Yimin Chen’s first experience with Internet trolls was in the early days of the worldwide web.
Interested in “fairly nerdy and geeky stuff like comic books and video games” in chat rooms and forums, he found an online community where people shared interests, inside jokes and playful jabs. He never considered there might be potential downfalls of engaging anonymously with an online community.
“A lot of these behaviours – jokes, teasing and things you do with friends – to me at that time, that’s what I understood Internet trolling to be. It was nothing like what you might hear about in the news today, nothing harmful. For me, it was playing games with your friends, teasing them and sharing jokes,” said Chen, a PhD candidate in Library and Information Science at Western.
Then came the evolution of social media, with widespread public commentary on news websites and blogs, and a new perception of Internet trolls as cyberbullies, stalkers and offensive and provocative commentators, he said.
The problem, as Chen saw it, was that these detrimental online behaviours were lumped into the same category of “trolling” as those early, positive experiences and perceptions.
Using the same terminology and approaches when discussing two polarizing behaviours is ultimately a disservice to both, Chen explained. There are good and bad trolling practices and both are worth evaluating. Discussing them separately, using different terminology, has the potential to highlight the good while offering criticism and potential ways to mitigate the bad.
“I’ve been looking at the terms in which Internet trolling is talked about in media versus more experiential accounts from people who sort of live online, who aren’t necessarily trolls,” Chen said.
“I was also interested in slightly detached perspectives – people who would spend a lot of time online and were active in online communities but didn’t necessarily identify as trolls – someone who would see trolling happening and know about it.”
Chen looked at a decade-long sample of English-language news reports and examined terms used to identify Internet trolls, their activities and their targets. The media portrait of trolls was uniformly negative: trolls were anonymous males who targeted females and well-known figures. Trolls were people who gaveunsolicited, offensive, abusive or provocative commentary in online spaces.
When Chen recruited and interviewed avid Internet users, though, their definitions of trolls and trolling were more diverse. Some, like Chen, saw trolling as playful and positive; some saw it as unequivocally negative, while others said context determined what was key to interpreting its intent and impact. Their perception of the effect of trolling depended on their differing definitions of the word.
“It seems like we have a wide spectrum of behaviours that we label as ‘trolling.’ And it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about very harmful and serious, criminal acts like hacking or bullying, using the same terms people would use to talk about having fun with their friends,” Chen emphasized.
All trolls seek a reaction to their posts, he said. Negative trolls, though, are looking to generate an impact that harms someone in some way. That means a comment such as, ‘You suck at this game,’ may need context to determine if it’s part of a friendly salvo or a nasty jab.
“Positive trolling might look like negative trolling. It gets ambiguous in the middle, especially if you’re not part of the context. You can make a joke that seems nasty and mean to your friends but if you have an established history where that is OK, that’s not a problem,” he continued.
“If a bystander overhears that, they might take offence – they might misinterpret the situation and see abuse. Once you have that on the Internet, your communication is public and you could have hundreds of bystanders thinking that something was going wrong.”
Not understanding these nuances of trolling – and using the same vocabulary and approach in discussing the practice – can detract from the serious conversations that need to take place, Chen explained. If we can identify what constitutes positive trolling, we can better identify and address the negative side, such as online harassment and cyberbullying, and then work on the grey areas between them.
“What I hope might come out of this research is better ways to educate about how people interact in online spaces. You don’t get the interpersonal cues – you might be thinking you are making a joke, but if you’re not able to smile as you are doing it or show with your intonation that you are doing it, other people may not perceive it as a joke. What might be OK in a friendly context with your close friends may not be OK in other contexts in a public realm,” he said.
“Hopefully, my work can be used to better inform the types of policy that we use to govern our Internet spaces – things like better tools to report harassment or trying to get platforms like Facebook and Twitter to take it seriously and how to have them distinguish the good from the bad. We can also try to figure out ways to get victims better tools and strategies to better protect themselves.”
The work is ultimately about minimizing the more negative expressions of trolling behaviours while preserving some of the positives, Chen added.
“I think the positive side is one of the reasons the Internet is so interesting. Trolling is about pushing boundaries, whether they be boundaries of what’s OK to say to people or different ways to match up different media. And a good thing is that it can be used as social commentary,” he said. “It can be used to call out and critique culture.”