THE TROLL SYMBIOSIS:ARE TROLLS ERODING OUR CULTURE?
The first time I wrote an article for the Internet I was called a slut and a whore in the comments section. The topic of the article? Mountain Bike culture. It didn’t bother me, as baseless bullying directed at me on the Internet does not bother me to this day. (To clarify, in grade school I had braces, wore gumboots to school, and had a pet duck that lived in my bathtub. I was intrinsically raised to not give a f*ck about what other people think.) But that’s me, it is not everyone – and it shouldn’t have to be everyone.
It was not the last time that negative comments designed to elicit humiliation and shame would be attached to my articles, but I remain a fan of a format that allows readers to comment. It is a place where people can share ideas and information, post entertaining, witty banter, and connect in a supportive and positive way within our international community. One of the unfortunate side effects, however, in having a worldwide audience in today’s culture, is that it also gives a platform for those suffering from feelings of entitlement and inferiority to vent their hateful rhetoric.
To define trolling is a challenge. While cyber-bullying has become a plague, there is a vast grey area somewhere between the right to express opposing opinions and exercise free speech, and the unrelenting abuse that has on occasion driven people to suicide. Somewhere amidst this are the random and callous personal attacks, the derailing of conversations, contradicting purely for conflict, and offensive and nonsensical provocations all meant expressly to insult and provoke a host of negative feelings and reactions in others. These are trolls that live below the threshold and their comments are never helpful, witty, or intelligent. They are abhorrently cavalier in the delivery of their insults, displaying a cowardice made possible through the protection of the Internet and the seclusion of one’s own home.
In Norse mythology trolls are described as cave dwellers who exist in isolation and are unhelpful to humans. This seems rather appropriate when applied to the abusive and antisocial behaviour these commenters display online. But a 2014 study published in the journal of Personality and Individual Difference linked the personality traits of internet trolls to the Dark Triad of Machiavellianism (a manipulative attitude), narcissism (excessive self-love), and psychopathy (lack of empathy). Researchers concluded that cyber-trolling is an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism – a behaviour displayed in an average person who not only lacks empathy but also enjoys inflicting harm on others. It has also been posited that the anonymity of the internet, or at least the lack of personal presence and ability to read the emotions of another human being, brings this behaviour out in people. In other words, these internet trolls do not always exhibit these dangerous characteristics in other areas of their lives. Given this information and connection to a much darker psychology, the fairy-tale term for the gruff but lovable grump living under a bridge feels like a euphemism that falls a little short.
What is curious is that we have unwittingly created a symbiotic relationship with these commenters. As a community we often feed the trolls, getting sucked into a debate with someone whose sole purpose is to upset us. We scroll through articles and click below threshold comments, often before anything else, allowing those small and mean-spirited voices to become the content rather than the article itself. The drama can be entertaining and over time, we have accepted this as commonplace in our online community. But should we? We have gone so far as to adopt a ‘harden up’ attitude towards those attacked and through our apathy, we have lost our empathy, the effect of which is the slow erosion of quality content - writing, photographs, video, etc. - in our mountain bike culture.
As a writer I nurture relationships with the athletes and personalities I interview. An essential part of this process is the building of trust and often friendship that allows for a candid and valuable story to be shared. There seems to be an unspoken consensus in our community, however, that if you are willing to make yourself vulnerable for the benefit and entertainment of others, then you either deserve or at least should expect to be attacked. With comments like ‘spoiled brat, boycott his sponsors’, ‘get her ugly face off my newsfeed’, ‘please cut that hair you look gay’, ‘cry baby lil’ bitch’, and ‘[he] looks like a big fat pig’ directed at athletes I have worked with, I am increasingly at a loss for how to entice these people to want to share their stories - and naturally it’s a bigger effort for them to want to dig deep for the type of content that has true benefit to the reader. Instead, what we are progressively seeing are interview responses that are much more calculated and guarded – and who can blame them?
Maintaining these professional relationships is my job. Defending vapid free speech in the form of ‘too bad he is a cocky SOB that is too stuck up for his own good’ (note that grammar in these comments has been preserved for posterity) is not, and so I will not. By publishing interviews, I am essentially throwing the subjects of them to the wolves. I am dropping them off for their fist day of junior high in their dirty gumboots and protruding braces, and saying, “good luck, take the bus home!”
To be clear, the majority of Pinkbike.com users are positive, supportive, humorous and engaging. But when an athlete tells me after an interview that he feels like 'everyone' thinks he’s an a*shole because a few ass-hats derailed the comments into a barrage of insults, I take issue. Particularly as the abuse usually falls to the ones who are the most genuine; the ones who care the most about our community and make the time to contribute. They are putting their everything into racing World Cups, risking their lives at Red Bull Rampage, paying their own way to compete around the world, or sharing personal stories that they feel our community can benefit from, and yet because it is not a face-to-face interaction they risk being preyed on by the trolls. It has been said that humiliation is felt more intensely than happiness or anger, and humiliation is what these trolls seek. Why is it okay to hurl degrading slurs at another human being simply because they are in the public eye and distanced by a computer screen? It's not. Developing a thick skin, as I did as an awkward child, should not a be requirement for pursuing your life goals and dreams.
One well-known psychologist, who specializes in the study of cyber-stalking and harassment, advocates ending abuse online through the cultivation of empathy. Currently, we exist in a state where the more we read and absorb the negative comments, the more numb we become to them, and we very easily forget they are targeted at another very real human being. Somewhere between the temptation to engage with the nastiness, even with the most noble of intentions, and our acting on it we need to pause and remember that. Perhaps quietly stepping right over the purposeless negativity and re-engaging with the original content is a way to nullify these voices.
What the narcissists and everyday sadists want, what they feed off, are the replies. Knowing that they have caused us upset is how they win. The more responses we supply, the more triumphant and fulfilled they are in their mission and the likelier they are to repeat it. Don’t feed the trolls, invalidate them. Read the comments, shake your head at the ignorance and leave their hatefulness to wither and die. Protect the quality of our culture and engage as a community to keep the landscape of our content rich, diverse, and meaningful.
: @dbaker / @WAKIdesigns