When you say the word troll, what image springs to mind? Is it the neon-haired plastic toys that sat atop your pencil at school? Or perhaps the hideous giant who smashed through bathroom cubicles chasing Harry Potter? How about a shadow-like figure sitting behind a computer screen angrily typing away at people they’ve never met?
The Oxford English Dictionary’s second entry for the term troll, after ugly creature, describes them as “a person who makes a deliberately offensive or provocative online post...with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.” It’s the deliberate intention that moves the comments from the realm of considered, fiery discussion into the hateful sphere of online abuse, transforming them from commenter into ugly creature.
These offensive comments are hurled at any and every kind of person online whether they are a young teenager with a public profile on Instagram or a celebrity with millions of followers. There seems to be no distinction and this abuse can have all manner of damaging and debilitating effects.
Trolls adhere to a school of thought that doesn’t subscribe to reasoned discussion. When the scholar Mary Beard was trolled online by a 20-year-old student, she retweeted his comments to her followers. The student subsequently apologised, the two went out for lunch and Beard even gave him a character reference for a job interview. Instead of ignoring the threats Beard shone a light on his disgraceful behaviour and engaged him in active discussion. She chose to try and understand the person behind the comments and why he chose to behave in such a way.
It is a strange phenomenon that screens have provided people with a mask behind which ugly creatures can hide, allowing them to comment in a way that they most likely wouldn’t do in person. It is something that Dr Whitney Phillips comments on in her book ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture’. She believes that the “mask” allows people to detach themselves from the harm their words carry and from the detrimental effect they may have on others. They can simply log off, both mentally and physically.
Online abuse has only grown with the rise of social media. It seems as though social platforms don’t know how best to tackle the problem and their efforts are often deemed weak by campaigners. There is no real legislation in place so, as the platforms themselves do little to engage with the issue, a space has opened up for brands to both address and help to tackle the problem.