Recently, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was the subject of offensive tweet-trolling following a passport row involving an interfaith couple. A section of social media users, ostensibly of the right-wing to which the minister herself belongs, attacked Swaraj and the ministry for taking action against the passport officer. This comes after several years of sinister trolling of many opposition political activists, and women journalists, especially Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt, by RW trolls; and of Smriti Irani from the other side.
Wikipedia defines trolling as "Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
A troll will use shock value to promote arguments in conversations, commonly in Facebook threads and other public online discussion platforms such as Twitter. Named after the wicked troll creatures of children’s tales, an internet troll is someone who stirs up drama and abuses their online anonymity by purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or just simple bickering between others. Trolls like a big audience, so they frequent blog sites, news sites, discussion forums, and game chat. Trolls thrive in environments where they are allowed to make public comments.
A study published by the University of Manitoba, in Canada, found that trolls exhibit the personality traits of narcissists, psychopaths and sadists – taking pleasure in the suffering of others and lacking remorse or empathy for their victims. Serious trolls are immune to criticism and logical arguments. True trolls cannot be reasoned with, regardless of how sound your logical argument is. Trolls, in general, consider themselves separate from the social order. They do not abide by etiquette or the rules of common courtesy. Trolls consider themselves above social responsibility and gain energy by your insults and when you get angry. The only way to deal with an online troll is to ignore him or take away his ability to post online.
Internet trolls can be found wherever online users interact with each other. Trolls have become very common on news sites. Many online news sources now avoid using open comment features because so many internet trolls will use this venue to post abusive comments as responses to news articles.
There are various styles to trolling, as with any art, and some do not completely follow the mainstream approach to trolling.
Derailment is one of the simplest, but flashiest, methods of trolling. Similar to pop-punk music, derailment will ensnare and fool many individuals into actively performing in the troll's piece. Devil's Advocate is a style, named for the rhetorical method it employs, finds the troll taking a viewpoint that is opposite to most of those within the forum, or in the thread. Argued as being either a technique or a style, the defamation style of trolling is not practiced by most veterans, but is a simpler form of trolling that most adolescent trolls learn before beginning large-scale, complex trolling techniques. It simply consists of insulting the poster one is targeting, and ruining his or her image. Freestyle trolling has been used almost religiously since the birth of Facebook, comprised of a quote or seemingly meaningless post to bait and trap Facebook ‘friends’, followed by a storm of purposeful idiocy, leading to the eventual blocking of the troll. Cannibalism is an advanced form of trolling understood only by a few. Cannibals will often covertly present themselves as troll bait, with the aim of attracting as many trolls as possible (e.g. posting a seemingly sincere, yet desperately sad and misguided clip on YouTube), this process is called “herding the trolls”. Once adequate trolls have attempted trolling the cannibal troll’s troll bait, the cannibal reveals his or her true identity, thus consuming the mojo of all herded trolls’ this process is called “eating the trolls”.
Every internet troll has a different back-story and therefore different reasons for feeling the need to troll a community or an individual on the internet. They may feel depressed, attention-starved, angry, sad, jealous, narcissistic or some other emotion they may not be entirely conscious of that's influencing their online behaviour. What makes trolling so easy is that anyone can do it, and it can be done from a safe, isolated place as opposed to interacting with others in person. Trolls can hide behind their shiny computers, screen names and avatars when the go out trolling for trouble, and after they’re all done, they can carry on with their real lives without facing any real consequences. Trolling makes a lot of cowardly people feel stronger. It is a kind of power rush or ego trip to be a troll.
How to combat trolling ?
You cannot win with a troll. There are only three reliable ways to deal with trolls, all of which focus on removing their audience, removing their power, and depriving them of the attention they seek. For a casual or emergent online troll: completely ignore the person’s postings. While it is difficult for most users to let a troll have the last word, this tactic successfully takes the wind out of a casual troll’s sails. For repeating troll offenders: report them to the moderators of the system. If enough people report the toll, this will often prompt the moderators to take action. Have the moderators take away the troll's ability to post online. This will commonly mean that the troll is kicked from the system, or blocked by IP address. Even better is when the troll is allowed to continue posting, but unbeknownst to him: all of his postings are deleted from everyone else's view.
Recently, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi begun a new strategy to deal with trolling. Rahul Gandhi's larger point was that he hopes to change social media abuse against him (and the many names he’s called), to love, by embracing trolls digitally, similar to what he did offline with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A report by human rights lawyer Carly Nyst and Oxford University researcher Nick Monaco is an early attempt to study the phenomenon of state-sponsored trolling, or the digital harassment of critics. Thousands of social network accounts, both operated by humans and by bots used to amplify the attack, gang up on a person who dares to criticise a regime or a political figure. Invariably, the person is accused of being a foreign agent and a traitor. Memes and cartoons are used to insult the target. The language of the comments, posts and tweets is often abusive; female targets, such as Turkish journalist Ceyda Karan and her Filipina colleague Maria Ressa, are routinely threatened with rape. The general idea behind the campaigns is to give the target the impression of swelling public indignation about his or her work and views, but also to drown out the target’s voice with the howling of thousands of digital voices.
In the less authoritarian states, where voting is still meaningful, trolling operations often grow out of election campaigns. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa created a troll army for the 2012 election and kept using it after he won. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte hired trolls to work for his 2016 presidential campaign and has since put some of the most prominent ones in government jobs. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party maintains an “information technology cell” with thousands of members who receive daily instructions on what topics to promote and whom to gang up on.
It’s difficult to understand why social media platforms do little, if anything, to stop the trolling campaigns. Twitter and Facebook will remove posts and comments containing death and rape threats, but not insults, treason accusations or suggestions that a journalist is on a hostile spy agency’s payroll.
The Institute for the Future makes some suggestions on how social networks can help, but they aren’t particularly useful. For example, it says a network could ask users who create bot accounts to identify them as such, which troll farms would be understandably reluctant to do. It also suggests that the social media companies should somehow detect and identify state-linked accounts, a game of whack-a-mole that is as hard to play as it is pointless.
The easier and more useful thing would be to empower the targets of abuse campaigns. For example, flagging a dozen similar abusive comments should result in special attention from the network. Users should also be able to turn off comments to specific posts and temporarily disable tagging, otherwise it’s too easy for trolls to take over a feed. And if bots are to be marked, it should be up to the networks to detect them: The technology is there, it’s just not being applied consistently enough.
Legal framework & trolling
In India, we can find two different sections in two different laws which can be applied to trolls, making trolling a criminal act but only if few ingredients mentioned in the sections are present in the comments posted by trolls.
Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 i.e., punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc. any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device, any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine. It is a cognizable but bailable offence. Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 was enacted to be an anti-stalking, anti-phishing and anti-spamming provision, but now looks vague, ambiguous and easily abused. The terms used as annoyance and inconvenience does not forebear a clear meaning in criminal law.
If the troll writes something which is not offensive or the police feels so that it is not offensive, then Section 66A would not be applied. The newly added Section 354A(iv) of the Indian Penal Code(IPC) says if any man (while trolling also) makes a “sexually coloured remark “ would be guilty of sexual harassment. He shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
In India, if trolls write offensive or having menacing character comments or comments with sexually coloured remarks, they can be arrested without warrant and prosecuted.
Trolling is the subset of crime of online abuse, Trolls are the new generation of cyber criminals who propagate “cyber crime of hate”. Even though some may argue trolling is not a pure crime but the fine line coupled with consequences like drawing the victims to suicide, because of comments by trolls sometimes make it a grievance offence. Netizens need to understand and learn that the anonymity with which they troll can be detected and law when it catches up, will only see them behind bars.
(The author is the School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy, of Delhi and Mumbai. He was earlier the Dean of Media in Symbiosis and Amity Universities, and Whistling Woods. He has been a Research Fellow with the Ford Foundation, in Mumbai University. Views expressed are his own)