It didn’t take long for the internet trolls to crawl out of their caves after singer Halsey posted some selfies on Twitter showing a hint of armpit hair. Commenter Tarri slapped a “LOL” sticker over the offending fuzz and asked, “What the hell is this?!!!,” sparking a heated discussion about female body hair. Halsey ultimately confronted her critic, but the post still generated an astonishing 1,500 commentsWhile opinions on armpit hair differ, Tarri didn’t seem interested in an honest debate. His mean-spirited words, so unrelated to the cheery message behind the tweet itself, are emblematic of social media trolls.
As Sarah Donawerth, social media manager for the influencer marketing app Carro said, “True critics keep their comments focused on a legitimate problem or concern, but an internet troll gets personal, throwing insults at the person they are attacking.”
What is an internet troll?
If you don’t spend a lot of time on social media, you might think trolls are mythical creatures reserved for Nordic folktales. An internet troll is someone who deliberately makes controversial or inflammatory comments on social forums intending to start an argument.
If you know your fairy tales, you remember the hideous troll who lived beneath the bridge in “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” who periodically peered out of his lair to torment the goats on their way to the meadow. An internet troll has distinct similarities: he hides behind his computer and occasionally emerges to provoke and cause trouble.
Donawerth says trolls typically target celebrities, social media influencers and brands, although they sometimes turn their ire on average social media users. “The difference between a critic and a troll is the nature of the attack,” she said. “Critics present a logical argument and try to respectfully start a dialogue with you. Trolls are insulting and disrespectful.” Often, they interject ugly comments that have nothing to do with the topic of the post.
Although internet trolls first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1990s, the term didn’t really enter popular culture until the early 2000s with the birth of 4chan. The site’s bulletin boards became a breeding ground for all sorts of execrable online behavior. Some users actively trolled unsuspecting individuals; a trolling subculture, complete with its own terminology and values, was born.
Today, most trolls don’t consider themselves part of the 4chan culture; they may not even know the origins of trolling. They may be attention-starved, jealous or seeking revenge—or they might simply be bored. Every troll has his own backstory, so it’s difficult to pinpoint what motivates the obnoxious behavior.
Michael Nuccitelli, Psy.D., founder of internet safety firm IPredator, created a profile of the “average” internet troll. Some common characteristics might include:
- Spends a lot of time online and may be internet-addicted.
- Has few offline friends but engages with other online trolls.
- Often lacks empathy and may not feel shame or guilt.
- May be motivated by feelings of insignificance, anger or loneliness.
- Typically developmentally immature with few or no intimate relationships.
Nuccitelli identified over 100 different internet troll personalities, including the Hate-Monger, who enjoys riling up others with racist or sexist language, the Ranting Troll, who has a particular ax to grind and the Baitr, who posts inflammatory, one-off comments to provoke a strong reaction. Halsey’s armpit-hair hater is a textbook Baitr.
How to spot an internet troll
Trolling happens everywhere on the internet. Although social media is well known as a hotbed of troll activity, trolls lurk wherever they find an audience. Some of the worst places for internet trolling include:
- YouTube: Some people believe YouTube’s comment section is a playground for the internet’s ugliest trolls. If you want to see a few examples, just browse videos with a high number of comments.
- Internet forums and communities: Trolls love invading a group of like-minded individuals and blowing up the comments with something pointless and inflammatory.
- Blogs: Blogs, especially those that deal with controversial or political subjects, are known for their prolific and highly active trolls.
In most cases, trolls are easy to spot because their comments serve no purpose except to stir up strife and controversy. Their behaviors are so predictable, researchers at Stanford and Cornell released a study in 2015 in which they were able to identify internet trolls with 80% accuracy based on just a few key indicators:
- Comments with bad spelling, grammar and punctuation.
- Frequent use of all-capital letters.
- Swearing and vulgar language.
- Refusing to drop a topic, no matter how unpopular.
Not all misspelled or vulgar comments are posted by trolls, however. Donawerth said it’s important to evaluate posts objectively to determine if you’re dealing with a troll or a legitimate commenter. “Is there a valid concern you can address? Taking the time to answer their comments with kindness can de-escalate a situation with a legitimate critic,” she said. On the other hand, an internet troll is usually persistent and immune to your goodwill.
“Ignoring someone with a valid concern can tarnish your online reputation,” Donawerth said, but once the comment crosses the line to a personal attack, you’re likely dealing with a troll. “At that point, you should take advantage of the block function on whatever platform you’re using,” she said.
How to handle an internet troll
An internet troll isn’t worth your time and emotional energy. The best thing to do is ignore and delete an occasional trollish remark.
“Now if you are being trolled by a large number of users, you need to put measures in place to protect yourself,” Donawerth said. Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook allow you to disable comments if you’re plagued by trolls. You may also be able to ban, block, mute or restrict certain users if you know who’s trolling you.
Instagram has recently taken a more proactive stance toward online bullying. Its new “restrict” feature allows you to make trollish comments invisible except to the person who posted them. It also lets you prohibit specific words from being posted in your comments.
All social media platforms have terms and conditions governing how the service can be used. If you are subjected to persistent trolling, Donawerth said you should report the user to the platform which can usually be addressed inside the social media website or app. “If you feel physically threatened, you should go directly to your local authorities, however,” Donawerth said.
For some people, being targeted by a troll takes an emotional toll. It’s hard to ignore cutting or cruel remarks, especially if others pile on. “Don’t feed the trolls” is good advice for internet users, but the sad fact is that some trolls feed off the inflammatory comments of other trolls and the situation can quickly get out of control.
If social media trolls are getting you down, it may be time for a break. “If it’s the case that you are being systematically trolled, the tough advice I would give as a social media manager is to step away from the social media platform for a while,” Donawerth said. “Taking a break can help the chaos calm down, you won’t have to attack the trolls head-on and you can recover your social account after the trolls have moved on to another target.”