When we see something online that we find to be racist, sexist, or homophobic, it is quite normal to want to tell someone. We share the outrageous content so that others become as angry as ourselves. Some enter into a debate with the person who sent the offensive message, to demonstrate how wrong and hurtful the person responsible has been, and to shame them. But what if, instead, we are doing exactly what they want?
It’s time society deals with the rising tide of hate in countries across the world today; something that isn’t happening by accident. Those who seek to create division in society and undermine democracy know what they’re doing and have developed tactics that exploit normal human behaviour and instincts. This parasitic tactic of online trolling is part of a strategy to intimidate and silence voices especially those from minority groups that empowered themselves in the twentieth century including women, BAME and LGBT people.
Public figures are deliberately targeted because of the size of their social media followings, and their influence on the public debate. Too often we see people with the best of intentions responding to online abuse. Our research shows that responding is in fact a trap. Responding actually helps to build extremists’ audiences and spreads toxic ideas by connecting them to people they might otherwise never reach. This is how figures who would normally remain on the margins of society can become “personalities” in their own right. Trolls can build a significant audience by being offensive, targeting someone with a large following, and then sitting back while their ideological opponents spread their message for them.
Advice in a neo-Nazi guide on trolling that we found in the course of our research advises precisely this method of gaining attention. You can hear its author’s delight in the sentence, “I keep thinking this will stop working eventually, but it just never does.”
It’s not just individuals who are getting this wrong. The way some parts of the media cover trolling is making the problem worse. In searching for easy, clickbait headlines, the press reward those who shout the loudest and promote the ugliest message. When trolls casually discuss harming politicians or celebrities, the media amplifies their message, rewarding them with a national platform for their repugnant views. That’s how fringe bigots are becoming national figures. They have concealed their true intent behind a smokescreen of outrage on one side and protestations of “it’s all a joke” on the other. But the result is the same. Fringe voices are amplified and moderate voices are cowed into silence, not wanting to be the next target of the trolls’ hate.
It is natural to be hurt when we see such comments. There is considerable evidence to show the damage trolling can do to our minds. We should ask why we continue to allow our mental health to be affected by people we’ve never met and who represent a tiny number of our fellow citizens, if they are indeed real accounts. Similarly, targeted trolling by a small number of coordinated voices is often confused for the wider public. We’ve been told by journalists and politicians that they don’t report or speak out on some issues which they know will cause them to receive abuse.
Studies show that internet trolls carry the psychological trait known as ‘negative social potency’ – in other words, they enjoy causing others pain. To respond to their abuse, or to claim you are a ‘victim’ only encourages further abuse. As with any bully, the best response is to deny them the attention they crave. Targets of trolls ought to bear in mind the words of George Bernard Shaw, who advised, “never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
That’s the message of Don’t Feed The Trolls, the practical guide for dealing with online trolling, we are publishing today.
The first recommendation is do not engage. Every time we do, we hand hateful people a megaphone and allow them to spread their vile ideas to new audiences. Instead block the account so you don’t have to read their bile again.
Importantly, do not post that you’re being targeted, as this will inform trolls that their hatred is having an effect, and will likely lead to more. And then, for the good of your own mental health, take time out from social media and switch off your notifications.
If the trolling is particularly nasty or defamatory, then later, take a record of the messages and contact either the police or a lawyer. If you need advice on dealing with hate, then seek help from a specialist organisation like us at the CCDH.
If we all follow these simple steps, we can force trolls back into the caves where they belong.
Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate
Dr Linda Papadopolous is a psychologist and chair of the Center for Countering Digital Hate advisory board