Who's afraid of the big, bad troll?

My first encounter with a troll wasn’t under a bridge or in a forbidden forest. It was online.

In response to an article I wrote about Canada’s reputation abroad, an anonymous person using the pseudonym “incredibly old person” left an excessively long and sarcastically laden comment mocking the subject matter and my perceived naïveté. Naturally, I took it personally.

This individual, by definition, is a prime example of an Internet troll: someone who deliberately posts provocative messages to create controversy. My article wasn’t meant to be controversial or contentious — I was simply stating my observations on what the French thought of Canadians (all good things, I might add).

And that’s exactly what delights trolls. They find pleasure in upsetting others. As the idiom goes, they are essentially making a mountain out of a molehill.

But there’s an issue with the term itself. A troll can be anyone <-> from someone who starts a harmless yet provocative Star Wars versus Star Trek thread to the sadistic Twitter users who drove Robin Williams’ daughter off social media. But the trolls we most often encounter are those who lurk the comment forms on sites like YouTube, blogs and online newspapers.

These people spark intense feelings, from annoyance to humour to outright anger. But why do they even bother?

What can we do about them?

For Anna Mehler Paperny, senior producer of Global News’ investigative data desk and former Journal editor in chief, trolls are a part of her everyday life. As a journalist, her work is continuously exposed to the brash, unapologetic voices of the Internet.

“[Online] commenters are so odious, it’s almost become a stereotypical joke how awful it is to read comments, especially on stories that you wrote or care about,” Mehler Paperny, ArtSci ’09, said.
Despite the inevitable antagonism that online anonymity creates, Mehler Paperny believes comment forums have their merits.

“You want to challenge your readers with your stories. You want your readers to engage and think about them,” she said. “I still think that comments are a really positive thing … Ultimately, it fosters a sense of community around your stories and news organization, which is what everyone wants to do.”

The difficulty is finding the balance between encouraging critical discussion and restricting the amount of offensive remarks. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from trolls’ purposely disruptive behaviour.

“The most important thing you can learn from people who become professional provocateurs online is that they only do it because they can get a reaction. And if they don’t get that reaction, then they’ll stop — I hope,” Paperny said.

She has to wonder how trolls behave offline: “Are they like that in real life?”

Unfortunately, yes. According to a February study from the University of Manitoba, Internet trolls are more likely to display narcissistic, psychopathic and sadistic personality traits. For the most part, trolls live up to their bad reputation.

Researchers asked participants about their Internet behavior and assessed their answers based on the “Dark Tetrad of personality.” This tetrad includes narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism. Of all the traits, sadism was the most present in trolls, which explains why they find so much enjoyment in trolling.

Rachel Wong, the face behind Rach Speed, a fashion and beauty blog and YouTube channel, has seen both the good and bad sides to anonymous commenters.

Although the responses she receives on her content are mostly positive, Wong, ArtSci ’16, still receives some backlash.

“The most negative comments I receive are if something is too expensive or something they like is unattainable,” Wong said. She gets flak for pricey purchases; however, she works a part-time job to earn the extra cash.

When it comes to social media, there’s no avoiding online trolls. And sometimes the best solution is to just ignore them. “I feel like on YouTube, you can’t win,” Wong said. “It’s hard because … it’s easy to comment something negative when there’s no face to your comment. They don’t realize on the other end that it really affects people.”

That’s not to say that every comment should be sunshine and rainbows. In fact, Wong appreciates it when people leave constructive feedback, such as editing or sound advice. “It’s easy to get defensive if something isn’t completely positive. You kind of just have to see it for what it is, if it is constructive criticism,” she said.

There may be an upside to constructive criticism, but there’s a fine line between offering advice in a well-meaning manner and doing so maliciously.

I’ll never truly understand the intentions of “incredibly old person,” or any troll that attacks just for the sake of doing so. It could be anything from sheer amusement to a wicked sense of humour to an underlying sociopathic tendency.

But Zayna Mosam, an image strategist and consultant, has her own theories.

“Some use this activity as a simple outlet to voice opinions in a non-traditional manner and may not realize the potential harmful effects,” she told the Journal via email. “Others who strive to create discord may be looking to damage the reputation and public image of their subjects.”

Mosam, ArtSci ’01, said it’s imperative to consider the person’s individual reaction to the harassment.
“Some people are more sensitive and are bothered and hurt by negative comments while others don’t allow these items to affect them,” she said. “It should be taken into account that the posts of Internet trolls are not an accurate sample of a public figure’s audiences but of a particular group.”

Ultimately, it’s us who determine how we react to trolls.

“Readers can choose whether to value the content posted by trolls. If one is the subject of controversial postings, it can be very challenging and disruptive to personal and professional life.”

Mosam said there are options for online reputation management that can be pursued in this case. For instance, sites such as Reputation.ca can help clients cleanse a tainted online image.

As for me, I choose to take the high road. “Incredibly old person” words may have initially stung, but then again, that was the point. I know better now.

So troll on, anonymous commenters. And may you continue to provide us with dialogue by challenging our ideas — but please, lay off the rudeness. It’s getting old.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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