Cyber trolls, defined by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), are people “who intentionally post provocative messages to cause arguments or disruptions” and include those who are “provocatively contrarian” to others who are “criminally menacing.”
“Trolls may target specific individuals and they may stand out in a virtual crowd or operate like a mob, tearing apart anyone whose views, appearance, or attitude they don’t like,” says the CPJ.
The National Institute of Health defines internet trolls as persons who initially pretend to be a legitimate participant in an online forum, but later intentionally disrupt discussions while taking pleasure in upsetting others. And, the NIH says, trolls may be predisposed to antisocial, oppositional and angry behavior.
Results from a 2017 experiment published in the U.S. Department of Medicine National Institutes of Health journal (NCBI), show researchers set out to answer three key questions: are trolling behaviors caused by mood or sociopathic tendencies, are those behaviors strictly situational such as discussions involving politics, and is trolling contagious?
The result: while internet trolls may fall under all three categories, in general, the study found that trolls may be born that way, not made. And a predisposition to grumpiness drives much of the trolling.
What’s more is that additional studies suggest that trolls go after women and minority writers, reporters and journalists the most.
As part of the NCBI report, researchers analyzed 16 million comments under CNN.com stories, later asking 667 participants to take part in a three-part analysis in which participants were first given a five-minute quiz to establish their baseline mood and other factors.
While unaware of the actual study, participants were separated into positive and negative mood categories based on the results, given a generic User I.D. and then asked to comment under an article arguing that “women should vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries leading up to the 2016 US presidential election.”
Of the 667 participants, 60% were male, 54% Democrats, 25% Moderates, and 21% Republicans. Their conversations, posts, upvotes, downvotes and interactions were then monitored.
Researchers then found that those in the negative mood category were responsible for 68% of negative “troll-like” posts, and that those in a foul mood increased the odds of future trolling by 89%.
Overall, researchers concluded that both mood combined with discussion content significantly affect a user’s likelihood of engaging in trolling behavior. They stated, “Bad mood induces trolling, and trolling, like mood, varies with time of day and day of week; bad mood may also persist across discussions, but its effect diminishes with time. Prior troll posts in a discussion increase the likelihood of future troll posts (with an additive effect the more troll posts there are), as do more controversial topics of discussion.”
Further, researchers found that antisocial behavior online can be seen as an extension of similar behavior offline, and includes acts of aggression, harassment, and bullying. Also found was that negative mood correlates with a person’s “reduced satisfaction with life which impairs self-regulation and leads to less favorable impressions of others.”
As part of the study, researchers also concluded that the “herd instinct” comes into play after an initial “single user’s outburst might lead to multiple users participating in a flame war,” where trolls invite others to feast upon a juicy target they’ve found to attack somewhere, anywhere, online.
An unrelated 2014 two-part study reported in the Journal of Personality found an association between online trolling and sadistic personality disorders where 1,715 participants were evaluated and some found to have a propensity for enjoyment while viewing the pain of others, also known as sadism.
In their research, doctors found that trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. “[S]adism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior,” the report concluded. The result: trolling is motivated – at least in part – by sadistic tendencies.
Trolls’ impact on journalists
In regions across the world, journalists and bloggers have encountered increasing instances of bullying and intimidation by way of trolls who disagree with them, often politically.
After posting a single Tweet earlier this year, Osman Faruqi, a Muslim reporter for ABC News in Australia found himself targeted by far-right wing activist, Avi Yemini, who called him a peasant and asked his 140,000 followers to contact him, after posting Faruqi’s personal phone number.
Faruqi said Yemini’s troll call-to-action set off “a wave of racist abuse, harassment, and even death threats that I continue to receive today.”
However, women, minorities, and non-binary writers take the brunt of abuse by cyber trolls, says the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).
The subgroups are seen as easy targets to so-called self-appointed “keyboard warriors” who have taken it upon themselves to take reporters down, with a deeply personal approach.
Last year, a study released by the IWMF and Troll-Busters.com revealed that “nearly two-thirds of female journalist respondents have been harassed, with more than half experiencing attacks within the past year and that one-third of female reporters consider leaving the profession, altogether, due to the harassment. Those early in their careers, the study found, are “twice as likely to consider alternate employment.”
In September, Illinois-based disabled freelance reporter, Melissa Blake, wrote an op-ed for CNN critical of Donald Trump. Blake, who has a genetic bone disorder that affects her facial and other features, endured an onslaught of negative comments by thousands of commentators in response to her article. But the comments were not directed at the content of her story, but rather on her appearance. Blake was also encouraged by her trolls to stop posting photos of herself.
In a defiant move, Blake fired back, posting three photos of herself, stating, “During the last round of trollgate, people said that I should be banned from posting photos of myself because I’m too ugly.”
Studies have found that men are more often the target of troll attacks, with one exception: the field of journalism.
Freedom House, a human rights activist organization, says that “Trolling has become a common feature of engagement in the online world, where anonymity and physical and emotional distance allow people to harass, abuse, and threaten others with a strong sense of impunity… Studies have found that men are more often the target of troll attacks, with one exception: the field of journalism.”
But female writers, according to Freedom House, are also subjected to trolling attacks concerning their character and not their work. “The attacks are focused not on the content or information reported, but on the journalists themselves.”
In a 2018 story by Project Syndicate, called, Confronting Journalism’s Misogynistic Trolls, reporter Hannah Storm wrote, “Female journalists are more likely than their male counterparts to be subject to social media harassment and digital abuse. But despite real efforts to improve gender equality in the industry, one of the biggest threats women in the media face continues to be viewed as a secondary concern.”
In a study conducted by the University of Texas (UT) in Austin last year, journalists were studied on their online abuse and trolling victimization. One journalist studied by researchers said, “The attacks were most virulent when they covered stories on topics normally associated with men, such as automobiles or video gaming. Divisive topics, such as immigration, race, feminism, or politics, also seemed to elicit greater abuse.”
Another U.S. journalist in the UT study said she “faced denigration when she covered a story on the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlights abuse of African Americans at the hands of police. ‘The F word was hurled at me in a way that I have never experienced before. It was a frenzy,’” the reporter said.
While internet trolls conjure up images of miserable middle-aged men living in their mothers’ basements, says Ginger Gorman, author of Troll Hunting, some are quite organized.
Such was the case when over one dozen Russian operatives were federally indicted last year for election interference which included the use of hundreds of fake social media accounts made to look like they belonged to U.S. citizens. The trolls posed as politically and socially active Americans, advocating for and against particular political candidates.
The constant attacks do make her think twice about doing stories that will be lightning rods for attacks. “But then I go and do the story even harder! I just refuse to let intimidation win.”
In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, a former CNN war correspondent, decided to fight back against her large-scale aggressors and their campaign to silence and intimidate her. Ressa had been targeted by supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte of whom she had been critical in her reporting.
In a book called Fighting Back Against Prolific Online Harassment, author, Julie Posetti wrote on Ressa, saying that the abuse heaped upon the veteran reporter represents “a very real threat to the psychological, digital, and even the physical safety of journalists.”
But Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist and author, said she refuses to be intimidated by armies of “super trolls,” whom she believes “are part of a campaign to destabilize democracy in the Philippines.”
She said that “the constant attacks do make her think twice about doing stories that will be lightning rods for attacks. ‘But then I go and do the story even harder! I just refuse to let intimidation win.'”
As for the threats, online harassment, disinformation and misinformation disseminated by those who oppose her, Ressa said the system is “set up to silence dissent – designed to make journalists docile.”
“We’re not supposed to be asking hard questions, and we’re certainly not supposed to be critical,” she said about the motive of her critics.
As for her answer on how to deal with her online aggressors, Ressa said her strategy is to throw “sunlight on the abusers,” too.