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Trolling: An Age-Old Problem That's Not Getting Better

trolls on the internetThis past weekend I was at a holiday party. When speaking to another guest about some of the Internet security issues we solve at Impermium, I was asked “What is trolling?” I was shocked that Trolling, an age-old problem in existence practically as long as the Internet itself, was a mystery to her. And keep in mind, this friend is relatively tech-savvy and someone I would consider “in the know” about current events. I gave her a brief explanation about trolls – and she was fascinated. During the barrage of questions that followed, I realized how little I know about the specifics of trolls’ methods and motivations. So, I write this blog post in order to inform readers about trolling, and provide some unique examples and insights that Impermium’s researchers have discovered. In Part 2, I will detail why this is a problem for not only Internet users, but online businesses as well. So what actions define an Internet troll? Tom Postmes, Professor and Social Psychologist, describes it well:

Trolls aspire to violence, to the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want it to kick off. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.” – Tom Postmes

The history of trolling very closely parallels the growth of the Internet – it is about as old as the idea of the Internet itself. Trolls were noted in the BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) and early Usenet topic forums that predated the Internet. Likewise, as social networks and user activity internet trolling typeshave surged online, the volume and severity of trolling behavior has increased worldwide. While many mainstream news reports equate trolling to cyber bullying, some netizens argue there is a difference; some users even defend trolling as an art form.

Many believe that trolling is just posting harmless off-topic comments to distract others on a website. But as many commenters have recently noted, trolls feed off of negative energy, and now go further than ever to receive this rush. Many trolls obsessively stalk forums and threads for sensitive topics, from a family member’s death to a racially loaded article. They often plan strategic tirades of inflammatory comments to get a dramatic response from targeted users, using racist, violent, misogynist, and generally offensive language. Once they have received their desired response from the victim, they may continue to cyberstalk or harass the victim for a prolonged period of time.

Trolls’ motivations vary, though they typically begin with a malicious motive, leveraging deceit and anonymity to their advantage.  Their mode of attack typically begins within an online forum, but often crosses over into popular social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as news article comments, and more recently to mobile smartphones. While many trolls work independently, they are empowered by like-minded communities and the expedient, far-reaching tools of social media.  Some columnists have noted that trolling is reinforced and even encouraged by collective communities or “host-cultures” that share their values and perversions.

For over a decade it’s become apparent that an Internet connection and the seeming anonymity that goes with it tends to turn even the weakest of minds and muscles into a snorting web presence that boasts of the ability to take on all comers. Now, you might have to think twice before flexing that imaginary e-muscle.” – Kelly Dwyer

As the Sun reports: “if these actions happened in public, many of us would agree the person responsible should be locked up with a high probability that the culprit would feel the full force of the law.”  However, as several case studies highlight, the law is often too slow to impede the worst effects of trolling and cyber-bullying.  Even as many victims report the crimes to law enforcement there is little action or safeguards against prolonged harassment.

Impermium has a first-hand observation into the underworld of trolls lurking among the comments of featured online articles and popular social forums.  Many of the trolls we have witnessed are consistent in their attacks, posting an average of 100-300 comments a day, sometimes continuing for several years.  At their peak, trolls can post as many as 2,000 actions or comments per day, targeting and harassing specific users or communities.   Their behavior is even more abhorrent when analyzing it across longer periods of time; the diligence and volume in which trolls execute their harassment activities is nothing short of bizarre.  Let me introduce you to a few trolls wreaking havoc on online communities. 

The Political Troll

Motive:  To frustrate and anger people of opposing opinions
Danger:  Directing hate and anger toward unsuspecting users
Mode:  Using forums to post direct messages to thousands of users

One particular user has established himself as the major troll on a top-tier news site, having posted 6,697 messages in just 15 days to a hand full of articles.  Our system identified many of these messages because he was targeting other users with strong insults and threats.  On October 29th alone, this user submitted over 1,860 comments to featured content, primarily to an article about Hurricane Sandy. His messages were unrelated to the articles, focusing entirely on political insults, baiting other users into a fight:

JoseywhaIes Bush, the murderer in Chief….got exactly what he had coming…..the collapse of America…..own it retards..you voted for him.”

“Just sent 100 listeners packing…..lol /When would you like me to stop or is it fine this way? Who says flagging isn’t a good thing??? It created my entire spam technology. Just like Bush and the hunt for oil in the mideast created all those terrorists”

The Self-Promotion Troll

Motive: SEO, attention, self-promotion
Danger: Misinformation, disrupting news sources during a national disaster
Mode: Twitter, deceit, posting false claims about emergency updates as breaking news.

the problem of trolls

As the emergency response to Hurricane Sandy was mounting and journalists were reaching out for breaking updates about the devastation, one Twitter user, under the handle @ComfortablySmug, began posting tweets that claimed to be critical first-hand accounts of the situation on the ground.  The tweets were quickly retweeted hundreds of times and was eventually covered by mainstream media as factual reports.

Leveraging the fast pace of social media and playing off of people’s fears, this troll was able to spread potentially dangerous information.  Many have argued that the journalists and media outlets should be held responsible for not checking their sources. But given the potential for danger, many have called for criminal charges to be brought against @ComfortablySmug, [who ironically was revealed to be a campaign manager for a local congressional campaign, leaving many to believe the entire act was done simply to gain notoriety, SEO, and promote political causes].

Why Trolling Is Hard Stop

Trolls rely heavily on deception and the appearance of anonymity to lodge their attacks, which makes it difficult to respond to them quickly or find accurate information about their activities.  From these case studies we can see that trolls’ motivation and mode of attack varies. While to some, trolls seem more like a nuisance than a serious problem, more severe trolling can lead to legal repercussions for users and site owners. Be sure to check back next week for the second part of this series, focusing on the dangers of trolling to users and businesses, and how you can protect yourself.

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