This week, a guest post by Daniel LaMagna, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children summer intern.

This past summer I interned at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. While researching for an online communication mini-documentary the other interns and I were working on (Dr. Palfrey and Miriam Simun kindly contributed!), I came across Matthias Schwartz’ fascinating New York Times Magazine article “Malwebolence- The World of Web Trolling.” While this phenomenon is not directly related to online child safety, it raises some interesting issues with regard to ethical questions of online behavior.

Anyway, it’s obvious that these particular web dwellers (on image/message boards) are a pretty nasty bunch. They seem to really get their “lulz” (naughty troll “kicks”) out of making other people miserable. As mentioned in the article, they don’t simply tease or taunt or “verbally” abuse their “targets,” but also threaten and harass them (both online and sometimes offline). If they want to be really rotten, they’ll even steal someone’s identity (social security number and all) and post it on an online public space for the world to see. This, of course, is criminal activity, but they’ve found ways to use the anonymity of the internet to avoid getting caught. Some espouse philosophical theories/ideals to justify their actions, but I think they’re just saying this to either:

1. Lie and confuse others just for the sake of it (for the lulz)
2. Rationalize their behavior
3. Sound complicated and “deep” (and way smarter than the rest of us)

Apart from the purely vicious and “see- how- bad- I- can- be” elements, a lot of this meanness seems to be about social acceptance (from the other trolls) and posturing. When you read what they write or say (whether online or offline in Schwartz’ interviews), they all seem to have one common tendency: to imagine (or at least want to imagine) themselves as all-powerful Internet gods. And with all their bragging and threatening and lusting for “lulz,” it’s pretty obvious that they, like most gods, want others to believe in their “awesomeness” as well. And thou best not question them or challenge them, for thou shall incur their wrath. Gulp. Note: See the reader’s comments section on the article, and you’ll find that they say this repeatedly. It’s clear to me that despite their claims to the contrary, they desperately care about how they are perceived.

For example, one of the trolls was clearly trying to impress Schwartz by picking him up in a Rolls Royce. Another troll took a picture of Schwartz’s debit card number and proudly showed him the image of it on his cell phone. I guess it was supposed to make him seem “dangerous.” The segment of the article ends there; Curiously, Mr. Schwartz has no response. Maybe he was afraid that a little moral judgment would lessen the objectivity of his story? Or maybe he was afraid of what the trolls could do if they decided that he’d make a nice “target.”

The lack of any clear ethical or moral opinion from Schwartz has made the article, at least to me, seem to agree with the trolls boasts and add to their credibility and sense of empowerment. The implication was “Wow, this guy really is as scary as he claims to be. Don’t mess with him.” Unfortunately, this has probably achieved exactly what trolls wanted. It has elevated the “legend” of the invincible troll out from under the bridges and caves of cyberspace and into the mainstream consciousness. There is a good chance that, like offline criminals always have (pirates, outlaws, gangsters, etc…), they will be both feared and admired (at least by some). For the first time in their lives, normal people might actually think they’re “cool” (which is what they really want). Interestingly enough, I can’t think of anything more “human” (and less “godlike”) than the desire to be acknowledged and “respected” by others.

Well, that’s my opinion. I’d like to hear your views on Schwartz’ article and on internet trolls in general. And in particular:

1. Are trolls dangerous? What threat do they pose to individuals and the Internet as a whole?

2. Will their influence “normalize” and/or popularize deviancy (In a social, sexual, political, etc… context)? If so, to what extent?

3. What effect could they have on mainstream society?

4. How can (or should) they be stopped? Should they be simply ignored, as some have suggested, or should they (especially those who commit crimes) be actively resisted (“counter-trolling,” increased law enforcement efforts, etc…)?

5. One troll referred to himself as “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet.” Do you think this statement reveals anything about the effects that online communication can have on people?

6. Your other concerns?

Visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or its NetSmartz Workshop department if you are interested in learning more. The film featuring Dr. Palfrey and Ms. Simun will be posted on the NetSmartz website in (probably) a few months, after production is complete.

– Daniel LaMagna

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