Trolling: Disagreement, snark or spite?

Announce on Twitter that Women’s Day is largely wasted in a country with staggering rape stats, and you’re a troll. Or are you? It seems there are trolls and trolls …

Let’s look at three different scenarios and make a call.

1. You post an article on something personal, like taking your baby to Home Affairs and being invited to jump the queue, or bathing with your 4-year-old. You expect comments — positive, negative, ambivalent. If you’re a seasoned poster, you even expect dissension. What you don’t expect is spittle-flecked vitriol, wild accusations of child abuse or violent misogyny — dressed up as “commentary” but based on spite.

2. You write a tweet with a grammar error. You make a mistake with facts or info. Or you post something innocuous that others see as silly. They respond, under their own name, but in a bitchy way. Perhaps to shit-stir, seem funny, attract followers or even engage with you. The intention isn’t to cause pain, though that may be a by-product. Note: The response may be addressed to you or sub-tweeted about you.

3. You make a statement that’s contentious. Related to racism, rape, religion or politics, say. Or something less flammable that provokes strong feelings. Someone engages with you, stating their quarrel with your position. Like Example #2, they identify themselves and don’t mean to cause hurt. Unlike #2, there’s no intention to entertain, so the bone of contention is with your point, not with you. And there’s no sub-tweeting.

These three scenarios describe, in descending order, spite, snark and strong disagreement. The first is trolling. No question. The middle? It depends; there’s a fine line. The last? Not trolling.

Here’s my thinking:

Trolls way back when

Alongside the emergence of online forums, chat rooms and group message boards came the troll — the guy or girl who created arguments for fun, using subversive techniques to mislead people into thinking they held a particular belief.

These “pro” trolls don’t believe in the statements they make; they spout falsity, parody others or are deliberately provocative to create friction. The goal isn’t to cause hurt — it’s to be clever or creative; to see how much he or she can “get away with”.

In essence, pro trolling is a challenge, designed to cause amusement. And this kind of troll is usually quite smart, reasonably engaging and successfully manipulative.

Defining trolls today

Sophisticated or skilled trolls are still around but today the more prevalent sub-species is the common troll who a. (probably) believes what they’re saying, b. gets emotional or illogical and c. most importantly, wants to hurt the other party with their confrontation.

Unlike the pro, this individual is traditionally not very bright. Typos, shoddy spelling and grammar, ALL CAPS and !!!s abound.

The typical symptoms of common trolling are name-calling, attacks on an opponent’s character rather than their contentions, profanity for profanity’s sake, generalisation (“All men are rapists … “), religious fundamentalism and the use of false names or total anonymity.

In reference to this creature, John Gabriel/Penny Arcade coined the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory, stating that “Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Dickwad”: people act like jerks because they want attention and can’t be caught.

Okay. So what now?

Now I’m not saying that all or most of the symptoms need to be in play for someone to be a troll, but I am saying that common trolls tend to be similar to each other. And their intentions tend to be clear from the start. At least, to smart people.

Our duty as users of social media is to identify trolls correctly and then act decisively — but only when dealing with actual trolls.

It’s no good accusing anyone who takes an opposing viewpoint or leaves the bandwagon of being a troll. It’s no good being over-sensitive about people not liking, not identifying with or even making fun of our online personas. And it’s no good being precious about what we say publicly.

Tips for managing #1-3

1. Got an ugly troll lurking? Screen-grab everything as evidence. Block. Report.
2. Got a snarky bitch lurking? Engage and snark back or ignore and move on.
3. Got an opponent? Dive in. Debate. (You may even make a new friend.)

Have fun. And play nicely.

Image – www.penny-arcade.com