Everyone who has voiced a strong opinion on social media has got trolled, and those who haven’t, will. There’s no getting away from people who do not believe in using facts to win arguments but resort to abuse, insults and threats to hit out at people they disagree with.
If you’re using social media, you must understand that trolling will happen no matter what and you can best deal with it by seeing it for what it is: a rant by a person who cannot win an argument based on reason. A few personalise it and get intimidated by the verbal violence that stalks them everywhere, even in the safety of their homes.
Irrespective of whether a person dismisses or personalises attacks, trolling makes you feel traumatised, helpless, angry and very frustrated. In a handful, it can be upsetting enough to cause self-esteem issues, affect social life and lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety and panic attacks. If the person being trolled is a woman, the abuse and threats of violence are often openly sexist and sexual, which makes them tougher to deal with.
Talking about what you’re going through helps, whether it is to friends, your online community or counsellors. I always recommend talking to your friends and family, but some people may need professional help. We’ve had around a dozen cases for counselling of people trolled – all women -- over the past three months, of which two were walk-ins to the psychiatry department and the rest were calls on the toll-free helpline. Just talking helped and none of them needed follow-up.
Trolls abuse because they cannot win the argument rationally. They want to make you angry, frustrated and helpless. They thrive on anonymity, which mimics violent crowd behaviour associated with rioting and other forms of mob violence, such as men harassing and molesting women in public transport, among others.
What makes social media a potent tool for misuse is the anonymity and distance it offers the perpetrator. First, there is the physical anonymity. It’s not happening in the perpetrator’s physical presence nor is it usually happening in their name. So, they experience a form of disinhibition, much like the white-hooded Klu Klux Klan members.
Trolling is rarely being done by one person. There is always more than one person involved and they are aroused and instigated by each others’ words because they find strength in numbers. For example, someone else voicing an opinion that matches an inhibited person’s covert thoughts or beliefs encourages them to comment.
Someone else voicing a predominantly present thought in your mind gives mobs a sense of validation, identification, disinhibition and finally, relief, because they find others like them who make their violent thoughts appear socially acceptable. And, because trolling usually happens in groups, they also experience de-individuation, which is a phenomenon where a person stops being an individual and become part of a herd. The individual identity gets replaced by the herd identity.
The troller is essentially a person exploiting the anonymity of social media to release one’s own often violent and dogmatic opinions that they would not voice in real life. It gives them a sense of relief, satisfaction and sometimes, even sadomasochistic satisfaction from the sheer pleasure of humiliating someone. It makes them feel superior and validated.
All forms of release have a sexual component to it and trolling often have a component of sexual aggression because it is among the most personalised humiliation there is. When trollers get away with it, their opinions get reinforced. This is something society needs to understand. If someone got away saying something lewd to a girl walking down the street once, they will do it again. And then it becomes a cycle.
Trolling is now so rampant that it has become part of communication and social narrative as most people voice their views in the public domain because a major part of our socialising now happens on Twitter, FaceBook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, among others. It’s an aberration that has become so common now that people have begun to accept strangers invading their personal lives as a norm.
Trolling, where strangers violently abuse and intimidate you just because your views differ from their beliefs, is a form of mob violence and they are no different from the goons who stalk and threaten people in real life. Intimidation and threats, whether they are verbal or virtual, are unacceptable and must be stopped.
Dr Samir Parikh is a consultant psychiatrist and the director of department of mental health and behavioral sciences, Fortis Healthcare. This piece is part of HT’s new campaign, Let’s Talk About Trolls, which focuses sharp attention on online abuse and bullying.
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