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Huddersfield 15/16 Digital Cultures: Trolling

What trolling is, why people do it, what can be done about it.

Richard Jones

on 9 March 2016

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Transcript of Huddersfield 15/16 Digital Cultures: Trolling

Email: R.L.Jones@hud.ac.uk
Twitter: @rlwjones
Blog: richardjonesjournalist.com
Office: JM3/08
Office hours: Tuesday 1:15-2:15pm,
Contact me
Today's lecture
What is trolling?
Why do people do it?
What can we do about it?
What is trolling?
One definition: Online trolling is the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.
(Buckels et al, 2014)
Some recent examples
The Madeleine McCann case has prompted a lot of online comment since 2007, much of it critical of her parents.
The Twitter account @sweepyface was one example.
Sky News discovered the person sending the tweets was a 63-year-old woman, Brenda Leyland - not the typical stereotype of a troll. Reporter Martin Brunt doorstepped her.
Shortly afterwards, Leyland left her home and went to a nearby hotel. She was later found dead.
Some have argued Leyland wasn't really a troll because, as the McCanns aren't on Twitter, she wasn't abusing them directly. However, I think she could be considered a troll under Buckels' definition.
Martin Brunt has himself now been widely trolled, for his actions during the doorstepping.
There's nothing unique about that. Journalists are now often trolled in various ways, for publishing stories which prove unpopular with some people.
Dapper Laughs is a comedian who became somewhat famous through a series of Vines. He ended up getting his own show on ITV2.
The website usvsth3m published a scathing review of his Christmas album.
Dapper Laughs responded - how else? - through Twitter.
An usvsth3m writer, Abi Wilkinson, tweeted about a particular song on the Christmas album.
Then this happened.
The fact that some of this apparently happened on Snapchat - a direct messaging app - rather than on the internet suggests it might fall outside Buckels' definition of trolling. I'd suggest that definition is already out of date.
This whole row was not good for Dapper Laughs' image. In fact, it turned toxic within days.
I want to talk about one more example. This time from sport, which seems to have a particular problem with trolling.
We live in an age when an individual sports reporter has a greater online following then the major media company he works for. Perhaps it's no surprise journalists are targets, too.
Another popular journalist on Twitter is the BBC's cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew. He was a relatively early adopter of social media.
Even his following is dwarfed by the nearly 3m who follow cricketer Kevin Pietersen.
Agnew was widely criticised on Twitter for supposedly not scrutinising the ECB enough over Pietersen's sacking in the 2013/4 Ashes. Some of this criticism bled into various columns.
When Pietersen released a book last year giving his version of events, he was interviewed on Radio 5 live. Agnew listened in and commented afterwards, leading to this exchange.
The discussion continued on Twitter, with fans of Pietersen criticising Agnew. Later, Pietersen's wife had a tetchy exchange of tweets with Agnew, before he (temporarily) quit the service.
As we've seen, all sorts of people are being scrutinised, criticised and abused in various ways, from celebrities and sportspeople to journalists and people caught up in tragic events. A question for you to think about is:
to what extent is this justifiable?
Why do people do it?
What can we do about it?
Trolling as provocation
(McCosker, 2014)
The art of trolling law enforcement
(Bishop, 2012)
Trolls just want to have fun
(Buckels et al, 2014)
Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls
(Shachaf and Hara, 2010)
To see and be seen: celebrity practice on Twitter
(Marwick and Boyd, 2011)
The bad boys and girls of cyberspace
(Fichman and Sanfillipo, 2015)
#gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit's algorithm, governance and culture support toxic technocultures
(Massanari, 2015)
A Companion to New Media Dynamics
(eds Hartley et al, 2013)
See also the work of
Danah Boyd
Judith Donath
, among others.
Shachaf and Hara
, in their
study of Wikipedia trolls, suggest three general motivations for trolling.
1. Boredom, attention seeking and revenge.
2. Fun and entertainment.
3. To damage the community and others.
There's been some research into this. It's still early days, but here's a flavour of what some researchers have concluded.
McCosker (2014)
looked into comments left below YouTube videos, and again identified attention seeking as a main motivation.
"... much of the vitriolic provocation seems deliberately constructed to initiate ongoing reactions and to draw attention."
McCosker (2014)
Bishop (2012)
splits trolling into two distinct types:
kudos trolling
flame trolling
Bishop (2012):
Kudos trolling
- Messages designed to entertain others for the sender's own gratification.
Flame trolling
- Messages designed to deliberately harm others for the sender's own gratification.
What do you think?
"The Internet is an anonymous environment where it is easy to seek out and explore one’s niche, however idiosyncratic. Consequently, antisocial individuals have greater opportunities to connect with similar others, and to pursue their personal brand of “self expression” than they did before the advent of the Internet."
Buckels et al (2014)
Buckels et al (2014)

found that people who showed signs of
seemed to enjoy trolling the most.
There have been several cases of people being brought before the courts for trolling, under various different laws.
Communications Act 2003
, section 127, said that a person is guilty of an offence if he or she
a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b) causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
The maximum jail term under that law was six months. But that was considered not long enough and so new legislation has been introduced, in part to keep up with the emergence of social networks since 2003.
Student Liam Stacey was jailed for a racially-aggravated public order offence, for sending tweets about Fabrice Muamba when the footballer collapsed during a game.
This law was used in the case of Peter Nunn, who sent menacing tweets about Stella Creasy MP when she supported a campaign to get Jane Austen on banknotes.
Some Twitter users, most notably ex-footballer and commentator Stan Collymore, 'shame' trolls by retweeting and taking screenshots of abuse. When this happens, the trolls usually apologise.
talkSPORT attempted to boycott Twitter in 2014, in protest at the company's lack of action on the abusive tweets sent to Collymore.
The limit has now been increased to two years, under the
Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.
This law also created a specific offence of revenge porn.
talkSPORT even started to aggressively promote a rival sports-themed social network, Sports Yapper.
The boycott had little obvious impact, and after a break the official talkSPORT Twitter accounts all quietly started up again.
Part of the issue here is that the big internet companies, whether it's Twitter, Facebook, Google or whoever, are very reluctant to actively moderate posts on their services. It's partly because of cost, but mainly because the more they do, the more likely they are to be regulated more tightly.
Twitter and others see themselves as platforms, not publishers. They like to think they are the equivalent of the postal service or the printing press: they allow communications to happen, rather than being responsible for the content of those communications.
Do you agree?
Fichman and Sanfillipo (2015)
found that the online context of the trolling was significant. Aggressive comments which might be acceptable on Wikipedia or in a gaming community, were considered highly offensive in a Q&A setting like Yahoo! Answers.
In her study of #gamergate and The Fappening,
Massanari (2015)
argues that certain online platforms, in particular Reddit, allow trolls to thrive through the way they are run: little moderation, widespread anonymity, 'upvoting' allowing controversial material to rise quickly.
Full transcript