The trolls who dole out vicious abuse on Twitter aren’t acting out of malice – they’re just bored, the first major study into “cyberbullying” has found.
Dr Claire Hardaker, a linguistics expert at Lancaster University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), studied almost 4,000 online cases involving claims of online “trolling”.
Dr Hardaker analysed abusive messages posted on Facebook and Twitter as part of a survey into the dark side of the internet, which covered internet bullying, hoaxing, grooming and online harassment. Trolling has been cited as a factor in recent cases where schoolchildren have taken their own lives.
Trolls operate out of a feeling of power, amusement, boredom and revenge and thrive on the anonymity which the internet provides, Dr Hardaker found.
Her research, published in the Journal of Language, Aggression and Conflict, identified seven tactics used by trolls to wage psychological warfare on their victims. The methods go beyond mere abuse and are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
The seven “deadly sins” include “Hypocriticising”, “Endangering others by giving dangerous advice,” and “Shocking others by being insensitive about sensitive topics.”
Dr Hardaker said: “Aggression, deception and manipulation are increasingly part of online interaction, yet many users are unaware not only that some of these behaviours exist, but of how destructive and insidious they can be.”
Trolling is not the preserve of the young. Dr Hardaker said: “The image of trolling is that it is mainly the work of young people, but the fact is trolls come from all ages and backgrounds.
“They will use different strategies to trigger the response they want from people. Some of these are a lot sneakier than others. It is not just about personal abuse.
“An incredible amount of time and strategy can be involved in trolling, as my research into the techniques they use highlights.”
She warned that trolling can in some cases develop into more serious behaviour, including cyberharassment and cyberstalking.
Celebrities including the singer Duncan James, who revealed that he received several homophobic messages on Twitter and The Voice judge Jessie J have suffered abuse on social media networks.
Ordinary people often feel intimidated when they become the subject of a trolling war. Dr Hardaker said: “The time-wasting noise of one troll-post is relatively easily ignored, but the noise of hundreds of replies to the troll-post, and complaints about those replies, can entirely drown out the worthwhile content.”
The seven deadly sins of trolling
1: Digressing from the topic at hand, especially onto sensitive topics.
Not necessarily overtly argumentative, this tactic frustrates its targets with its pointlessness and circularity. Digression onto sensitive topics triggers the strongest reactions.
2: Hypocriticising, especially for a fault that the critic then displays.
A simple tactic, often this is pedantic criticism of grammar, spelling or punctuation in a post which itself contains proof-reading errors to provoke exasperated responses from others.
3: Antipathising, by taking up an alienating position, asking pseudo-naïve questions, etc.
This tactic is heavily reliant on deceiving the group it is aimed at and covertly manipulates egos, sensitivities, morals and feelings of guilt, usually to trigger emotional responses. It can also create moral dilemmas.
4: Endangering others by giving dangerous advice, encouraging risky behaviour, etc.
A trolling strategy designed to masquerade as help or advice whilst actually causing harm and/or forcing others to respond to prevent harm. It relies on the target's social responsibility and moral obligation.
5: Shocking others by being insensitive about sensitive topics, explicit about taboo topics, etc.
This appears to succeed mainly due to the strength of feeling provoked by the deeply personal and extraordinarily hurtful nature of the troll's insensitivity. It triggers a desire to retaliate that is stronger than the desire to deny the troll the satisfaction of a response.
6: Aggressing others by insulting, threatening, or otherwise plainly attacking them without (adequate) provocation.
This is open and deliberate aggression without any clear justification with the aim of antagonising its target into retaliating.
7: Cross-posting - sending the same offensive or provocative message to multiple groups then waiting for the response.
The message sent by the troll in this tactic is totally off topic and irrelevant. This deliberately careless 'spamming' tactic can result in potentially thousands of users being inundated with unwanted or irrelevant messages.
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