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Jaq D Hawkins

Some Musings

A Short History of the Internet Troll

I've seen a fair bit of Internet trolling over the years as I have been on-line off and on since the 1980's and was once active on the BBS networks that pre-dated the Internet as we know it. I’ve watched the phenomenon of trolling as it has developed right along with the Internet and was even once married to one of the world’s most renowned and most toxic trolls that ever darkened cyberspace. Last I heard, he was still proud of the titles.

Trolling has become well known and recognised with the result that private sites have established individual policies to eliminate the disruptions from their site. The most effective of these are the 'no tolerance' policies that rely on the site owner to take control of their own space as they would their own home and just ban the trolls out of hand.

 

Wikipedia defines trolling as;

"In Internet slang, a troll is 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."

 

The same article goes on to say;

"Early incidences of trolling were considered to be the same as flaming, but this has changed with modern usage by the news media to refer to the creation of any content that targets another person."

 

Taken to social networking, controlling trolling becomes a little more complicated than on a private site. All public sites have a Terms of Service (ToS) that all users have to agree to when they sign up which will include rules that a user does not intentionally attack another user.

However, defining what constitutes an attack is often met with phrases such as "We were just having a discussion" or "I was just answering his question" so that obvious malicious intent requires a judgement from a Moderator who will most often close the thread. Sometimes the methods are taken further.

The news regularly reports cases of suicides or 'real space' violence that result from Internet trolling, including major news outlets;

http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Parenting/girls-teen-suicide-calls-attention-cyberbullying/story?id=9685026#.UEWW6pa04R9

http://honda-tech.com/showthread.php?t=2057641

Medical and law journals are taking the problem seriously;

http://www.ncjolt.org/sites/default/files/323-346_Ruedy_v9i2.pdf

 

The state of Arizona has drafted new legislation changing existing telephone harassment laws to include all electronic communications and stating that "Across the country, more than 30 states have laws against harassment and stalking that reference electronic communication, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures."

New laws are being created as we speak to expose identifying information of people who 'troll' on social networking sites.

Those who scream loudest against these measures are the trolls themselves. You can see them on any social media site ranting loudly about their 'rights' and 'censorship', while actively violating the rights of the users they target and flaunting the ToS of the site where they are actively doing so.

Psychological studies show that habitual trolling is a sign of low self-esteem, a bid from an insecure person to create an arena where they can feel some form of power or authority. Trolls that form 'gangs' on social networking sites gain additional self-perceived influence through group support, very much like physical street gangs but without the need to put themselves in any physical risk.

BBS NETWORKS

In the early days of BBS networks when we all had to dial up and couldn't make a phone call while on-line, trolling was technologically limited to flaming. Even in those early days an argument could turn into a spectacle, sometimes to the amusement of disinterested parties.

On one BBS board a 'Flame Echo' was even created as sort of a Thunderdome fighting rink where 'Flaming' was given a free-for-all status and arguments taken with a grain of salt. In its newness, the art of the well-formed argument took on a creative element that would make Oscar Wilde proud. I credit this 'echo', as the threads/rooms/folders were called in BBS terminology, for the complete ineffectiveness of any Internet trolls to raise an emotional reaction from myself ever since. I had a regular sparring partner within Flame Echo. We actually frightened some of the other participants on occasion and had to assure them that actually we were great friends on other echoes and shared a mutual respect.

This wasn't trolling per se as the debates and terms of engagement were by prior agreement, but is mentioned here as an illustration. In those days, the actual long trolling arguments required that 'evidence' was true and relevant. It didn't take long before evidence for arguments began to get ignored so that flame arguments became a list of counter arguments that grew too long and irrelevant for bystanders to retain interest. Trolling 'proper' grew out of the ashes of flaming as creativity became a thing of the past and bystanders lost interest. The more obsessive people who carried on seeking attention became the modern Internet troll.

USENET GROUPS

Usenet, or Newsgroups were the next stage of Internet development. In many ways it acted much like the BBS groups but rather than private ownership of a board the groups were connected through servers. They were effectively the first public forums.

These came into popular use from 1980, a time when my travels did not include Internet access, so I have little experience first hand. In fact, I have dropped into a Usenet group thread only once when my name came up in a years-long war between an ex-husband (with whom I was still friends) and another toxic personality with right-wing religious views. My ex was known for baiting such people and probably wasted more hours than many people's lifetimes in 'baiting' people in religious and political groups.

Technology still limited flaming to threads, which could be closed by a moderator if enough people complained. Most Usenet servers have since been retired, although Wikipedia states that some are still in use, mainly by universities.

 

During  it's more popular phase, the non-sensical arguments for trolling developed which would eventually establish new generally accepted trolling rules:

  • All your carefully picked arguments can be easily ignored.
  • Anything you say can and will be used against you.
  • Anything you say can be turned into something else – fixed.
  • The harder you try the harder you will fail.
  • Everything that can be labelled can be hated.
  • The more you hate the stronger it gets.
  • The more beautiful and pure a things is – the more satisfying it is to corrupt it.

Trolling had become something truly repulsive to be mostly ignored or eradicated. People were no longer comfortable using 'heated debate' as a writing exercise because of the associations with the ugliness of trolling.


THE INTERNET AS WE KNOW IT

Technology grew at a phenomenal rate through the 1990's along with new methods of cyber communication. Private email became commonplace where it had once been the tool of the programmers. Private forums were developed for special interest groups. Proboards came into use in the year 2000 and would soon be followed by more public social networking forums; MySpace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. There would be more to follow.

 

The trolls had a whole new world of technology to exploit to their own agenda.

MYSPACE FORUMS

MySpace, launched in 2003, was the first large scale social networking platform to utilise advertising to finance itself and offer 'space' to individuals, bands, artists, writers, filmmakers and anyone else who fancied having a web presence but didn't want to pay for their own domain or have the technological knowledge to manage a personal website.

Many users set up individual pages for their own self-expression as it was free, relatively easy to use and connected them with other people on-line. Adding cyber 'friends' became popular and people interacted in forums which were divided into subject interest groups.

Inevitably, the trolls moved in quickly.

Different forums had varying levels of trolling. These were controlled (or not) by volunteer Moderators who were managed by higher staff and had a facility for exchanging notes on individual trolls who might travel from one forum to another as well as methods that did or did not work. They also deleted spam messages regularly.

I had rejoined cyberspace in 2000 and was directed to MySpace in 2005. By then the forums had all developed their own groups of 'regulars'. These varied in friendliness and general nature.

MySpace facilities were used for several high profile attacks on teenagers that resulted in suicides. This was the birth of 'troll gangs', collections of users who would mass attack a single person and try to drive them off the site, or in some cases even goad them into suicide. The Internet was becoming a not-safe place for teenagers.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html?pagewanted=all

The open nature of social networking allowed even more sinister activity from people like paedophiles who 'groom' young people for their advances. The combination of open forums and private messaging allows more personal communication and sometimes for the advancement of malice from the public space to direct personal attack in the target's inbox.

My own experience was mainly in the Literature and Filmmaking forums for obvious reasons. In Literature I quickly came across a group of 'resident trolls' who tried their best to drive me out of the forum on the basis of my first introductory message, which didn't suit their criteria for who to allow or not allow on 'their' forum. As I had long since been anaesthetised to verbal insults by Flame Echo, I moved in, made myself comfortable and welcomed other new people who were targeted by this sub-group.

In Filmmaking there was a different sort of problem. Someone had set himself up as a sort of 'boss' and criteria for posting unmolested in the forum was to show support for him. The Filmmaking moderators eventually took a hard line and eradicated him from the forum, even forbidding users to mention the URL of the person's private forum.

It worked. While Literature forum moderators were still foundering and calling for help from the moderator pool, Filmmaking became a peaceful and productive forum with many people sharing information and ideas.

Some people may cry 'censorship', I call that effective troll control.

The worst problems were in Computer forums where hackers 'exacted revenge' for getting banned. Eventually the forums became more trouble than they were worth and were permanently closed.

MySpace still exists for private space and personal messaging. Whether anyone uses it besides the bands who send regular advertising messages I don't know. I retain my own pages there (one personal, one author page and one for my film company) but updates are infrequent and the personal page doesn't really serve a purpose anymore. It may well disappear soon.

FACEBOOK

Facebook was launched in 2004 with a different format to MySpace, quickly becoming competition for the other site. The primary difference is that each person 'owned' their own page rather than having public forums and the intention was that they would add only friends, keeping them from being subjected to troll harassment.

It was a good plan, but it didn't work. Again, teenagers in particular were targeted for 'bullying' campaigns and subjected to posts on their own wall as well as private messages from malicious users. 'Gang trolling' continues to spread despite the more personalised format.

One user reports "my family was threatened by Facebook users, I found Facebook unresponsive and unwilling to remove highly offensive Photoshopped images until I complained that they might be a breach of copyright!"

http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2011/09/16/how-to-deal-with-an-internet-troll/

Facebook has changed its programming constantly over time to try to add privacy controls while leaving advertising options open. The most recent format change, the notorious Timeline, caused a major downturn in its share stock.

http://www.totaltele.com/view.aspx?ID=476010

Users are not happy with the format. They have not abandoned the site en masse, but average hours of use are declining as the public looks for the 'next' popular networking site. Google Plus has not really caught on widely, possibly as the same restrictive format that as much as eliminates trolling also restricts general interaction until a user adds sufficient 'friends' to their groups. There is no real facility for making new friends from the general user base.

GOODREADS

Amateur but malicious trolling has been growing on the Goodreads site in the past year to the point of making news.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stop-the-gr-bullies/stop-goodreads-bullies_b_1689661.html

 

Goodreads is a site intended for booklovers. In the words of the founder Otis Chandler;

"One afternoon while I was scanning a friend's bookshelf for my next great read, it struck me. When I want to know what books to read, I'd rather turn to a friend than any random person or bestseller list. So I thought I'd build a website — a website where I could see my friends' bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books."

This sounds brilliant. Goodreads was launched in 2006 giving stiff competition to other book cataloguing sites like LibraryThing and making the social aspects of the site very user friendly.

However, sometime in 2010 the troll wars began to get nasty. This apparently started with some new, young authors of Young Adult novels expressing offence at particularly nasty reviews of their books. This is where subjectivity comes in. Is an unprofessionally written review trolling because it contains gratuitous nastiness or is the young author trolling by arguing with the user who posts it? There are supported opinions on both sides of that argument.

In itself, it doesn't matter. It's an argument between two people who probably both have maturing yet to do. But that was only the beginning.

Gang trolling escalated over time on the site, primarily affecting Romance and YA book readers and authors and eventually reached a point where two opposing groups materialised; The Badly Behaving Authors group (BBA) and the Stop The Goodreads Bullies group (STGRB). Goodreads is unique in that it has harboured a culture of author vs reader. Obviously these organised groups have opposing points of view on the issue. But it doesn't stop there.

I joined Goodreads relatively recently, just this year. My attention was brought to this 'war' when I had a private dispute OFF Goodreads (detailed in my article on this site, An Oddity) and the other party, who is a member of the BBA group, took the battle to where she had a gang waiting, to the BBA group.

 

The following methods which were cited in the The Huffington Post article were quickly demonstrated;

"It's that they form gangs and roam through GR like rabid animals, mocking, harassing, terrorizing, and humiliating authors. They do it for amusement."

 

Let's have some numbers shall we? Without any interaction of any kind with any member of this group on Goodreads, one of my books suddenly had;

12 derogatory shelf labels

5 one star ratings from BBA members who had never seen the book.

 

Already it's clear that 'reviews' from BBA members have no credibility as they advocate using them for personal attacks. Members have often used review space to express hatred towards the authors of books, which Goodreads has stated they will control by giving such non-reviews hidden status.

I'm still waiting for them to hide the ones on that book, which have been flagged for abuse multiple times.

 

After speaking up and stating that the method is dishonest, the numbers increased rapidly. At the time of writing they stand at;

38 derogatory shelvings

8 one star ratings from BBA members who have never seen the book.

The alarming thing is that these are relatively low numbers compared to some of the YA authors who have been targeted in the past.

I am not in this group's demographic, i.e. Romance and YA readers, and they would never have heard of me if the one member had not put me on the target list. That's the point, this is gang trolling at it's most ugly. It doesn't have a real effect on sales or the opinions of genuine readers, but it's bringing down the site in more than tone. Goodreads is quickly losing credibility as the news stories increase in number and many authors are bypassing the site on their marketing, as there is no point to listing a book only to have it trolled the day it appears.

Some of the authors in the relevant genre who have been the subjects of these feeding frenzies have even left the site because of these attacks. One self-published author I actually counted had;

198 derogatory shelvings

34 one star ratings from BBA members who have never seen the book.


There are several with similar numbers. For Comparison numbers I also looked at targeted Trade published authors. The first two I looked at each had 100 pages of abuse and 'personal attack reviews' that didn't address the book. Some had nearly 4000 pages of abuse wars showing.

At the time of writing this article the attack reviews were still visible, but they have since started disappearing so I'm amending this section as the history of Goodreads is still being written. It is not too late for them to move further to regain mastery of their site and stop the troll wars from becoming their legacy.

Many of the names of the attackers become familiar if you look at targeted books. The same profiles show up repeatedly. They also appear if you mention swarming on the Feedback group. They all swarm in to deny that it happens. Irony anyone?

It gets comic sometimes. One day one of the regulars who will pop up if I post anything whatsoever in Feedback Group quoted part of the Wikipedia article and insisted that a troll is someone who enters a conversation to pick a fight.

I actually laughed out loud on that one as she had just expressly entered the thread to pick an argument with me, claiming that the shelving campaigns were not trolling (she obviously didn't read the rest of the article).

From Wikipedia:

"Early incidences of trolling were considered to be the same as flaming, but this has changed with modern usage by the news media to refer to the creation of any content that targets another person."

 

The shelving campaigns include terms like boycott, do-not-review and bully author. Bully? For objecting to being trolled? Some of those found on other author's books go further.

Much of this trolling would be easy to control by making personal shelves visible to the user but not displayed on the book page. Goodreads doesn't appear to be interested in this solution. Listopia lists, which are intended for making recommendations, have also been abused for personal agenda hate lists. A zero tolerance policy could take away this facility as well.

The STGRB group are not the only opponents of the trolling group. Many complaints have been made by individuals only to meet with politely worded responses that tend to begin with the phrase, "It is not our policy to..."

http://stopthegrbullies.com/2012/08/31/grs-classic-response/

 

Users are invited to flag trolling content, but the content often doesn't disappear, including links to hate speech. I've witnessed this first hand on my own books, which are now all on the trolling Listopia. I've also allowed myself to be a more visible target by poking fun at BBA troll group for a few days as I awaited a response to a message sent to the site owner. Perhaps he's busy programming...

Two members of the BBA group actually followed me to LibraryThing and attempted to use tags for derogatory labelling in the way that they use shelves on Goodreads. LibraryThing took the matter seriously and suspended their accounts after giving the two weeks to remove the tags themselves. Taking a stand DOES work.

My reason for drawing some fire is that I've taken an interest in the complete wrongness of allowing this group to thrive and of evidence that there is at least one 'dirty' member of staff involved (a police term for a cop who takes backhanders.) I'm not suggesting that money is involved, only that the trolling is being protected by someone with at least Superlibrarian status.

Because I'm a visible target, people contact me. More off-site than on, I'm easily contactable through the public email displayed on my website. I'm effectively doing the same thing I did on MySpace, standing up for the rights of others. The 'heat' doesn't bother me. Many people like myself do not like to join organised groups for various reasons, but the private messages have been pouring in.

I received a message from an author whose only 'sin' was that she sent a message to Goodreads Support at the appropriate address. She was immediately put on the troll Listopia.

Something is rotten here.

My message to Mr Chandler was business owner to business owner (I own a film production company) and did not contain some of the more alarming aspects of what this group is causing as I did not want it to sound sensationalist.

People are networking. Not just authors, but readers who are fed up with this state of affairs and wondering why Goodreads will not enforce their own ToS. It's a wonderfully designed site and no one wants to see it go down the tubes.

There is a growing frustration over the lack of response and I suspect it's only a matter of time before someone thinks of contacting shareholders or organising social network driven boycotts of companies who advertise on Goodreads or other financially effective methods to put pressure on the site to address this trolling problem. This could get very, very serious for the company, and all over some immature 20-something trolls who delight in gang trolling young authors and screaming "Censorship!" at any attempts to gain control.

Why is the owner not responding to the problem? Why does the Customer service person fob off complaints?

Why does the company let trolling flourish? It will certainly escalate as a result of non-action or even protection. Several of the troll gang members are 'GR librarians', people who can effect updates and changes on metadata. But there are many others who would see the updating and corrections work done. I was one myself until I removed one of my own books from the troll list. Suddenly all the updates and corrections I did are undone so that a troll can list me on a target list for other trolls to attack. Priorities?

Already authors are widely discussing skipping Goodreads when they place new book information. Not just self-published authors, established authors don't want to be associated with a trolling site.

As the problem increases on the site more people become aware of it and the site's reputation is deteriorating quickly. The question remains, why is Mr Chandler letting his dream become a troll sanctuary?

THE TROLLS OF THE FUTURE

As long as society has frustrated people, it will have Internet trolls. However, the sites that survive will be those that take a hard line and eradicate opportunities for systems to be abused, so that it can at least be minimised.

Modern trolls like the BBA group are not particularly clever or original, there is nothing funny or witty in what they do. They are effectively throwing mud pies at anyone who speaks up against any member of their 'gang'. Disinterested users don't want to wallow in muck and will go elsewhere.

Some of these BBA members have objected to me referring to them on my blog as 'children' or 'trollettes', but the terms in themselves are not intended as derogatory. It is hard to see them as anything but young, errant children who should have been taught manners by their parents. One in particular who has an avatar with a boy (presumably from a book cover) I always see as a podgy 6-year-old boy with his arms out, fists clenched and face turning red as each argument effectively begins with "Oh yeah? Well you..." to be followed by the same series of empty accusations as the last time (The "Oh yeah" is paraphrasing, necessary to the example of weak posturing).

There is no rhetorical skill involved as there was in the old days of Flame echo or the witty repartee that that got Oscar Wilde in so much trouble (there you go trollettes, consider yourself spoon-fed. He was famous for taking the piss out of people like you and doing it with style and flair).

Trolls will go somewhere. But if social sites take responsibility for their own content, it will be largely limited to eruptions on individual threads that can be locked. With legislation increasing on this, any social site owner would be well-advised to take the responsibility now before it gets any further out of control. The bad publicity of lawsuits can deter advertisers from supporting a failing site.

There will be more social sites in the future. Their structure will change with technology and consideration for troll control.

So in the end, the trolls already have what they want. They have captured the attention of lawmakers, Internet users, grieving parents, programmers and the medical profession. They have the attention they sought in the first place.

But sadly, they will never die.