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Are Trolls Taking Control of the Internet?

Stop trolling ! ( Courtesy of Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Carl Weiss

Look up the word “Troll” and you will find two meanings.  The first is the Scandinavian legend concerning hideous creatures whose life revolves around vexing humans and who turn into stone upon contact with sunlight.  The other definition is to fish using a hook and line that are pulled through the water.  Trolling on the Internet combines the worst of both these concepts by creating hideous comments and bald faced lies about human beings that are then pulled along by the sheer momentum of social media.

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In short, online trolling is the vilest form of yellow journalism yet devised by mankind.  Unlike traditional yellow journalism that can be dealt with in a court of law, trolling exists exclusively in the court of public opinion.  This is due to the fact that it’s extremely difficult to identify, let alone prosecute the offender since the slander suddenly takes on a life all its own once other trolls join the fray.  In a number of cases trolling has been employed to cow or even stifle journalists and is several cases this insidious form of cyberbullying has eventually led to the death of the person being trolled.

Trolling has transmogrified free speech into an online free for all that threatens to undermine investigative journalism, whistle blowers and in short anyone who goes against the grain.  It has been used by big business to muddy the waters, not to mention it can be used by everyone from peeved ex-spouses and ex-employees to underhanded competitors to make anyone’s life a living hell.  If you want to protect your right of free speech and keep from being smeared by these vile creatures, shine a light by learning the tools of the trade of trolls.
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The Big Lie about the BIG Lie

“If you tell a big enough lie and repeat it over and over, people will eventually come to believe it.”  This statement has been attributed as being coined by everyone from Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels to Lenin and Mao Tse-tung.  The truth is that everyone from military dictators to industrialists and politicians have come to know, like and embrace this tactic to bolster their lot in life.  And why not, since he who shouts the loudest is listened to the most.  In fact, the herd mentality of any mob can not only be influenced by the bald faced lie, as history has shown us time and time again, the mob is all too eager to embrace the big lie as a pretext to do whatever is in the interest of the mob.

A couple of months ago I watched an episode of the PBS series American Experience that detailed the riots and fires that resulted from a 1977 blackout in New York City that resulted from a passing thunderstorm.  During the ensuing darkness that lasted one night, an orgy of violence, looting and arson gripped parts of the Big Apple that were unexpected in their scope.  An excerpt from the show’s notes sum it up best.

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That night, in the city that never sleeps, the divide between the haves and the have-nots became ever more apparent. In some neighborhoods, there was conviviality, as diners at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center were treated to free champagne and allowed to remove their jackets and ties. Helpful citizens took to the streets to direct traffic. Impromptu block parties broke out, and bartenders served patrons in T-shirts and shorts. Upper East Side residents had candlelit dinners on the roof.

But in the poorer neighborhoods of the city's boroughs, the power outage spurred near-immediate mayhem under the cover of darkness. As employees at Con Edison struggled to restore power to the elaborate system, people smashed windows and ripped security gates off storefronts, carting off washing machines, sofas, Pampers, TVs, refrigerators — whatever they could carry. By the time the power was fully restored more than a day later, more than 1,600 businesses had been looted, over 3,700 people had been arrested, and firefighters had battled more than 1,000 fires.

Granted, there were a number of underlying factors that were blamed for the mayhem.  In 1977 New York City was experiencing a financial crisis that caused a shortage of services that caused everything from a reduction in public services, to rampant unemployment and increased crime.  Add to this the fact that the city was in the midst of a heat wave and that same summer was deemed the Summer of Sam, as serial killer David Berkowitz, kept the city that never sleeps on edge and is it any wonder that the Big Apple was a powder keg looking for a spark to set it off.
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Whether the unrest, riots, arson and mayhem that ensued could be blamed on this perfect storm of events, or just the outage is a matter of opinion. What is even stranger is that when the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 occurred, history repeated itself as once again violence descended on New York City.  Granted, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were still vivid in the memories of New Yorkers.  But the economy was booming and the Big Apple was seeing an overall drop in crime.  So what could cause something as a few hours of darkness to turn an otherwise tranquil evening into an urban warzone?  More importantly, what does it say about human nature that allows a few bad apples to incite others to join in an orgy of destruction?  Maybe the causes of the blackout as portrayed in the documentary can shed some light on the subject.

“That night there was a lightning strike on a power line in West Chester County.  The line went out and the demand starts to increase on some of the surrounding lines.  This sets off a kind of chain reaction or domino effect where another line suddenly has too much power it has to be shut down.  And then another line is overextended and it goes down. “

So what does this have to do with trolling? Are people wired much like the electrical grid,
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where one fault can cause a cascade of events that can threaten to bring down the whole system?  Several recent examples of trolling point to this factor.

In a recent post on, correspondent Fareed Zakaria reports how he wound up being the target of trolling which soon cascaded out of control.

It started when an obscure website published a post titled "CNN host Fareed Zakaria calls for jihad rape of white women." The story claimed that in my "private blog" I had urged the use of American women as "sex slaves" to depopulate the white race. The post further claimed that on my Twitter account, I had written the following line: "Every death of a white person brings tears of joy to my eyes."
Disgusting. So much so that the item would collapse from its own weightlessness, right? Wrong. Here is what happened next: Hundreds of people began linking to it, tweeting and retweeting it, and adding their comments, which are too vulgar or racist to repeat. A few ultra-right-wing websites reprinted the story as fact. With each new cycle, the levels of hysteria rose, and people started demanding that I be fired, deported or killed. For a few days, the digital intimidation veered out into the real world. Some people called my house late one night and woke up and threatened my daughters, who are 7 and 12.
It would have taken a minute to click on the link and see that the original post was on a fake news site, one that claims to be satirical (though not very prominently). It would have taken simple common sense to realize the absurdity of the charge. But none of this mattered.
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So vocal and prejudicial was the furor over this big lie, that even when cooler heads online pointed out the fact that there was no evidence of the supposed post that had started the hue and cry, all it did was feed the flames of conspiracy theorists.  Even worse was the fact that many of the people feeding the frenzy on the social nets were doing so anonymously.  Mr. Zakaria goes onto point out,
In my own experience, conversations on Facebook are somewhat more civil, because people generally have to reveal their identities. But on Twitter and in other places — the online comments section of The Post, for example — people can be anonymous or have pseudonyms. And that is where bile and venom flow freely.
In several earlier blogs about cyberbullying and the use of patently false online reviews used by unscrupulous competitors to harm other businesses, I pointed out the fact that as long as online entities such as social networks or review sites allow users to post anonymously, all it does is set the stage for grievous harm to people who have no way to address their accusers.  Here’s an excerpt from “Are Social Networks Becoming Antisocial?

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In 2006, thirteen-year-old Megan Meier was befriended on Myspace by a 16-year old named Josh.  The pair continued a strictly online relationship for more than a month that started innocently enough, then grew abusive.  Eventually, Josh wrote Megan that he didn’t want to be friends anymore.  Then he upped the ante by posting a number of hurtful messages which culminated in a post where Josh wrote Megan telling her “The world would be a better place without you.”  The following day Megan hanged herself. Read more about it here.

To make matters worse, it was learned more than a year later that “Josh” wasn’t even a real person.  It turns out that Josh’s Myspace account was created by Megan’s neighbor, Lori Drew.  While receiving national attention, not to mention a federal indictment, Lori Drew was acquitted of all charges by US District Judge George Wu in 2009. For more details, read: Are social networks becoming antisocial on Working the Web to Win in blogger.

While cyberbullying is hardly anything new, what has been emerging as if late is the trend to use these odious tactics to cow everyone from journalists to scientists, particularly if they do not agree with your point of view. What’s even worse is that trying to defend yourself online can sometimes prove to be a slippery slope. 

Catherine Rampell, an opinion columnist at the Washington Post went ballistic when her father, took matters into his own hands by emailing a troll who had called his daughter an idiot online.  Her response to her dad was short and to the point:
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Never, ever, ever engage with trolls again, I told him. At issue was not just a daughter’s tendency to be reflexively embarrassed by her well-intentioned father. My concern was that, based on my own experience and that of many of my colleagues, responding to trolls more often leads to escalation than apologies.

Ms.Rampell also goes on to point out that far from receiving quashing a troll, trying to shame cyberbullies can lead to escalation. 

The Internet is rife with stories of other women (often journalists and performers, but sometimes just random users) being threatened and tormented by quasi-anonymous hordes, whose vitriol seems only to swell if the target fights back. Consider “Gamergate” or the feminist writers who have scaled back or eliminated their online presence rather than endure daily abuse.

Some journalists, such as feminist writer Jessica Valenti, get so fed up with the 24-hour online abuse that they simply choose to either post anonymously or retire from the worldwide online stage altogether.

Of course, teenagers and journalists aren’t the only people who are routinely trolled.  Everyone from whistleblowers to scientists have been victims of trolls.  Those in the news such as TV and movie stars have had to endure their share of trolling.  Last week, Fox News issued a statement about Donald Trump when he threatened to boycott their televised debate because he felt that Fox’s moderator, Megyn Kelly, wasn’t going to be fair to him. He even went so far as to ask his Twitter followers, “Should I go to the GOP debate?”

Fox News responded in a statement given to MEDIAite, saying:

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“We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes President. – a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
In response, the Donald Tweeted the following: “Pathetic attempt by @foxnews to try and build up ratings for the #GOPDebate. Without me they'd have no ratings!” 
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2016

On it goes, as trolling becomes more commonplace, and where the most outrageous half-truths, untruths and innuendos become the gospel truth to a worldwide audience eager to feed the flames.  What this writer wants to know is whether this practice will eventually be abolished or whether trolls will ultimately control the Internet? 

In this article I have discussed the growing and disturbing trend of online Trolling, which is has become a plague for journalist, celebrities, political candidates and yes, regular everyday citizens. This yellow press trend is an insidious social media injustice that is hurting our democracy and social freedoms. If something is not done to reverse this trend, it will become a nightmare for all of free peoples and will eventually destroy the credibility of social media in general.

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If you found this article useful please share it with your friends, family and co-workers. If you would like to learn more about this subject, visit the notes page on this blog for the BlogTalkRadio show dated 2/2/2016. I recommend checking out "Cyberstalking for Fun & Profit - Is There a Cyberstalker in Your Future?", or "How Do I Hack Thee? Let Me Count the Ways – A Cyberstalking Primer".  You can also search for other related articles by typing in “hacking or social media” in the search box top of this blog.

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Carl Weiss is president of a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida that routinely works with bloggers and other online marketers. 

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1 comment:

  1. The trolls are here and they're getting worse all the time. Oh, the humanity!