Don't feed the trolls: how to deal with cyber bullies

Cyberbullies seek to provoke a response. Getty
Cyberbullies seek to provoke a response. Getty

If the internet democratised social media, it did the same for propaganda. Anyone with an internet connection and a social media account or two suddenly had the ability to manipulate or influence group opinion to support a particular cause or belief. Bullies could use such activity to target individuals, or the whole operation could be scaled up in an attempt to subvert public opinion and political processes.

Imagine, for example, that I had created 100 fake Twitter accounts, with a range of believable names and profile pictures. What if I then set up my fake horde of hate-spewers to badmouth your every move. I could get one of my bogus accounts to express a negative opinion about you, then have a dozen or more of the others voice agreement and equally negative views. Some genuine onlookers would also join the fray and, conformity being what it is, many would opt to side with the seemingly popular opinion. Before you knew what was happening, I would have engineered a social media pile-on, with you as the victim.

The troll is not interested in open, honest debate. Instead, they are seeking attention

Earlier this year Jarod Kirkman, an unemployed, middle-aged man from Luton in the UK, received a nine-month jail sentence for trolling – that is, repeatedly directing hateful messages at people online. Kirkman used numerous fake accounts, with his malicious missives targeting seven UK politicians, including MPs Nicky Morgan and David Lammy. The specifics of his abusive messages are unworthy of repetition, which is also the conclusion of a timely new report by the London-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

The CCDH study, titled Don't feed the trolls: a practical guide to dealing with hate on social media, advocates silence in response to online trolls. More specifically, the report, which draws on leading research into the psychology of trolling, advocates blocking, muting and reporting trolls, but cautions strongly against any form of engagement or interaction with them.

The report acknowledges that it is a natural reaction to want to correct someone who we believe to be wrong. However, the troll is not interested in open, honest debate. Instead, they are seeking attention; in some cases, it is part of a systematic attempt to shine more light on their warped ideology or hateful cause. By engaging with the troll's posts, even to call them out or ridicule them, means that their messages are given a larger audience and their ideas spread further afield.

A trolling playbook published by a white nationalist group suggests to its members that "we should always be on the lookout for any opportunity to grab media attention. The most obvious way to do this is to troll public figures and get them to whine about it. I keep thinking this will stop working eventually but it just never does."

The CCDH report has this counterfoil: don't engage, don't give hateful ideas oxygen and don't feed the trolls. Which reminds me of the old Arabic saying: "Silence is the best reply to a fool".

Gary Lineker has spoken out against online trolls. Getty
Gary Lineker has spoken out against online trolls. Getty

Several high-profile figures have voiced support for CCDH's recommendations. Notably, TV presenter and former footballer Gary Lineker, comedian Eddie Izzard and London mayor Sadiq Khan have got on board. Lineker expressed particular concern about the levels of racist abuse directed at several prominent soccer players in the English Premier League. Such online hate speech should be immediately reported to the media network and the police, of course. Additionally, the centre suggests it is equally crucial to fight the urge to respond or comment on it.

This type of online antisocial behaviour is most damaging when directed at children and teenagers

Beyond celebrities and public figures, however, this type of online antisocial behaviour is most damaging when directed at children and teenagers. Cyber bullying is more than just bullying in a new environment. Before the internet, bullying tended to end when the school day did. Today, however, online victimisation can be a round-the-clock activity. Research says online bullying tends to be far more aggressive than its face-to-face equivalent.

It is hard to overestimate how damaging childhood victimisation experiences can be for physical and mental health. An adverse childhood experiences study in the US concluded that such exposure continued to have an impact throughout life. Among other findings, the study reported that adverse childhood experiences were associated with a 12 times higher likelihood of suicide attempts and doubled the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer in adulthood. Victimisation experiences in childhood, at the hands of peers or family, online or offline, can have lasting ramifications.

Beyond reporting bullies and trolls, there have to be severe consequences when such individuals are brought to book. The UAE was the first country in the Middle East to enact a wide-ranging cyber crime law. In August last year, this law was further strengthened with an increased range of penalties imposed against violators.

If left unchecked, trolling and online hate speech can do a great deal of lasting harm to individuals and whole societies. We need to do as much as possible to curb such online abuses. Don’t feed the trolls – but do jail them.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: September 23, 2019 04:46 AM


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