Your broadband connection may be your pathway to the internet, but it’s a dangerous road which is poorly policed.
One of the biggest dangers online comes from internet trolls – a term inspired by their favourite activity of posting inflammatory or offensive things online to distress or get a reaction from others.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t named after the mythological creatures that lived under bridges.
In fact, ‘trolling’ also describes fishing by trailing a baited line behind a boat.
A very modern phenomenon
Trolling is rarely seen offline. It’s a form of harassment, but it differs from offline stalking or harassment in that it’s not victim-specific.
The troll doesn’t usually know the person or people they’re harming, whereas offline harassment tends to be focused on a known individual.
The internet has given trolls an ideal territory. While their activities are illegal in the UK, it can be very difficult to identify the people involved, especially if they’re abroad.
Trolling almost always breaches the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003.
Hearteningly, statistics show that prosecutions increased tenfold in the decade from 2005 to 2015.
The UK government recently consulted on new regulation that may force internet companies to deal with users causing harm online.
In extreme cases it might force ISPs to block access to sites.
But with much of the internet still anonymous (or making it easy to assume false identities), the trolls are still having a field day.
Worse, there’s no real agreement on how to deal with them.
To feed or not to feed?
Some have argued passionately against the often-heard advice not to feed trolls by giving them attention.
That’s perfectly understandable, because trolls definitely cause harm, and ignoring sources of danger is generally unhelpful.
There’s also a strong argument that any site likely to attract trolls should have a robust moderation policy that blocks and bans individuals as soon as they offend.
We can all reinforce this by simply refusing to engage with sites that don’t moderate the trolls away.
But of course it’s not always that straightforward. Evidence is mounting that trolls have unpleasant tendencies in both the digital and real worlds, making them particularly hard to beat.
Specifically, trolls are said to be high in ‘dark’ personality traits like psychopathy and sadism. That means they don’t respond to rules in the way more empathic people do.
Indeed, they may even rejoice in the knowledge they’ve upset people, without needing to see that reaction.
Consequently, merely ignoring trollish behaviour won’t always be enough to deter the culprits.
There’s also more than one type of troll. Some people are even attacking themselves, in a bid for attention and sympathy.
All of this means that while the old ‘don’t feed the trolls’ adage has its uses, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
Tips on staying safe online
If you experience trolling, it’s wise to remember that a reaction will generally be enthusiastically received. It might even lead to an escalation in activities.
If you don’t enjoy conflict, don’t take the bait.
You may also wish to consider whether you’re dealing with a person who really means harm, or just someone who isn’t very good at expressing themselves online.
Strong disagreement can sometimes be free speech rather than an attempt to cause distress, and it’s not unheard of for people to apologise if they’ve laboured a point too much.
If you are quick-witted, humour can also be a useful tool when responding to comments. Sarcasm is a good defence, and a witty riposte might discourage further escalation.
But none of this should stop you informing site moderators – or even the police, if the offence is serious enough.
And while it may seem unfair to be driven offline by idiots, you always have the option to walk away from websites, social media and internet companies that don’t protect their users.
When all is said and done, most social media sites and blogs are profit-making businesses – and where would they be without their well-behaved clientele?