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The psychology of cybercrime
The psychology of cybercrime

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2.1 Trolling

The term trolling has been widely used since the apparition of the internet and it refers to all online deviant behaviours generated by individuals towards other individuals and/or groups that are repetitive and disruptive in nature (Fichman & Sanfilippo, 2016). However, this is slightly simplistic as trolling behaviours do evolve constantly in line with how the online environment itself changes. Vaisman and Fichman (2012), cited in Fichman & Sanfilippo, (2016, p.6) consider four factors to explain the variety within trolling behaviours depending on:

  • i.Location: The distinction between asynchronous (when people communicate but not at the same time such as blog comments) and synchronous communication (live conversation such as chat room). Both types of trolling exist but it is more difficult to account for within synchronous settings as the context is not recorded (Fichman & Sanfilippo, 2016).
  • ii.Relationships: Trolls usually target random, innocent people as well as the community. When they start targeting individuals, it overlaps with other online deviant behaviours such as harassment or bullying. According to Fichman and Sanfilippo (2016), trolls usually act individually and usually hide their identity, though they can coordinate their behaviours with other trolls as there are evidence of camaraderie between trolls such as in the controversial online platform TATTLE.life [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] where people gather to openly and freely troll about social media influencers, even referring themselves as trolls (e.g. tattle trolls….), or reflecting on what is an online troll? – See #tattlelife. The reasons why this website has received so much attention is that the purpose of the site is to group people with trolling tendencies together. Therefore, group trolling not only normalises this type of behaviour but also it intensifies the damage under the greatest anonymity with made up usernames (Fogarty, 2019).
  • iii.Intentions: Originally trolling behaviours were thought as being unintentional because it was just for fun (Buckels, Trapnell, & Paulhus, 2014). While you could find up to 135 different types of trolls identified from many online resources (Nuccitelli, n.d.), psychological evidence has been more reserved in categorising the different types of online trolls. Indeed, research has mostly focused on motivations or intentions either looking at personality (e.g., Buckels et al., 2014), or explanations of intentions such as being ideological, non-ideological, religion driven, grief driven, fun driven, or political (Fichman & Sanfilippo, 2016). However, as Coles and West (2016) argued, beyond the broadness of the term ‘troll’ and the many subtypes, it is important to look at the term as having variable meanings, intentions, and varied sub-types between different platforms and the course of interaction.
  • iv.Behavioural practices: Trolls themselves usually do not identify their behaviour as being aggressive but more as being opiniated. However, the pattern is that trolls usually set ‘discursive’ trap to create a reaction through controversial comments or questions. What truly defines someone as a troll is the repetitive action of their behaviour towards the same individual or online community, repeating the same ideas and ignoring the responses and challenges directed at them (Shachaf & Hara, 2010).

Activity 3 Which of these examples is trolling?

Timing: Allow 10 minutes

Jane Doe posted the following on a popular social media site.

Look at the six examples of trolling below and decide whether you feel it falls under the trolling category or being opiniated. Type your anwer into the box.

Table 2 Replying to @Jane_Doe:
‘… and very poor grammar 😱’
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‘I don’t have opinions; I have facts at my disposal.’
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‘As my friend Phoebe Buffay would say… ‘this is brand new information’’
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‘You are just an idiot who don’t understand science. It’s not about belief!’
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‘I disagree, I don’t think scientific evidence and religious beliefs are incompatible.’
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‘Interesting statement. Belief in science? that's an oxymoron.’
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Words: 0
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Discussion

Those 6 examples illustrate different online behaviours. The first example is typical of ‘grammar trolls’ and it is not clear whether it falls under the definition of trolling or not. The intention could well be to patronise the author of the post, but it could also be a way to divert the post into less relevant discussion or ultimately, the author of this reply might just want to be humorous. This type of trolling is referred as ‘kudos trolling’ (Bishop, 2014).

The second example is a clever, non-aggressive reply that subtly point out the contradiction in the post (i.e. science and belief). It is done without attacking the author of the post and for that reason, it falls under the category of being opinionated.

The third example seems innocent on the surface, but the author here is making a cultural reference to a television show (Friends - popular in the 90s), and the tone here is sarcastic and the message itself indicate that Jane Doe post has no real informative purpose. This is another example of ‘kudos trolling’ and even more difficult to spot than the first example.

The fourth example, however, is more typical of common understanding of trolling. Indeed, the comment is aggressive, malicious with the intention of causing harm. Name calling is a way to intensify the abuse and this type of trolling is known as ‘flame trolling’ (Bishop, 2014).

The last two examples are other examples of opiniated posts rather than coming under the label of trolling due to adding something to the discussion and not personally attacking the author of the post.

Table 2 Replying to @Jane_Doe: (answers)
‘… and very poor grammar 😱’ trolling
‘I don’t have opinions; I have facts at my disposal.’ being opinionated
‘As my friend Phoebe Buffay would say… ‘this is brand new information’’ trolling
‘You are just an idiot who don’t understand science. It’s not about belief!’ trolling
‘I disagree, I don’t think scientific evidence and religious beliefs are incompatible.’ being opinionated
‘Interesting statement. Belief in science? that's an oxymoron.’ being opinionated

Internet trolling provides a good illustration of some of the definitional and practical difficulties, and the challenges that these present for legislative and criminal justice responses. Indeed, offending people and being antagonistic is not necessarily criminal. Herring et al. (2002) provide an interesting analysis of attempts to manage a troll on a feminist web-forum, in which the troll employs a number of tactics (for example name calling, deliberately misunderstanding other users, pretending to be sincerely trying to understand the issues). This troll was clearly a source of ongoing annoyance, and at times was offensive, but the attempts to control him (albeit with limited success) did not resort to criminal sanctions.