaigns are not known until it’s too late. One way to avoid such pitfalls is to fact check what is being said. It’s easy for trolls to take advantage of people who usually believe what they see and what is said on the Internet. More often than not, people take these at face value and share it with others.
The study of trolls and trolling behavior is, as of the moment, a premature science. We may not know a lot about it, but we know that they can fall under the category of social engineering. We also at least have an idea of what drives them to do and say things that are generally frowned upon.
As such, it’s important to keep them in mind when logging in to the Internet everyday. Avoiding trolls is human, but not letting them into your head is divine.
Be divine, blog reader.