Because humanity is awful, the advent of the Internet has brought in its train all manner of unpleasant phenomena – and none more so than trolls, a large subset of the online population who delight in mocking, bullying, intimidating, and generally making life hell for other people, including ideological or social rivals, but also a good many victims apparently selected at random. Like I said: awful.
However, like slime molds, even trolls can exhibit interesting behaviors worthy of study in aggregate.
On that note, academics in Britain have waded into the swamp and directly engaged with troll communities in order to understand how and why particular groups coalesce around particular topics – or just as likely, victims.
Researchers at the University of Huddersfield infiltrated an especially fierce troll tribe, composed of people who have devoted themselves to stalking, tormenting, and theorizing about a British couple, Kate and Gerry McCann, whose young daughter disappeared while they were on vacation in Portugal.
After their original unwanted brush with fame in the tabloids, the McCanns became the focus of personal attacks from Internet users who criticize their parenting and speculate about conspiracy theories and cover-ups, including the frequent suggestion that the McCanns murdered their daughter and hid the body.
In addition to exploring the psychological basis of trolling (no surprise, the phrase “anti-social personality disorder” comes up a few times) the study made an interesting discovery about how trolls organize themselves through their use of language.
In order to mark themselves and construct a group identity, the trolls employed particular words that designated themselves as “anti-McCann,” and other individuals as outsiders and enemies.
For example, when the researchers attempted to engage some of the users on an anti-McCann message board by presenting research casting doubt on a certain conspiracy theory, the users responded by immediately labeling them “shills” – shorthand in the community for people, in the media and elsewhere, who are supposedly paid by the McCanns to mislead the public about their guilt.
As soon as they were labeled shills, the researchers were besieged by hostile messages and were essentially ostracized from the community, which broadly refused to believe they were actually academics conducting research.
The trolls also cooperated to block all discussion of the article presented by the researchers, effectively policing the boundaries of acceptable discourse to maintain the cohesion of the community.
According to the researchers, the systematized use of language also extends to the phrases and strategies the trolls use to provoke and insult “pro-McCann” sympathizers.Incidentally, the researchers note that much of the abusive language used by trolls in their personal attacks was explicitly prohibited by the social media platforms, but no action was taken.