Trolls have been causing havoc online since the early days of the internet, disrupting online debate and directing offensive language and images at other users. But the problem continues to stymie the media, the public, and tech experts alike. This past week gave plenty of cause to revisit the issue as Jezebel called attention to its problems with porn spam, and troll attacks caused Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda Williams, to leave social media indefinitely.
In both cases, trolls became stories because media outlets covered and analyzed both incidents, often accompanied by powerful adjectives such as ‘slimy’ and ‘vicious,’ or nouns such as ‘creeps’ and ‘sociopaths.’ As anyone who tells stories for a living will know, a narrative that includes such strong emotions will usually attract an audience. And so they did.
But the stories, in internet jargon, also fed the trolls—the spotlight is where they thrive, so this coverage of online events ends up making them stronger. In other words, media and the trolls are locked in a symbiotic relationship.
“As news have gotten faster and reliant on sensational elements, there’s also an uptick in trolling…the more you push clickability, the more likely it is for trolls to harness,” said Whitney Phillips, a lecturer at Humboldt State University who is publishing a book about trolling early next year. “Both sides benefit from the arrangement,” she added. “Trolls get a bigger laugh and the media commoditize it through advertisement.”
As one of the few scholars who have done empirical research on trolls, Phillips has often been interviewed by journalists digging into the underlying causes of trolling. But she noted that some of her arguments don’t seem to fit into the media narrative.
“The media are not particularly eager to call attention to the ways in which their editorial policies overlap with precisely the behaviors they are busy denouncing,” she said.
To most people, the anonymous, online mockery of a grieving Williams is so far beyond acceptable behavior that it can seem both appalling and fascinating, and the story garnered much attention last week. It was trending as one of BuzzFeed’s top stories, with over 1.1 million views and over 44,000 social shares, while Salon’s take on the story similarly remained among that outlet’s most-read pieces for days.
While it is hard to make any general claims about trolls and their motivation, attention is generally what makes them tick—and the sure way to get attention is by engaging in the most outrageous behavior possible, said Phillips. “They know how to hijack the news cycle; they’re very savvy at that,“ she said.
But media attention can result in further trolling, she said, as it did when the media’s coverage of a small group of trolls paying tribute to the Aurora shooter James Holmes resulted in an explosion of tribute pages and fan activities in 2012.
The media can hardly shy away from certain stories due to a risk of trolling, though, a dilemma that Phillips said she had no perfect answer to, other than to advise against sensationalizing troll attacks.
Cate Sevilla, a managing editor at BuzzFeed who covered the Zelda Williams story, wrote in an email to CJR that the story was relevant to BuzzFeed’s readers, and she disagreed that covering news stories would empower trolls. “It very much depends on how you cover the story,” she wrote. “I think embedding their tweets and showing what they were doing would be the absolute wrong thing to do, which is why BuzzFeed never even considered this.”
Other outlets, such as the Washington Post embedded the original, abusive tweets.
The case did prompt Twitter to take a look at its policies, even if it also sparked the attention that trolls sought. Similarly, the attention surrounding Jezebel’s problems with porn spam on their comments section made Gawker finally address the problem. But in the meantime, the staff at Jezebel “knew that post would likely draw more trolls to the site (and it clearly has,)” according to Kate Dries, one of the outlet’s editors. She wrote in an email that, while the staff at Jezebel are aware of potential consequences, they don’t shy away from fights and hope that the attention could mean less trolling in the long haul. “On some level, yes, trolls want to rile you up, but they also want to weaken and silence you. At a certain point, to respond by not responding just doesn’t seem like an option. That’s the point we got to.”
Hostility towards women online is a particularly stubborn problem that is regularly discussed, and Phillips further criticizes the media for often focusing on trolls as outcasts operating in a vacuum when in fact, they reflect problems at a larger scale. Trolls make for good stories and easy scapegoats that are more convenient than looking at society in a broader perspective, she said: “In order for the internet to be a safer place, the world has to be a safer place.”