An Expert Explains a Misconception About Online Trolls

August 16th 2016

When you think of an internet troll, it's easy to imagine a miserable, professionally unsatisfied individual firing off hateful messages from a barren basement.

But not all internet trolls fit this widely accepted troll profile — and a few recent news stories are bringing that to light. Some trolls, in fact, are quite the opposite of a lowly sad sack without a substantial reputation to protect.

Earlier this month, a longtime managing director at New York Life Insurance was terminated from the company after a woman named Shanelle Matthews shared an expletive-heavy death threat that he sent her on Facebook. In her post about the exchange, Matthews said she was surprised that the man "didn’t create an alias or try in any visible way to conceal his identity or make private the details of his place of employment" when he harassed her online.

In March, a journalist named Dune Lawrence wrote a first person piece for Bloomberg accusing a Wall Street financier of repeatedly taunting her on a website he created and gratuitously criticizing her appearance along the way.

Though unrelated, these situations raise an important question: Why would people with impressive resumes and a lot at stake put all of this on the line just to bother someone on the internet?

ATTN: recently had a chance to speak with Andrea Weckerle, founder of the anti-cyber harassment organization CiviliNation, about internet trolls. Here's what she had to say.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

ATTN: There's a well-known stereotype of trolls as losers living in their mother's basements. Do you have any explanation for people who don't fit that stereotype?

Andrea Weckerle: I think to a certain extent, trolling has become a norm. It started out being that basement type. It's now morphed into equal opportunity trolling, meaning we see adults do it, we see teens doing it, we see children do it, we see people of all sorts of different backgrounds, ethnicity, and races do it, so it's really become kind of an equal opportunity behavior.

That having been said, obviously there are people [whose] psychology makes them a little bit more predisposed to wanting to engage in behavior like that. But I'm really glad you're addressing this because it is no longer necessarily the guy in his bathrobe who can't get a date who is doing this trolling behavior.

ATTN: Why would successful people with an image to protect risk their reputation by trolling others?

AW: Whenever I talk to somebody in the media, it's always great to have a very clean answer. But at the same time, I can tell you that we want the easy explanations for this problem and the easy solutions, but there really aren't any.

The problem is multi-factorial, and dealing with it also requires a variety of approaches. So, going back to your question, why would someone who is prominent and for all outward appearances, successful, engage in behavior like this? Well, a couple of reasons. And again, I'm not talking about anybody specifically. But a) Because they can, [and] there aren't any repercussions. There [are] no social repercussions. Lets look at the behavior that we see right now in our presidential election. It's pretty shocking. Nothing, absolutely nothing, seems to be off limits with regard to that. It's become almost the norm, is what I'm trying to say.

Secondly, people in power have a different set of rules that they are held accountable to. If somebody is prominent, socially or financially, they might get some sort of criticism, but they're not going to be fired necessarily because they are too valuable. They're not on the periphery of society.

ATTN: Perhaps people who don't spend their entire days online don't realize how easy it is to be exposed for trolling.

AW: That is the case. This is why, when we try to look at the problem, we want and need an answer, and there isn't one. That is the case with some people. Some people may think, 'I'll do it anonymously online, nobody can check my IP address' or 'I'm going to use a pseudonym.' I talk about that in my book: so many examples of people who had used pseudonyms historically because that's what they wanted to do. They knew that it wasn't socially acceptable, but at the same time, they didn't really think that they would get caught.

Another reason, again going back to the part of there not being enough social repercussions. If there were a system in place where people would lose jobs, and I'm not saying unfairly, but companies would sit there and say, 'Wait, this isn't what we want,' or they would be ostracized in their communities, or something else where the pain rises above the bad behavior, that would probably require people to do an about face and say, 'Wait a minute, maybe this isn't the best thing to do.' I'm not suggesting that we should do public shaming, I'm simply talking about [the reality that] if people think they can get away with things with no repercussions, a lot of people will.

Dr. John Suler at Rider University [argued] that people behave differently online than they would in face to face communication, and a lot of that is true. If we think that we can get away with something, then we will. You do it anonymously. However, because we see so many more people online now than there were ten years ago, for example, and the range of behaviors from civil, appropriate, to as I mentioned the presidential election, some of this bad behavior, some of this aggressive, completely outrageous, shaking your head type behavior, has become the norm. And so as a result, more people are willing to put their foot in the water and say, 'Wait a minute, so and so didn't have any problems with it, why don't I do some of it?'

ATTN: Does it help when people call out and expose trolls?

AW: I have a law background, so I'm going to give you the answer that people tend to hate to hear, but it's an accurate answer.

It depends. It really depends. There's not a cookie cutter approach. I think as a general rule, people should be held accountable for their accounts. However, let's assume it's a kid who sees some of what goes on online, and they're trashing someone else online. Is there an ability to rehabilitate that child or that teenager? Yeah. If it's somebody who is midlife or a senior citizen who has been engaging in this for ten years, I don't know.

The question is, what is the affect that we want to have? Do we want to punish the person? If you really want to punish the person, absolutely. Publicize them, trash their reputation, that sort of thing. But I'm not sure punishing them, outside of lets say a legal arena for example, to the point where they lose their job, their children are blackballed in the community, that sort of thing, gets us where we want to go. I think it's a very fine line between holding somebody accountable and saying 'This is unacceptable and we are not going to tolerate it, and we want your neighbors to know and your employer to know,' and basically trying to annihilate somebody and in effect becoming then an attacker because we ourselves have been attacked. I think we really need to be very, very careful about what approach we take. That having been said, I think it needs to be a multi-factorial approach: personal accountability and responsibility. People learning how to manage themselves online. Companies making sure that they consider their reputation more important than lets say the bottom line, an employee is acting out, and they contribute to an organization.

What kind of long-term society do we want to have? Do we want to have a society where the loudest and most aggressive has the word, or do we want it where we bring people up instead of annihilating them because they're weaker?

Again, the web hasn't been around that long, so I really think we're still trying to create those norms. Where can we draw the line? What is acceptable? How do we honor freedom of speech and at the same time make freedom of speech reflect an environment where everybody gets to have a voice and where people are not shut down through harassment and abuse and lies? We're really still trying to figure this all out.

From a psychological perspective, if we suddenly turn and beat somebody up, psychologically, physically, or emotionally, because they've acted badly online, they're not necessarily going to see the error of their ways. In fact, what's going to happen is ... they're going to dig in deeper, very often, and feel that they want to ensure that their position was correct because they feel attacked. That's what we do from a protectionistic perspective.

There is value in holding people accountable, and sometimes you do need to go public with what's happened. Lets say somebody doesn't get it. If you send them a private message, sometimes that doesn't work. So ultimately sometimes you need to escalate, and that escalation could involve going public.

Now, you can go public without necessarily wanting to have the lynch mob turn on that person. The goal is to get them to stop their behavior, or to suffer some sort of repercussion that makes them do an about face. Maybe an introspection that says, 'I can't do this anymore.' And there are cases like that.

Think about the fellow called violentacrez on Reddit. He was running a sub-Reddit, and it was one of those with a lot of pictures involved, if you know what I mean.

Gawker outed him. Gawker has had its own place in online damage to people's reputations, so it was very interesting that they were outing somebody who was also behaving badly. But apparently one of their writers was able to determine the person's real identity. Again, he was managing the sub-Reddit and posting a lot of pictures of people online who had not volunteered to have their pictures publicized.

The point was, he begged and begged and begged not to have his real identity released. He said, 'Oh my goodness, I'm the only one working. If this gets released, I'm going to lose my job. My wife, she's got health problems.' The writer and the publication ... publicized it and he lost his job. You don't really want to feel sorry for somebody like that who had behaved that badly. At the same time, you have to look at that and say, 'OK, was the goal achieved that he was outed? Did this warn other people in the future? Did he have a change of heart and decide to never behave this way again?' I don't have answers to that, but there are situations where, I think, it is a smart move to go public.

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Do you know anyone who has been repeatedly trolled by the same person?

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