HT Image
HT Image

Into the mind of an internet troll

Been online (particularly if you engage in discussions on Twitter, Reddit or YouTube) lately? Chance are you've come across bitter, vitriolic (a creative combination of invective, judgement and false assumptions) abuse from nasty trolls. But what makes them do it, asks Yashica Dutt.
Hindustan Times | By Yashica Dutt
UPDATED ON MAR 09, 2014 12:17 PM IST

Even for tweeting something as innocuous as, "Oh, what a bright sunny day" you might get a response from someone asking you to die or to f**k yourself. Now, either the offender is particularly tormented by the brightness of the sun, or he is just a TBAT - a troll being a troll. For the uninitiated, a troll is someone who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup, message board or Twitter with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.

Trolls have always found place in popular culture since the late Nineties. And till recently, trolling was endured as a kind of pungent kick that came with the enriching, participatory experience that is the Internet.

But anyone who has been remotely active online in the past year or so will know that TBAT just doesn't cut it anymore for the invective-laden, violent, hate-filled and often deeply terrifying comments that are doing the rounds these days.

The forthcoming Lok Sabha elections offer part of the explanation for the hateful tweets and vitriolic comments on news sites and off-kilter, reactionary analysis on several blog posts. They are often carried out ostensibly to ensure the goodwill of one political party over another.

But there is something more insidious lurking behind this atmosphere of intimidation and threat, which has steadily come to replace the free, open-for-all, anonymous Internet, once viewed as the acme of fair, inclusive and democratic debate.

Online abuse is commonplace and when you think of it, pretty democratic. Anyone with a or a ID on Reddit, Yahoo or YouTube can use it to make vile threats of rape, murder and mutilation. But those who are seen to sway opinion - journalists, film critics, activists, stand-up comics, Twitter celebrities or public figures - are often the most vulnerable to it. Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the IBN7 network, is among the most abusively trolled journalists, judging by the sheer volume of blog posts, tweets and comments generated about him.

"Is this the kind of discourse we want in India? Should this kind of life-threatening hate be allowed on our public platforms?" he asks. "Perhaps those who indulge in this derive a fake sense of power, aided by the anonymity the Internet provides. I once received a call from one of the most active abusers and he certainly didn't seem so rabid then."

Who is a troll?
A troll, in his or her own head at least, is someone who is trying to be funny, more often at your expense. So, why are we so bothered about doing an entire cover story on them, can't we take a little joke? Because it's just not funny anymore.

With death and rape threats, bitter and incessant abuse and psychological torture that has even led some to suicides, hate trolling is now a menacing activity carried out by the positively twisted. And the only way to fight back is to stand up to them.

Traits of a troll

Known for traits like narcissism, psychopathy, sadism
Where does he/she engage

Particularly if you engage in discussions on Twitter, Reddit or YouTube
What's a troll comment like?

A creative combination of invective, judgement and false assumptions

We've come a long way from 1995, roughly the Neolithic era of the Internet, when anonymity was heralded as part of the allure of the boundary-free, initial Internet experience. Today, that same anonymity is what lies at the heart of abusive trolling.

Real life interaction is aided by biological cues such as hurt, shame or anger which prevent us from being abusive in person. But this connect is missing in the online world. It brings out the worst in human behaviour when a person is behind a computer or tablet screen. "The real world has consequences," points out psychologist Harsheen K Arora in her analysis of trolling. "One can emotionally or physically hurt someone for such behaviour offline. Online, there is a sense of comfort where one believes he or she can't be judged and thus can say anything they want to."

The absence of social cues also fails to generate empathy online, because that's what essentially enables people to identify with the pain and discomfort of others. "There is nothing to jolt your consciousness or tell you how hurt one could be from your comments. Which in turn makes us crueller, aggressive and animal-like," explains Sraboni Bhaduri, a psychoanalyst.

If 1995 was the Neolithic era, we are now characteristically in the Net's bleak Middle Ages, where a lot of people are active online, but without any rules to govern them. "In a civil society, there are set rules according to which we behave. On the Internet right now, people are like primitive men and women, doing as they please without fear of retribution or law. The rules of proper behaviour (if they've been formed), haven't been implemented firmly," says psychologist Harsheen Arora.

India's IT Act does make provisions to prevent online abuse. Sec 66A prescribes that sending abusive messages or adopting a menacing character over an electronic medium is punishable with a fine and three years of imprisonment. But action is taken only when an individual complaint is lodged at the local police station. This is cumbersome, considering abuse is generally generated from hundreds of anonymous accounts.

The fantasised sense of self that we promote on the Internet adds another layer to the equation. Online is where, through abuse, a diffident person draws the sense of power and narcissism that they couldn't in real life. "There is a delusional control over the medium where the abuser often feels that he or she can exit anytime without any harm," says Bhaduri. "The Internet takes away the social gaze and allows you to be whoever you want to be, even if it's abusive and vicious." Bhaduri believes that being online makes trolls bolder. "To come up with a witty remark in real life requires a high level of EQ, which not everybody has," she says. "But the Internet gives you all the time to carefully formulate your comment and come up with what you think is the smartest, most sarcastic retort of all time." Read:

@NotRamCGuha, a parody Twitter account of the eponymous historian, is run by someone who identifies himself as a troll. He describes himself as one who "pursues a point and doesn't let it dilute under any circumstances." But he is quick to distance himself from serial abusers. "They abuse because they lack the intellectual rigour to come up with logical/factual arguments," he explains via a tweet.

Most abusers don't have many friends on the Internet, where they often get retweeted and shamed, poked fun at, or simply chased away by the friends of the person being trolled. @GuppistanRadio, who is known to poke fun at celebrities, was once threatened with the possibility that pictures of his wife would be morphed in a lewd manner and released online. "Followers hi class le lete hain fir un abusers ki," he tweeted to us.

Mridul K Verma, a content writer, whose handle on Twitter is @Psilosophy, feels most abusers revel in the misery of others. "The schadenfreude (a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people) is very real. We only take note when it grows into sadism. The definition of fun varies for everyone, but they do it because they enjoy it," says Verma.

This might not be too far from the truth. A research study conducted by Erin E Buckels of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, correlates online trolling to narcissism, Machiavellianism (being deceitful and cunning), psychopathy, and sadism, with sadism being the most robust link. The study suggests that "both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun... and the Internet is their playground!"

While our celebrities evoke scary levels of devotion among their fans, that translate into troll armies online, the West is no different. Equally aggressive or sometimes more, these fan bases work in unison against anyone, even other public figures to fight for what they feel is best for their idol. Here are some of the most prominent examples.
Justin Bieber

A rabid fan base - the Beliebers, defends the teen idol's every inaction (DUIs, arrests, public fights etc) and pounce on anyone who suggests otherwise
Lady Gaga

When TV show host, Kelly Osborne criticised Gaga for missing a red carpet appearance, Gaga's fans routinely called her fat and asked to kill herself.
One Direction

Directioners, the fans of the teen boy band attacked GQ for publishing magazine covers of the band members, which they deemed as unflattering.

Her fan base often get miffed with Beyonce for things they think she shouldn't do, like her recent friendship with Kim Kardashian, which drew their ire.
Ricky Gervais

The British comic actor is known for his snarky wit and unique style of naming and shaming trolls, encouraging his fans to go after someone who insults him.

Facebook comparatively sees the least trolling, owing to the presence of a wide network of friends, pictures and family ready to judge you. Twitter, on the other hand, offers a lower degree of personalisation. Reddit, which requires nothing more than an email ID to join, sees greater degrees of abuse and hate speech. And the public bulletin board 4chan, where anyone can post anonymously, is the dark space of Internet, where users goad others into suicide and serious self-harm. One recent example was #CutForBieber: 4chan users organised groups to goad teenaged girls to cut themselves in the name of teen pop musician Justin Bieber.

Although there might be significant differences between the offline and online world, essentially one does mirror the other. What ends up finding expression online is a deluge of unfiltered thoughts which people are scared to express in real life. "The Internet is like the street," says author and film critic Anna MM Vetticad, the target of much abuse after posting an unfavourable review of a blockbuster, with comments like, "U r such a ugly female writter [sic] and ugly is ur heart! Even i hv watchd jai ho n othr millions r al thumbs up 4 it. N u giving it just half star is an insult 4 u as a critic."

Read: Miley Cyrus pleads Twitter trolls to stop calling her ugly

While men are abused too, trolling is not entirely gender-neutral and women get the rawest end of the deal. Men too mostly get abused with regard to their mothers and sisters, displaying a deep-seated patriarchal mindset. Anja Kovac, director of a project on Internet democracy, believes it results from rampant misogyny in the minds of men. "Men go after women with a sense of powerlessness because they feel unfulfilled somewhere. With the shift in ideas and changing social landscape, women are no longer dependent on men the way their mothers were. That's unsettling for them and they react with violence, both in real life and online." Adds psychoanalyst Sraboni Bhaduri, "Men are not used to being evaluated, but now they have to make an effort to woo women by being charming, suave etc. They are left with a smaller sense of territory and they feel they can reclaim it online."

Read: Twitter trolls get nasty about Adele's newborn baby

Kavita Krishnan, a woman's rights activist, and politburo member, CPI(ML), who regularly faces online threats of rape and mutilation to her and once even her mother, feels the abuse, aimed to create an atmosphere of intimidation, is a reaction to women making their voices heard. "This is an organised strategy to abuse the women into silence, either by commenting on their looks or character. The idea is to subdue meaningful conversation among the din of hate speech and create a hostile environment. Many women feel apprehensive about expressing themselves freely, especially about politics for they fear being vulgarly abused and trolled."

Read: Why're you calling Kim a slut? Kris Jenner lashes out at Twitter trolls

The move towards tolerant, liberal ideologies hasn't just brought more liberal voices - gender rights, LGBT support, sensitivity to violence and political awareness - to the fore. It has also created massive insecurities among those holding onto anachronistic, antagonistic ideas. This finds reflection in the bitter abuse of feminists, LGBT activists and even film critics, who are virulently vilified after every bad or lukewarm review they write.

And the online world appears to be the best place to offload it all. "With the society in a flux, new identities are being fashioned," Bhaduri points out. "The earlier coordinates of caste, class and creed are not so relevant and the axis of identification has shifted to the hero, especially hyper-masculine ones such as Salman Khan and Sunny Deol." She says that people identify with heroes in whom they find a reflection of themselves - be it the brawny but lovable brat, Salman Khan, the kind patriarch Sunny Deol or even Shah Rukh Khan, "who is rather plain-looking but very charming and entirely self-made". These are actors "preserving the classic model of masculinity on screen and naturally, people are not willing to hear anything even remotely unpleasant about them, even if it is entirely logical," Bhaduri elaborates.


Checks & Controls

Although Internet abuse is a global phenomenon, several countries have evolved active laws to counter it. The UK, apart from running several campaigns against cyber bullying, recently arrested two men who were threatening rape and violence to a women on Twitter. Despite the law being fairly toothless when it comes to online abuse in India, it does lay the responsibility on the agency to moderate the comments hosted on it. Cyber law expert and Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, Pavan Duggal says that according to Sec 75 of the IT Act, an agency hosting such abuse does become amenable to it, and has to exercise due diligence to remove it. While most news websites strictly monitor comments, it is Twitter where the most vulgar hate speech continues to thrive. The social network now has a 'report tweet' feature, where you can report abusive tweets, for which there is a round-the-clock team to take care of the grievances. However, abuse continues to proliferate.

Deification of heroes, fuelled by India's rabid fan culture, coupled with the growing unrest among people with regard to the changing social and political structures, creates a toxic cocktail of vitriol and abuse. "People feel they've been wronged, they have anger against the system, which often translates to those who speak against their heroes," says stand-up comic and author Sorabh Pant, who was recently trolled abusively for a tweet about Sunny Deol.

Even if a person is hardly given to violent reactions in real life, playing the troll (and finding company in it) comes easy online. "People with common interests move in packs on the Web, with the leaders often initiating abuse on those whose comments conflict with their own," says Pant. "Those looking to earn encouragement try to outdo them." Generally, the biggest mobs online belong either to celebrities or political parties, who are often accused of hiring the trolls to unleash the venom.

While Jekyll & Hyde would be the most convenient explanation for this behaviour, the truth might be more complex. Misogynist mindsets, changing social mores and political tactics are all causes that contribute to it.

But the phenomenon of trolling could also be seen as an unfiltered manifestation of people seeking newer outlets for their growing loneliness and anger, whether it is unsuspecting tele-callers or users online. One needs to view the online space as an extension of the offline society, with similar rules of social conduct to remind us of the real person on the other side of the screen.

From HT Brunch, March 9

Follow us on
Connect with us on

Story Saved