- (in folklore) an ugly cave-dwelling creature depicted as either a giant or a dwarf.
If only we could continue sticking to this definition, limiting its application to mythical creatures encountered in Enid Blyton stories. If only!
Unfortunately, the world of digital media is very unlike that of Blyton’s and is a rather unkind place to be. The trolls that inhabit it can’t usually be frightened into retreating into their ignominious caves by the thudding of the hooves of the like of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. In fact, there is very little that can frighten them.
It is well known the manner in which the Internet has revolutionized the transmission of information and democratized the expression of opinion. (The writer and all her colleagues are grateful beneficiaries of the same). Yet, as free speech blossoms, so does the tribe of those who try their best to choke it.
Internet trolls can strike anywhere, at any time. An innocuous photo on a social media website from a college function? Innocuous only until a troll decides to pull you down for not dressing up as what s/he would deem appropriate. (And God save you if you’re a not-so-skinny girl who dares to bare her mid-riff!). (What you regard as righteous) Criticism of any administrative authority on a public forum? How dare you? Perfect meat for jingoists! An (apparently) harmless article making light of campus culture? Wait till they show you harmless it is.
Thriving on pulling others down, trolls rarely offer any constructive feedback. The purpose behind their comments is more often than not, to obstruct the conversation and upset the author of the content being commented on. Accordingly, their comments tend to be in the nature of personal attacks targeted at the author, rather than offering any effective criticism to their content.
Why do they troll you may ask? The freedom that anonymity brings with it is the answer claim several psychologists. John Fuller describes this as the “disinhibition effect” where the anonymity of the internet precludes the targets of trolls from knowing their attackers, and the dissonance in time between the hateful comment and the response to it only empowers the latter further. Fuller likens this to an individual’s uninhibited behaviour when he is at home, alone and unsupervised. Certain personality traits have further been identified amongst and attributed to online trolls, including the “Derak Tetrad” comprising of narcissism, Machiavelianism, sadism, and psychopathy. It has been found that their need for attention and the pleasure derived from hurting others drives trolls to “lie, exaggerate and offend”.
However, this attention-seeking behaviour assumes dangerous dimensions when it proceeds to injure its targets- emotionally and psychologically. Besides denting the authors’ self-esteem and confidence by demeaning them publicly, there have been several instances across the globe, where internet trolls have succeeded in pushing bloggers to stop writing altogether. Some have been driven to contemplate (and in rare instances) and commit suicide.
While there is no definite way in which the mushrooming of this species can be checked, the best way to immunize ourselves from trolls is by developing a skin as thick as their veil of anonymity, and avoiding engagement, which would only provide them with more fodder. (Therefore, the writer must now stop, for she perhaps has already provided more fodder than she would like to have intended).
In the words of psychologists Buckells, Trapnell and Paulhus “Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun… And the Internet is Their Playground!”