Internet trolls are not loners operating out of their parents’ basement – they are organised predators who cause real-world harm, and policy makers need to recognise the threat they pose to democracy, says journalist and researcher Ginger Gorman.
Ms Gorman, author of the book Troll Hunting, spoke at an ANZSOG Thought Leadership event in Melbourne recently, and shared her understanding of how trolls operate and some strategies for victims and bystanders to fight back and amplify positive voices online.
“What do I mean by predatory trolling? It’s online abuse that is designed to cause, and does cause, real life harm,” she said.
Ms Gorman said predatory trolling was something institutions, police and governments had struggled to deal with.
“Although we are seeing a cataclysmic shift in how we see cyberhate. That change is exciting, because it has been an invisible problem for a long time,” she said.
Ms Gorman gave her personal history of how organised trolls came after her in 2013 when she was working as a journalist – which led to personal information being made public and death threats.
She said that this experience led her to research trolling and she consequently met trolls offline in an effort to understand who they are and why they take part in predatory online activity.
Who are the trolls?
“Contrary to popular opinion, trolls are not alone – they are not the person operating from their mother’s basement. They are like bikie gangs, they have a structure and leaders, and they work together to find and attack their targets,” she said.
She said that the majority were men aged 18-35 and many exhibited the psychological traits known as the ‘dark tetrad’ (narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism and sadism) and lacked empathy.
“They want to police discourse with themselves at the top of the food chain and work against everyone they consider an ‘other’. This is why many tend to be white supremacists, as well as anti-women and anti-gay or disability.
“I learnt that when you feel you are being targeted personally, you’re not. It’s just business to them. They use your sex, race, appearance or your weight as a way to find your weakness.
“When you understand that then you gain back some power.
“They have often been left alone on the internet from the age of 10 or 11, found 4chan or 8chan and imbibed those ideologies and become radicalised.
“The Christchurch killer was a predatory troll, and almost precisely fits the definition. In one of the interviews his grandmother said he was ‘always alone on the internet’, and it is clear that he had support from online, despite the perception he was a ‘lone wolf’.
“Police say that he was not on a watch list – but the question is: why not?”
Damage caused by trolling
Ms Gorman published a series of articles about predatory trolling in 2017 and was overwhelmed by stories from victims telling of vile abuse which led to lost jobs, mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said she wanted to find a way to get people across the political spectrum to listen and recognise that predatory trolling was a real problem that could not just be solved by telling people to “toughen up” or “stay off the internet”.
She worked with The Australia Institute and undertook research which found that 1.3 million Australians had been victims of predatory trolling, and the total cost of time-off work and medical bills alone was $3.7 billion per year.
Ms Gorman said that social media platforms needed to take some responsibility and implement safety-by-design before products were launched, not when things went wrong.
“I don’t think we can trust them to fix things by themselves. Facebook and Twitter are monolithic companies that are making money out of data, and we need to address this in policy and legislation,” she said.
“They don’t feel they have a duty-of-care and judging by response to the Australian Senate they don’t feel they need to answer our questions.”
In her book, Ms Gorman suggests that an independent statutory body, with some legal powers over social media companies, is one potential way to make social media companies take action.
How can we fight back?
Ms Gorman said she was often asked ‘what can I do?’ by people who were attacked by trolls or who saw others attacked.
“I used to think the ‘don’t feed the trolls’ advice was right, because they are sadists and you are denying them that pleasure. But they are also trying to silence you and if you leave they win. We can’t have online discourse dominated by white supremacists,” she said.
“Bystanders are the key. If you send public or private messages of support to people under attack or work to amplify their messages, then you are fighting back against trolls.
“We must reclaim the internet for society, we can’t let these ideologies win.”
She said that people attacked by trolls needed to recognise the seriousness of the problem and how quickly it could damage them.
“If it happens to you get support offline from real life friends and family. Report them to police, or internet regulators. And you should always turn your devices and notifications off at night.”
She said that employers who required staff to be online for work needed to provide social media defence training.
“Government departments and media organisations are not protecting staff from online attacks and trolling,” she said.
“I’ve still not seen any great examples of employer policy – this stuff has just washed over us so fast that organisations have not responded. The day I see a social media policy that talks about risks to the employee, I’ll have a glass of champagne.”
Ms Gorman said that she would continue to try and engage with trolls offline, an approach she has called ‘radical empathy’, despite the criticism she has received for dealing with perpetrators.
“Trolls weren’t born that way, they are products of the society we live in. Often these kids are from violent and neglectful homes, who become angry and isolated young men who want to harm others,” she said.
“I don’t think you can solve hatred with hatred.”
- Published Date: 29 October 2019