Nasty comments get posted in the online photographic communities, so I researched the driving forces behind the trolls and what we should do about them. Who they are and their motivations are not as obvious as you may think.
Trolls Are Terrifying
I work with many talented photographers. Some of them have faced mental health problems, usually depression and anxiety. Photography is a great way of helping tackle that.
Having long held the belief that art should be seen, I was encouraging some clients to share their images online. But a couple said that they would never share their images publicly because of the nasty comments they sometimes get.
I’ve read a lot about online rage, hate speech, and trolling, and following two other recent posts on this site, (like this one by Nicco Valenzuela), I realized that internet trolls are indeed active.
The Naming of Trolls
There is no legal definition of "troll". The word in this context derives originally not from the Scandinavian mythological creature, but from the fishing technique of dragging a baited hook behind a boat. Although there are some differences in behaviors, for clarity of writing, in this article I am lumping online bullies, flamers, hate-mongers, and exhibitors of other sociopathic behavior under the same heading.
Trolling Attacks Democracy
There are, of course, those who deliberately use trolling tactics to spread dissent and undermine democratic societies. The RAND Corporation published a report warning that many trolling comments originate from fake accounts generated by the Russian government's "Troll Army." That then implies that the actions of trolls living in democratic countries are, albeit inadvertently, furthering the aims of undemocratic and oppressive regimes and undermining their own society.
Furthermore, trolling is a bullying behavior aimed at stopping people with opposing views from expressing them. It is an attack on freedom of speech.
In his fascinating report, Adam P. Stern, MD of Harvard, says that internet content most likely to elicit impassioned responses is that which people feel affect them personally. Of course, websites like this one are solely the domain of photographers, and photographers are passionate about their photographs and about the gear choices they have made.
The Science Behind Trolling
Comments can be split into three groups. The first, and by far the fewest, are the reasoned debates either in favor or against what was said. These had, on the whole, read what was said carefully and come to their conclusions, some agreeing with what was written and others disagreeing.
The second and largest group are the least imaginative. They resort to dismissal without any reasoning. Many of these use banal clichés: "that was a waste of 10 minutes of my life," etc. Some of these state reasons, but as Stern's report suggests, most people do not read fully, take one piece of information out of context, and attack based on that.
The third group (although there was some overlap with the second) are raging and personal attacks.
In reply to Tom Anderson's article, "Hey Photographers! Why Are You so Mean Online?" psychologists call the trolls' behavior deindividuation. That is the phenomenon where people scream, shout and become abusive when they are separated from the social norms and are hidden by anonymity.
Have you ever shouted abuse at another driver from the anonymous confines of your car? Perhaps you used racist, ageist, or sexist terms that you would not otherwise use. Or, maybe you screamed obscenities at a referee at a sports event from the safety of the crowd. Those are examples of deindividuation.
On a website, when everyone else around them is strangers, individuals might use words or phrases that they would never say face to face. In this digital world, this deindividuation is also known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.
Most people now recognize this as cowardly trolling behavior and ignore it, but it does still sometimes feed hatred.
Researching the Trolls
In an article published 10 years ago, Tom Postmes, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the universities of Exeter (UK) and Groningen in his native Netherlands, reported that those who partake in trolling behavior fit into no particular social group. However, later research by the UK Government identified what they call the Dark Tetrad of the following sociopathic traits of trolls:
- Narcissism: an excessive sense of self-love and self-admiration
- Psychopathy: absence of empathy, lacking the emotional aspects of a conscience
- Machiavellianism: a detached, calculating attitude regarding manipulativeness
- Everyday sadism: refers to an enjoyment of cruelty in everyday culture
The government report also said that trolls are typically male, which matches abusive comments I have endured.
I then spoke with a retired police detective inspector. He said there was a definite correlation between those who perform real-world criminally abusive acts and online trolls:
Not all abusers are trolls and not all trolls are abusers, but there is a much higher chance of a troll also being someone who abuses vulnerable people, adults, or children in real life.
On the BBC website, Professor of Behavioral Addiction at Nottingham Trent University Dr. Mark Griffiths says that most people troll others for either revenge, attention-seeking, boredom, and personal amusement.
The Cult of the Camera
The outrage exhibited by some of those who attack those they disagree with is similar to that of extreme fundamentalists objecting to people challenging aspects of their belief system. In photography, it seems odd that such depth of feeling should be aroused by criticism of a lump of plastic, metal, and glass. But the camera, like many material goods of the modern age, has become an idol to worship. Prayers to them take the form of advertising slogans. Curses are cast upon anyone who dares to challenge that belief or suggests a different material god is in some way better. Of course, all the Abrahamic religions warn against this worshipping of these false gods, and in Eastern faiths, idols are just a representation of their gods, not a god itself. In the Cult of the Camera, the DSLRs have become gods.
Trolls Become Unstuck
Sadly, trolls and online bullies don’t realize that they could make a much bigger positive impact on a debate if they made an intelligent comment as part of a discussion, even if they disagree. They might even change someone's mind. But, being violently aggressive in comments not only reinforces the beliefs of their opposition, it is bad for the troll's own mental health.
Furthermore, it can damage their own future. When people make disparaging comments in public forums, those are seen by potential employers, their universities, as well as their friends and family. In a previous role, I used to dig deeply into the web to find what potential job interviewees said on social media, and existing employees there lost their jobs because of aggressive online behavior. Additionally, when derogatory comments are libelous, trolls do face prosecution and hefty compensation claims. Attacking people based on a protected status (e.g. age, disability, race, gender, etc) is also a criminal offense in many countries.
Worse than that, attacking people online has led to suicides. That's not something anyone wants on their conscience. If that isn't deterrent enough, in many US states, causing death by cyberbullying is classified as involuntary manslaughter or manslaughter in the second degree, which can lead to up to 10 years in prison.
As criminal organizations can and do illegally access personal data, I do wonder how long it will be before a troll insults the 21st century real-life equivalent of a member of the Corleone family.
I spoke with an ethical hacker and asked her how easy it would be for a criminal to find out who is behind a false persona.
Dead easy! Most [computer] users' security is crap. If they tighten up now, stuff they have posted in the past is still accessible. There are lots of ways in. Example? It only takes one [website] admin to have weak security and a cracker is in, and [they can] grab the IP addresses or login details of anyone. I could ID most people online in under five minutes.
Weak security can be an employee. Offer money to the right telecoms or ISP worker, and they will access someone's data.
She went on to say that this was just touching the surface of what was possible.
'I Fought the Law and the Law Won'
More realistically, it will be the criminal justice system hunting down the trolls, and they have far greater facilities for doing so. Despite hiding behind their avatars, posting online leaves footprints, no matter how careful you are. Websites and ISPs can be forced by courts to give up the IP addresses of those who post. Even VPNs are not a surefire way of protecting identity, as you are still connecting to your ISP.
Also, the metadata buried in photographs can identify a camera and, subsequently, its owner. So, if you have ever posted an image online, you are forever identifiable.
Given that many trolls are agents of belligerent foreign states, there is a good chance that all trolls are investigated.
If you threaten someone or cause death through bullying, do you think you can hide your online activities from your law enforcement agencies?
Why Can't We Just Agree to Disagree?
At school, we were taught to debate. It was perfectly acceptable to have differing views. Society has since changed for the worse. Despite screaming about freedom of speech, individuals try threatening tactics to stop people from expressing opposing views, even over innocuous subjects such as what camera to buy. It's actually healthy for a society to have opposing opinions and healthy debate.
What If You Witness Trolling?
If you witness trolling anywhere online, don't respond to it. Do offer support for the target of the bullying; a few kind words in a message can make a big difference. I have been hugely grateful to receive such messages before; not everyone in the world is bad.
Do report it to the admins of the group or the platform. They have a duty of care and responsibility to protect those that use their services. Social media providers are not perfect, but they are tightening up on this kind of behavior.
If threats are being made or the offensive comments are potentially illegal (hate speech is a criminal offense in the UK and Europe), take screenshots, copy the URL of where the offense happened, as well as the URL of the perpetrator's and the victim's profiles. Then, report it to the police.