Like mythical beasts that seem to be unstoppable, trolls continue to plague social media. This isn’t new of course. Long before Facebook existed, trolls were the scourge of Usenet newsgroups, web-based forums and message boards.
Even in 2020 trolls continue to be a problem.
We’ve all been there. Someone posts something, and someone comments that instead of being constructive or contributing to the debate simply responds in a way that is anything but productive. Reasoning and level discourse only exacerbate the situation.
In the end a post is hijacked.
Sadly the current political climate, made worse by recent events and the ongoing pandemic, has these occurrences feel even worse. The question is whether trolls were given a video game-esque “power up” in recent weeks.
“It is difficult to measure whether trolls during this crisis are worse than others, but are we seeing a lot of troll activity and misinformation,” pondered Jevin West, an associate professor within the Information School at the University of Washington. “We are swimming in a cesspool of misinformation. The pandemic likely makes it worse because increased levels of uncertainty creates the kinds of environments that trolls take advantage of.”
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, along with the lockdowns this spring, has certainly increased the time that people are spending in front of their screens. Because of the social distancing it could be argued we’re losing sight of our social norms in the process.
Simply put, too often people are likely to type something they’d never say if face-to-face.
“It would make sense that the pandemic is making trolling behavior worse and widespread,” explained Dr. Kent Bausman, a professor in the Online Sociology program at Maryville University.
“The overall intensity of this negative event is one current generations have never experienced,” Kent added. “When you couple this with the additional and simultaneous negative event of skyrocketing unemployment, you have the perfect brew for an escalating collective negative mood. This is what spurs trolling. It is a grotesquely cathartic individual level response to the negative feelings produced by an event(s). I say grotesquely in that relief or pleasure is gained by victimizing and harassing another for their difference in opinion or feeling.”
Kent warned that research indicates that trolling behavior often produces a contagion effect.
“Because so many in such a brief span of time have experienced the pandemic and indirectly the sudden increase in unemployment, the contagion effect associated with trolling behavior should be more extensive,” he noted. “Therefore, what may be grotesquely cathartic at the individual level simultaneously blooms into a toxic form of expression that ultimately erodes collective good will.”
What has also likely played a role is that too often our elected leaders will take to social media to address issues in a way that few would have done before.
“In this particular instance, it is important to distinguish between ‘everyday’ trolls and trolls with a political agenda,” suggested Morten Bay, research fellow at the Center for the Digital Future and a lecturer in digital and social media at USC Annenberg.
“Studies have shown that most social media users engage in a bit of trolling at some point in their life online because of the generally belligerent atmosphere on social media,” said Bay. “Since the pandemic has put people on edge more – and the quarantine gives them more time to spend on social media), the tone of the everyday trolling has gotten worse.”
Likewise as we near Election Day this discourse will become anything but more civil.
“Both sides are now posting misinformation about the civil unrest happening across the country,” added Bay. “These trolls will insert themselves into debates on Twitter and Facebook and post disparaging comments on Instagram and TikTok to help distribute the messaging.”
Social Media Has Increased The Volume
It has been said that the loudest voice in the room will drown out everyone else, and trolls certainly see this is how things work on social media. It may not be volume, but instead it is the most inflammatory or even outrageous comments. If logic, reasoning and facts don’t work then they resort to anger and bullying tactics.
“The social media sphere is, at its core, a connection and amplification machine, which can be used for both bad and good,” warned Bay.
“But unlike, say, the ‘public square’ that social media CEOs want their platforms to be, we have no established ethics for social media, and so neither platforms nor users know what can be considered good and right, except for obvious cases, like extremism and hate speech,” Bay noted. “If we did, most people would know how to handle trolls best, which is to simply ignore them.
While moderators on forums, chat rooms and Usenet groups had the final say, social media is a bit different. These are platforms that can already address fake news and ban users for violating community standards – so why isn’t more being done specifically to trolls?
“Social media as a platform, the research tells us, has made trolling behavior more pervasive and virulent,” said Kent.
“Considerable research shows how the online environment leads to a lack of inhibitions in posting behavior and adds to a sense of empowerment through the cloak of semi anonymity that comes with online posting,” Kent added. “When you combine these with the lack of accountability that often comes with one’s online behavior, we have emboldened people to speak in a virtual public sphere in a manner they would not otherwise do in a physical public space.”
It would seem that social media has created a platform for trolls to thrive, but has done little to tame the beasts.
“Yes, social media companies should do more to address trolls, bots, and all forms of misinformation,” suggested West. “In response to COVID, they are doing more than they ever have with banners and fact checking of individual posts, but the efforts are not commensurate with the scale of the problem and the impact on society.”
At least some progress has been made.
“They have, at least since 2017,” added Bay. “They have become much more vigilant and are quicker to examine and block fake accounts engaging in any sort of trolling behavior. But they are also under political pressure. Behind every troll account is a human being and it can be very difficult to judge whether someone is merely expressing an opinion while wanting to stay anonymous or is engaging in actual trolling behavior.”
Even with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, this can be more than most algorithms can tackle quickly or easily. And by the time it happens the troll will have struck, killed a lively discussion and moved on.
“It requires looking at that user’s posting history, how the user is connected to other accounts and many other parameters that requires human intervention and moderation, since algorithmic filters don’t understand sarcasm, for example,” Bay noted. “Understandably, elected officials do not want their supporters to be silenced. The most obvious, high-activity trolls usually get caught at some point, though.”
In the end the same tactics that were used in the 1990s in the early “frontier” days of Usenet and message boards prevail. Don’t engage.
“Even those that just engage in trolling because of personal issues and the need to assert themselves get discouraged by that,” said Bay. “As the old Internet saying goes, ‘Don’t feed the trolls!'”