Internet trolls are a group of individuals who find enjoyment in spurring the emotional distress of others through online interactions. This is accomplished through comments, memes, and occasionally online videos designed to mock individuals. While trolls can be of any age or gender, most American trolls are male millennials (Kleinman, 2014). Trolls insult and mock children, adolescents, grieving families, and minorities with equal levels of blithe. These actions are defined by outsiders as deviant due to the extreme, blunt measures that are taken. However, trolls’ actions have a purpose to members of this subculture. Additionally, these actions may not be as foreign from the mainstream culture as an outsider might believe. Trolls’ values are gendered and reflective of American cultural norms while being supported by and supportive of mainstream media.
The term “troll” has been traced to two possible origins, either reflecting the nasty, malicious creatures of Norse mythology, or the fishing term, which relates to dragging baited lines through the water (Phillips, 2015). In mythology, troll characteristics vary, but most myths’ trolls are violent and keep to themselves, sometimes underground. They also have unappealing facial features (“Troll”). This potential origin is considered to be more derogatory than the fishing reference. However, both origins connote luring or antagonizing. Internet trolls attack a variety of groups, operating within the common belief that “nothing should be taken seriously”, and therefore deeming “public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity as a call to trolling arms” (Phillips, 2015, p. 25). Where grief or weaknesses are exposed, trolls see an opportunity to teach a victim not to overshare or form attachments online. They justify their actions as something the victim was “asking for” or “deserved”. Through this explanation, trolls place blame on the victims and practice scapegoating. This excuse is not honored in society, causing their actions to be socially unacceptable and deviant.
By claiming that their victims invite criticism by being too vulnerable, trolls dedicate their actions to correcting victims’ behavior. In this way, trolling has a purpose, according to functionalist theory (Adler & Adler, 2016). A functionalist theory of deviance implies that the deviant act contributes something to the society. Internet trolls are enforcers of ideology. American trolls see themselves as proud patriots and are, in their own minds, supporting national values (Morrison, 2015). In many ways, they are aligning their behaviors with a cultural value of strength. This is especially interesting, since most internet trolls are men (Kleinman, 2014). In America, perceived masculine traits, such as strength, are more highly valued than perceived feminine traits. This is seen in the compensation given to male-dominated versus female-dominated careers, as well as how people talk to and insult others (“don’t be a pussy”, “man up”, “don’t be a sissy”) (Drydakis, Sidiropoulou, Bozani, Selmanovic, & Patnaik; 2017). The dominant group who has societal power (including being seen in the public eye through political offices, etc.) is generally associated with the most idealized qualities (Ridgeway, 2001). Therefore, the traits associated with men (and, furthermore, white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled-bodied men), who hold powerful positions, are deemed more desirable than the traits associated with females, who have fewer high positions.
Due to this gendered cultural value system, trolls are also encouraging societal values when they are showing disdain for a lack of masculinity. They’re supporting the idea that stereotypical masculinity should be encouraged while also discouraging “weaker” qualities, which they perceive as feminine. This serves a function: Internet trolls are both policing others’ presentation of strength, as well as demonstrating their own gendered notions of dominance and power. This is depicted in several ways. In many cases, trolls reveal victims’ personal information, such as phone numbers, addresses, and Social Security numbers (Schwartz, 2008). Although the trolls may not personally benefit from this information, the knowledge exemplifies their power. They show that they have the ability to ruin someone’s privacy and security, therefore demonstrating a high degree of control. Trolls may also use obscene language and images to distress victims (Schwartz, 2008). In all of these attacks, trolls generally claim they target any vulnerability and do not seek particular demographics, but attacks have been consistently concentrated on women and minorities (Morrison, 2015). In an article about her book, Whitney Phillips explains that trolls are consistently following this pattern (Morrison, 2015). They assert power to police “against female-gendered behaviors”, even using language like “raping with logic” (Morrison, 2015). It’s evident that trolling is a gendered behavior and reinforces the culture’s gender expectations.
Given the trolls’ demographics and justifications, it is likely that there is a link between the developing masculinity of these predominately young men and their actions. Many trolls begin assuming this role in their adolescent years, and millennials are twice as likely as older adults to troll (Gammon, 2014). These millennials would have been growing up in an era with extensive media influence and many representations of stereotypical notions of masculinity that are seen in social media, video games, movies, and much more. The childhood exposure that younger generations have to media is vastly different from older generations’ childhood experiences (Da Silva, 2016).
Interestingly, there is also a continued relationship between institutions that publicize notions of masculinity and trolling activities (Phillips, 2015). In some ways, trolls actually support corporate interests, because they reinforce the ideology of violent media and create sensational news stories (Phillips, 2015). Trolls’ behaviors strengthen ideas, such as gender roles, that are propagated by elements of media (like some video games, social media pages, right-wing news sources, etc.) (Mudde, 2018; Blow, 2014; Genter, 2014). For example, female characters are far less likely to have a central or even equally playable role in video games (Burgess, Stermer, & Burgess, 2007). In many of these games, violence and power are also deeply linked, often including violence against women (Gabbiadini, Riva, Andrighetto, Volpato, & Bushman, 2016). These show American cultural values on which trolls may be capitalizing. Then, media sources condemn or draw attention to trolls (“Troll attacks on slain editor condemned”, 2018; Adam, 2016). To many, this is gratifying. The attention furthers their “joke”. In this way, trolls are created by the media, which distributes ideas of power and the social media that allows them to enact their deviance by finding victims. They are a product of these institutions and support their principles, by continuing what they perceive to be American cultural values. Their actions also illustrate valuation of free speech, an ideology that many Americans share (Wike, 2016).
Within the larger category of trolls, there are many smaller groups who have their own areas of interest. They have varying relationships with the larger category, and even trolls will say some subcategories go too far. R.I.P. trolls are often one of these controversially extreme groups. They target memorial pages on mediums such as tribute pages and Facebook or, in previous years, MySpace (Phillips, 2015; Eltman, 2010). These individuals post antagonistic comments and images to memorial pages, inciting reactions from family and friends of the deceased (Phillips, 2015). Many of these cases continue the gender-policing focus. For example, trolls attack a female victim with insults like “slut”, engaging gendered language and enforcing their perceptions on appropriate female behavior (Eltman, 2010; Phillips, 2015).
In a particularly striking case, trolls discovered a page for a teenage boy who had committed suicide. In 2006, Mitchell Henderson was in seventh grade, when he shot himself with his family’s rifle. Trolls first became interested in this story when they discovered a comment written by one of Henderson’s classmates, praising him for his choice. The writer repeatedly made a grammatical error, typing “an hero”, which trolls latched onto (Phillips, 2015, p. 28). Since trolls generally oppose the showing of sentimentality and attachment online, the trolls were amused by the combination of the error and the vulnerability that the grieving friend was showing (Nagle, 2017). From there, the interest grew. Trolls eventually discovered that Henderson’s iPod had been lost a few days before his suicide and concluded that Henderson had killed himself due to “first world problems”, or consumeristic distress over a lost item (Phillips, 2015, p. 29). The real motives behind Henderson’s suicide are unknown, but this heinous interpretation supports a functionalist description of trolling. These trolls are condemning problems they perceive in the culture, namely excessive consumerism.
R.I.P. trolls are frequently and particularly invested in the pages of suicide victims who they deem as “privileged”, based on factors such as youthfulness and race (Phillips, 2015, p. 29). This focus on privilege shows that the trolls are making a value statement, suggesting that the death was not “justifiable” or their life was not “hard enough”. This links to the notions of strength and masculinity. To a troll, this suicide victim did not adequately demonstrate strength through his choice. This is because they deem that his circumstances were not overly difficult, and he should have been tougher. Again, they are policing gendered values and traits that American culture support. In Henderson’s case, trolls perceived consumerism as negative and associated consumerism with a fixation on the missing iPod. This adds another layer in which trolls express their own ideologies. This deviates from American values, as the United States is a consumeristic culture, and trolls appear to be rejecting that ideal.
Trolls typically justify their actions and explain themselves using patriotic terms. They appear to be passionate about America and everything they believe it stands for (Morrison, 2015). If this is the case, perhaps criticizing aspects of the culture is part of that patriotism. It may be an effort to bring out what they deem to be the best qualities of American culture (strength, resilience, independence, freedom of speech, etc.) and to mitigate the lesser qualities (consumerism, laziness, selfishness, etc.). Here, trolls would see their deviance as a functionalist learning opportunity, through which Americans can note ways the culture can improve.
However, to the general population, trolls go to extremes to express these views. In Henderson’s case, they even posted a photo of an iPod laying against his gravestone. They also had no problem continuing to bother his family and went so far as to share his parents’ personal information online (Phillips, 2015). This resulted in the family receiving many phone calls, with callers claiming to be their son and asking to be let into the house or saying that he was at the cemetery and needed a ride. These comments were distressing, especially his mother. His father notes that the calls continued for over a year and usually sounded like they were made by young people (Schwartz, 2008). There was also a (since removed) YouTube clip posted, in which an actor dramatically depicted Henderson’s death, featuring the loss of the iPod as a crucial plot point. Additionally, memes used the phrase “an hero”, as a synonym for “kill yourself” and encouraged suicide (Schwartz, 2008; Nagle, 2017). This phrase has been used to provoke suicide attempts in the years following Henderson’s death, often relating to young victims who trolls saw as privileged (Daily Mail Online, 2013). These actions affected families deeply, while also causing harm to students who struggle with their mental health.
This is one of the popular memes that trolls created to mock the "an hero" comment and encourage suicide ("An Hero", 2018).
In order to post on memorial boards and aggressively target grieving families, trolls must detach themselves from the situation and the emotions involved. The activity of trolling requires extensive free time that seems indicative of privilege (Morrison, 2015). Therefore, a participant must separate themselves from their victims if they are able to call someone else privileged or criticize their consumeristic tendencies. This allows trolls to avoid guilt and fear of hypocrisy. As Phillips points out, not only is this trolling gendered, it also demonstrates a sense of entitlement (2015).
Trolls believe that emotions are something that should be exploited in other people and ignored in oneself. The anonymity and distancing screen between a troll and his victim allow one to separate himself from the damage being done (Phillips, 2015). It is not a personal relationship, and they can forget how real the damage could be for their victims. Therefore, trolls minimize guilt while maximizing amusement, making this a logical choice in the classical theory model. This model acts like a cost-benefit analysis, where an act is rational if the pleasure is greater than the pain (Adler & Adler, 2016). Here, it would explain that analysis reveals high incentive for trolls, due to the low risk of displeasure and the high potential reward. This results from the anonymity they can usually achieve and the presumable pleasure that they find in the activity. Minimizing discomfort by distancing oneself is a key component of this rationale.
Anthropologists like Gregory Bateson offer a relationship where the troll wears a “mask” and pretends that his actions are playful (Bateson, 1972; Phillips, 2015). However, the victim is required to take the comments seriously. This lets trolls feel that they are doing something funny, not damaging, while still getting an emotional reaction from the victims (Phillips, 2015). In this way, the victim is placed into a situation of unequal negative reciprocity (Saranovic, 2001). Even if a victim tries to respond with equal negativity, the troll will not be aroused. The exchange unfairly favors the troll. This further emphasizes the classical theory perspective that the troll’s pleasure is maximized—with minimal displeasure—making the act of trolling rational.
Despite the rationality that theories provide for deviant behaviors, very few trolls would describe their motivations in these terms. Instead, trolls say they do it for the “lulz”, a variation of “lol” or “laugh out loud” that indicates amusement in the distress of others (Phillips, 2015, p. 28; Buckels, Trapnell, & Paulhus, 2014). This entertainment is defined as deviant by mainstream culture. However, many Americans engage in similar amusement in the suffering of others through mediums like America’s Funniest Home Videos (AFV). The AFV website proudly shares that this is ABC’s “longest-running primetime television show” and has been on the air since 1989 (“About AFV”, 2018). Their recent videos have captions that include phrases like “Terrified Kid”,1 “Girl’s Goldilocks Catch Fire on Her Birthday”,2 and “Funny Fall Moments”.3 Americans must find some appeal in watching others, including children and vulnerable people, fall and be frightened.
Although the focus of this paper is on American trolls, it’s worth mentioning that these types of television shows and joy in others’ minor suffering is not unique to America. In German, there is even a word, “Schadenfreude”, that refers to “reveling in the misfortune” of another person, especially (but not always) “someone you dislike” (Phillips, 2015, p. 24). Perhaps the distinction between these forms of entertainment and the mindset of trolls is the degree of suffering intended and the causal link: someone is willing to personally inflict that suffering upon unsuspecting others for entertainment, instead of just enjoying the outcomes. In one case, a troll is willing to cause that pain for their own amusement. In another, people of all ages learn to laugh at pain that is conveniently presented to us.
If Americans participate in their own forms of “Schadenfreude” and enjoying strangers’ pain, how do they permit or encourage these acts but despise the actions of trolls? How do they separate the joy people of all ages find in watching video clips of people embarrassing themselves from the joy trolls feel when they mock strangers on the internet? In many ways, this is a question of labeling (Adler & Adler, 2016). Social groups have not chosen to label AFV viewers as deviant, but they have drawn the line before the realm of internet trolls. The act of deviance is that they go “too far”. They try too hard to inflict harm and do so personally, perhaps causing more distress than those filming AFV video submissions would. There seems to be a socially unacceptable point at which they are actively looking to cause distress and targeting vulnerable populations. It is not that this is a foreign concept in American culture or even that people do not normally find amusement in others’ pain. It is the fact that trolls actively and openly solicit that entertainment. In many ways, it is their frank honesty in the matter that is deviant.
For many who work for social media companies or are concerned with bullying behaviors, the question becomes how to end trolling behavior. Looking through a classical theory lens, is it possible to make the consequence unpleasant enough to discourage the act? In this line of thinking, some propose making it more difficult to be anonymous. While this may decrease some behaviors, there are trolls that do not have a problem with the attention that a known identity provides. In fact, these trolls are some of our most well-known and persistent (Morrison, 2015). They seem to still be able to separate themselves from their victims enough to troll, perhaps due to the mask mentality or the distance a screen provides. Social media companies are forced to pursue other means of control in order to combat trolls like these.
Companies like Twitter are making new efforts to block trolls and prevent them from creating new accounts (Balakrishnan, 2017). Preventing their ability to comment seems to be the only way to stop an existing troll from sharing abusive language or images. Unfortunately, many trolls find ways to work around that obstacle, such as hacking into other accounts. There have also been instances in which trolls were sued as a control mechanism. This happened in a recent case when a Jewish family was harassed by Neo-Nazis online (Drake & Seaborn, 2017). They were able to trace the trolls to a website and saw that it was an organized effort, led by a single individual of whom they found the name. In addition to verbal harassment of the family, the trolls had included threatening images and sound bites. Several of the interactions implied a threat of firearm usage (Drake & Seaborn, 2017). However, this level of prosecution does not usually occur. Even in this case that has a clear indication of who was involved and what happened, the outcome is undetermined. Issues including the limitations of free speech are questioned in the courts, preventing victims from a favorable decision (Drake & Seaborn, 2017). In other circumstances, the trolling may not be as visibly malicious as these Neo-Nazis’, or it may be too time-consuming or expensive for a victim to pursue. Lawsuits are not always practical for victims. To go through these lawsuits, a victim needs resources, time, and evidence that clearly goes beyond the protections of free speech.
Victims also need the identity of their harasser, which is not always easy to uncover. When not online, each troll has the potential to be an average person. They have the ability to choose when to practice their deviance and to whom they present it. Most trolls blend in during the rest of their day, as they interact with coworkers, neighbors, and friends. They also choose whether to troll alone or to be in online communities where trolls bond and collaborate (Phillips, 2015). For investigators, IP addresses can reveal locations, but they are often difficult to obtain without a subpoena or court order. To combat these challenges, there are now professionals who specialize in identifying anonymous commenters online, utilizing social forensics and legal counseling tactics. These people have been referred to as “bounty hunters for the digital era” (Heussner, 2010). Their tactics can assist dealing with existing trolls. Still, it would be preferable to prevent the act from ever occurring and to dissuade new people from posting abusive comments. As noted previously, most trolls are younger, at an age where they have leisure time and are technology-savvy. When schools discuss cyberbullying, trolling may be best avoided by preventing students from feeling dissociated from their online actions. If that separation from victims could be broken before students became fully aware of the opportunity to troll others online, perhaps some progress could be made.
Trolling behaviors can be well-explained by both functionalist and classical theories of deviance. There is a strong link between the demographics of the subculture and the behaviors they exhibit, showing stereotypical representations of masculinity. Trolls are online gender-police, setting expectations for strength and mocking those who show weakness. Additionally, they display their own masculinity through exhibitions of dominance in their apathy and control over situations. They find weaknesses that may unveil personal information for a victim, demonstrating the power of the troll. Finally, they reflect American values of strength and independence, while also rejecting the cultural tendencies with which they disagree, such as consumerism. Overall, American culture does little to dissuade trolling. With the focus on masculinity and free speech, it is not difficult to see how these ideals could combine in dangerous ways. To truly eliminate the appeal of this behavior, more than cyber bullying classes and Twitter security is perhaps needed. To teach people to not enjoy others’ pain and to eliminate the desire for dominance and gender-policing, a much greater shift may be required.
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1 From December 1, 2017.
2 From November 13, 2017.
3 From November 6, 2017.