Once camped under mythical bridges, trolls have crawled into every corner of your social life.
A troll antagonizes people online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments or other disruptive content, according to Webster’s most recent definition. They aren’t a new phenomenon, but they’re rapidly increasing in numbers and in posts. According to a analysis CBC Marketplace analysis from January 2017, there appears to be a 600-per-cent jump in the past year in “how often Canadians use language online that’s racist, Islamophobic, sexist or otherwise intolerant.”
As the Star’s social media acrobat, my daily tasks involve extensive scans of trending topics and breaking news on Twitter, and entering dark sub-Reddit holes where troll activity abounds. But when I’m monitoring commenters on the Star’s Facebook page there’s nothing more intriguing and discouraging than seeing how online discourse turns into mutual torment.
Read more:Finding a way forward in our moment of truths: Age of Unreason
Our Facebook posts, which are used to notify subscribers and Star readers on the latest news — and hopefully ignite constructive discussion — seem to always transform into a battleground for outspoken commenters to unleash their worst. They aren’t there to find a common understanding, or to share insight, but are intentionally there to cut someone down.
What’s a day like going through these comments? “You’re fat, go crawl back into a hole!” “Nice photo, your girlfriend is ugly anyways.” “Ew, you like Nickelback, no wonder you’re such a redneck,” are just a few comments I’ve marked as spam. But as hurtful and seemingly off-topic as these comments are, they are the most watched, liked, engaged comment threads.
In our recent story on Anthony Scaramucci’s removal as White House communications director, our Facebook post reached more than 100,000 people — 10 per cent of whom engaged (commented, liked, shared). Our top comment that amassed 16 replies read, “Like him or not if he doesn’t like what you are doing or saying you are gone. Unlike our PM who doesn’t have the nerve to drop the ‘architect’ and fake citizen Monsef.” The final argument in the chain ended like this: “Lol, you only have 60 friends.”
Another top comment read, “When is Trump going to get removed . . . he is a clown,” and ended up with this response: “I know this is hard for a Trump supporter to grasp (what with all of you being such dimwitted buffoons and all), but we don’t have a president.”
On a news page, which should be a platform for elevating conversation and debate, why does it always come back to a primal level?
“Some people start out well, but then they go off the rails because they get very emotional, they lose track,” says Guy P. Harrison, an award-winning author, psychologist and social media researcher.
“Once we get angry or fearful … the fear centre takes over, and literally clouds the prefrontal cortex where all our higher reasoning goes,” he continues. “You actually become more animalistic, not so reasoned and thoughtful.”
He notes trolls cover the political spectrum. “It may seem that conservatives make the best trolls given the success of Donald Trump in the recent U.S. election, but liberals troll, too. Jerks come in all flavours and even the best of us are capable of sometimes veering into troll territory.”
From my observation, the posts that become most heated involve politics, race, crime, or anything to do with Trump.
Sometimes those who initiate these hateful online attacks are good people (off the Internet), but because of the online platform, treat these posts like they’re playing a virtual reality game, Harrison continues.
“They think they’re playing Sims or Second Life or something. Like a game where they can go around tormenting people and abusing people as if they aren’t real people,” he says.
In a book coming out in November, Think Before You Like: Social Media’s Effect on the Brain and the Tools You Need to Navigate Your NewsfeedThink Before You Like: Social Media’s Effect on the Brain and the Tools You Need to Navigate Your Newsfeed, he also explores the idea of false-consensus effect, a type of cognitive bias where people overestimate the legitimacy or belief of their own opinions, another reason why trolling online is so prevalent.
“Users online often don’t think they’re being weird or inappropriate, because they think they have a million people behind them,” he says.
This also feeds into filter bubbles, seen in online groups, friend lists, and societies users surround themselves with, a factor that boosted Donald Trump’s election win, Harrison says.
“Filter bubbles work so well with Trump supporters. Those fake news stories on Hillary Clinton, like how she sold weapons to ISIS, had million of likes and shares within these little universes.”
Trump is no stranger to trolling. In a recent New York Times article “Trump Seems Much Better at Branding Opponents Than Marketing Policies,” an interactive map of his tweets shows how his troll-like tactics against political opponents have influenced millions around the world.
For Hillary Clinton, the words “crooked, terrible!” resonated with millions. Ted Cruz, “lyin, liar, LIARS!” Elizabeth Warren, “goofy.” These words, the Times article states, helped him brand his policies and “propel his candidacy.”
As humans, we like to think of ourselves as reasonable and logical, but we’re emotional creatures, Harrison says, and we unleash our subconscious activity online. “When you’re trolled, it’s not a time to play chess, it’s a time to fight or run.”
So how do we deal with the trolls and get back to the discourse?
Recently, I felt my own potential troll emerge against a Facebook commenter who turned what I thought was a lovely pun into an insult. On a Star post about a man who allegedly bought 18 grills from Home Depot for a lower price and resold them, I decided to add some wordplay. The result?
“You didn’t just … ‘a grilling in court?’ I hate you,” the comment read.
Responding with another jab was my first instinct, or even a passive-aggressive comment, but I took Harrison’s advice to take a step back and close the page.
“If you’re angry, really fired up and all, calm down before you post that comment because you might regret it later,” he shares. “Don’t feed the trolls.”
Read more in the Age of Unreason series:
To agree to disagree on racism, sexism has become a cowardly cop-out: Age of Unreason
Does truth matter in Ontario politics in the Trump era?: Age of Unreason
Buy now, rationalize later. This is how emotional advertising works: Age of Unreason
The science of why we won’t stop believing: Age of Unreason
How minds were changed on pot, same-sex marriage, assisted death and GMOs: Age of Unreason