How Social Media can Fix the Troll and Bullying problem

This article covers: What is a troll, History of Trollling and How Social Media can Fix Trolling (how can society fix trolling, actually).

This article covers: What is a troll, History of Trollling and How Social Media can Fix Trolling (how can society fix trolling, actually). For individual responses to a troll/bullying situation, try 8 Ways to Deal with Negative Criticism Online.

It takes a Village to raise a Monster. What is it about our society that creates trolls? Is it our adversarial political system? Our attention seeking shock jocks? Our women’s magazines that think it’s fine to photoshop young celebrities in damaging positions? Our evening News as Entertainment TV shows that track a camera chasing somone down the street? The Village has to Fix the Monster – trolls – and use social media and social tools to do that.

What is Trolling?

For me, trolling is the act of breaking the social contract (political correctness or even just nicety) for the sake of a reaction. It’s that simple. Someone criticising you is not trolling. Someone criticising you publicly, using terminology that is aimed at creating drama, rather get you to change your mind, and focuses on responses from the crowd is trolling. Systemic ongoing repeated trolling is bullying but sometimes a troll can make one-off comments just to see if they get a rise. Bullying can be a contributing factor in suicide and damages whole communities not just the bullied. Trolling takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to think: why do I hate that so much?

Social Media Spotlights Trolls

Trolling and bullying has always existed but it’s been hidden in each social network, away from prying eyes. The toxic boss that makes snippy comments when you come to work, the (hopefully soon ex-) boyfriend that trashes your fashion sense and opinions on current affairs with “jokes”, the kids at school that call you lardarse or dumbarse. Social Media doesn’t cause trolling it puts a spotlight on it. And some trolls (most!) revel in exposure and attention and drama. Step up to the microphone please, Mr/Ms Troll!

History of Trolling

Social media didn’t create trolling, we’ve always had it. Trolls  are the court jesters of today. In ancient times, court jesters would do or say something and the court would ooh and aah in shock, wait with baited breath to see what the King would do – laugh or “off with his head”. Why were jesters put up with? Because they reflect back the community values with a twist. They made the Court think, and reflect. Comedians are trolls. So are shock jocks. So is the guy who calls you an idiot or worse and tells you exactly why. 

In Renaissance times, the King was considered to be a ‘God on Earth’ and it was only his Court Jester (or Fool) appointed both to amuse him and remind him of his humanity, who was allowed to speak plainly. In King Lear, it is up to the Fool to remind the King of the consequences of his actions.

Queen Victoria used to tell her Jester off for not speaking harshly enough!

The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not see how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational. (Shakespearian Fool)

I’m pretty sure it’s in King Lear that the trolls (Jester and Kent) start to attack and call others “Whoresons“. I’m also pretty sure that whoreson means the same thing today it did then, and can clearly be filed under “nasty troll”!.

Trolls are important to society. They remind us we can be wrong and in no uncertain terms. By not pulling punches they can break through social rituals that block us from other points of view. By causing conflict we are forced to look to our values, to our ethics, to the eternal struggle between “nice” and “truth”.

But we don’t want to live in a world over run by trolls. One Jester per court, per society, per social network please!

Social Media can Help Trolling

Society can pull together to fix the troll problem.  How? Well in a variety of ways, but you might not like some of them:

Voice of Choice vs Trolls

Been abused at an abortion clinic lately? No? Probably you are in Australia then:

For too long, the abortion discussion has been dominated by angry, nasty protests fueled by individuals and organizations that thrive on sensationalism and extremism.
Now it is our turn. 

“Voice of Choice” was established as a calm, measured response to anti-abortion activists who engage in misguided, raging protest tactics that are often ill-informed and only serve to victimize women, pro-choice professionals, law-abiding businesses and unaligned bystanders.

We use email, telephone and social media in peaceful, person-to-person counter-protests against groups that target abortion facilities, providers and patients, as well as their families and communities. We don’t question anyone’s right to express opinions and ideals; we challenge their bullying tactics and their contempt. (Voice of Choice)

Basically if you stand outside primary schools with signposts with photos of dead foetuses on them, expect a polite phone call thanking you for your support and prayers. From 5,000+ people.

Internet Vigilantism vs Trolls.

Wow there are SOOO many examples of the community taking issue with a troll. Consider the Cook’s Source editor that disrespected a writer and the ensuing backlash. How about the troll on Wife Swap?

When he did talk to her, he managed to insult, among dozens of groups, fat people-the fat people who pay his wife money to make them not fat.

“Agenda, that’s a big word for you,” Fowler said as Gayla stumbled through a set of rules she sought to impose on his family. “The most boorish and abusive of husbands ever,” concluded a blogger on Reality Roll Call.

The fallout: Internet message-board commenters went even crazier than usual, posting Fowler’s home address, which in turn prompted him to threaten to sue the website where it had appeared. Someone launched On Friday, Fowler finally apologized publicly (on his wife’s weight-loss blog) and resigned from the boards of two environmental nonprofits on which he served. And his wife apologized, too, stating that he needed “professional help.” We want to know who’s apologizing to the kids. (Gawker with videos)

If you want the “foam” of moral outrage you had better be sure you can handle it: Go onto YouTube and create a 4 minute video trolling victims of an earthquake. Ok, maybe don’t.

Zhang Ya & Sichuan Earthquake
In 2008, a girl called Zhang Ya (张雅) from Liaoning province, Northeast China, posted a 4 minute video of herself complaining about the amount of attention the Sichuan earthquake victims were receiving on television. An intense response from Internet vigilantes resulted in the girl’s personal details (even including her blood type) being made available online, as well as dozens of abusive video responses on Chinese websites and blogs. The girl was taken into police custody for three days as protection from vigilante death threats.

Director of Prosecution Community Consultation

If peaceful Voice of Choice or the more agressive Internet Vigilantism aren’t your cup of tea, how about education and consultation?

As a result, the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer confirmed today that he planned to hold consultation with Brit citizens on social media cases involving trolls who take to sites populated by celebrities and openly attack them with abusive messages. (The Register)

If New Zealand put their Police Act up on a wiki, why can’t we have one for a Social Media Troll act?

Individual voices in a community count

Ok I admit this is real world trolling not online. But can we maybe crowdsource a support site for helping those that are victimised for being gay or whatever?

After having his car vandalized four times, Jordan Addison said it would cost $2,500 to fix the damage. And Addison says he believes he was targeted for being gay.

But the manager of a local auto shop stepped in and not only repaired Addison’s car for free but also enlisted the help of several other auto specialists to give the car a substantial upgrade. Yahoo

What are other ways that society using social technologies could fix trolling? Is vigilantism constructive or could we put other solutions in place, that do more than shut a troll up? Do we really want Twitter handing over our details to the Australian Federal Police without a court order so they can show up on your doorstep and drag your 17 year old son away in handcuffs for saying shitty things on Twitter? Or can we as a community address issues around education, collaboration, support and peaceful resistance to effect change. Do we have the social will (or mature social technologies) to even start to work on this challenge?


Trolls are ousted from the community – in this case violently. And along the way they leave many discussions on our community values such as :

  • what is free speech?
  • what is a joke?
  • what is appropriate political or shock jock discourse?
  • what constitutes fair play?

Worthwhile discussions created in an atmosphere of high drama and dissent. Welcome to a troll’s world.


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  1. I wouldn’t equate trolls with comedians and court jesters. Trolls belong in the same box as the poison pen letter writers of old.
    Trolls are not entertaining or thought provoking. Their only motive is to offend and abuse.

    1. I disagree. My ex-boyfriend was a serial troll, yet constantly denied the brand whenever it was applied to him. He never meant to offend and abuse, they were just the side effects. His intention was always along the lines of pointing out the ridiculous position or arguments (in his opinion) people used, to play devil’s advocate, or because he’d thought up some particularly loathsome but very defensible argument. He loved to be thought of as clever, and saw trolling (or ‘arguing’ as he preferred) as a way to show his intelligence and wit. The motive was not to hurt others, but to build himself up. Don’t think that because someone is trolling you, it’s because of anything you have said or done. It’s all about the troll themselves.

  2. My own conclusion: It’s OK to troll. But if you’re going to troll, be *real* good at it. And be prepared to stand behind your view and take any blowback.

  3. Weirdly, although Laurel’s prescription for a cure sounds spot-on, I reckon her diagnosis is crook! Equating trolls with ‘court jesters’ and ‘comedians’ is almost a trollworthy level of false equivalence. Well played ma’am. I wish I ever met a troll who was even 1% worthy of the title of a ‘court jester’ or ‘comedian’. The only trolls I ever encounter are on the same level as your average flasher in Central Park. Or a urine-filled condom thrower. Or those bits of dog-poop that get stuck in the grooves of your shoe-grip. Obviously I don’t spend enough time in the rareified circles of social media commentary. All that said, take two of Laurel’s suggestions for getting rid of the buggers and you’ll see no trolls by morning!

  4. Trolling if done constructively can really help you to realize when to introspect yourself and see if you have started to develop some bad habit. But it should not get off limits.

  5. I’d only call a person a troll who was in the nuisance category, or intended gratuitous harm, or was trying to be clever or funny repeatedly and failing miserably at it.

  6. I don’t understand large corporates who don’t moderate their social media pages and who allow trolls to belittle and badger their clients. A recent example was Qantas where a small group of guys respond on behalf of the company, pick up grammar and spelling, tell people why should they expect a response when they were stupid enough not to read the fine print, and on it goes. It seems to be done with Qantas blessing. It generates discussion because the trolls want you to bite and argue but it’s not a positive thing.

  7. Trolls if done strategically in the service of marketing an idea, especially a big idea can definitely serve as a great social and viral marketing tool that could skyrocket or explode somebody’s business in the context of helping transform people’s lives.

  8. While I do
    believe in the social purpose of jesters, (internet) trolls and jesters are two
    very different things ( Court
    jesters ran the risk of being beheaded, online trolls simply hide behind
    anonymity, so that they can offend and threaten others without punishment. It’s
    a pity that this interesting post suffers from such a confusion of terms,
    because the question being posed is important: how can we create an open
    framework for free speech (including humourous criticism) that still protects
    participants from offense and data corruption? Freedom without responsibility
    usually leads to anarchy, so I believe we ultimately need a bill of rights for
    the internet. In moderated online groups or inside organisations, social media
    policies already give a taste on how this might work. Don’t you think?

    1. Thanks for your reaction to my comment on Twitter, Laurel. 140 characters are not long
      enough to address it, so I’ll do it here.

      Your tweet:
      @GeorgKolb I use 20 yr old USEnet vocab not Wikipedia – & how does examples
      not deliver? *puzzled*

      Of course, you are free to define the term “troll” as you like, and I sincerely appreciate your intellectual exercise here. But you will understand that reading a title such as yours on this post does raise high expectations, in particular with those who have had first-hand experience with online trolls and bullying. The definition on Wikipedia I referred to in my earlier comment is not at all uncommon or new, just google internet trolls to find a sad selection of cases. And it isn’t any different from the Usenet vocabulary,in fact, it goes back to Usenet times when users realized that there is nothing constructive in trolls.They don’t want to open new horizons or make us all smarter through a carnival of thoughts as you suggest. They just want to offend and inflame. And it is exactly for that reason that Usenet users tried to help each other out with the maxime “Don’t feed the trolls!”, they even had many different icons for that When you feed the trolls, when you get engaged with them, the mud fight gets overtime, nothing good will come from it.

      A very important constituent of internet trolls is their use of anonymity. You don’t mention it once in your post. I find that peculiar, because it’s their source of power and what makes them different from offline trolls, and so hard to fight.

      And with that, on to your proposed fixes based on examples (even if most of them actually
      aren’t internet troll cases in the sense outlined above):

      – “Voice of choice vs. trolls”: How does that work with an anonymous online troll? He will only appreciate the attention. Even if it worked, how many trolled people have a cause that will create a lobby group to support them?

      – “Internet vigilantism vs. trolls”: Excuse me, but it seems you are putting the fox in charge of the henhouse here! Do you really think “abusive video responses” are the solution to an insensitive girl exposing herself in an online video? Internet vigilantes can be a powerful source of itelligence and enlightenment, but they can also turn into an abusive crowd, and they will only start the chase, if there is a cause supported by many.

      – “Director of Prosecution Community Consultation”: Education and consultation are good and
      necessary, but always a long shot, too long for most troll victims. In a way this example is indicative for the whole situation: the prosecutor trying to educate and consult where it’s hard to prosecute,dealing with technical barriers, privacy issues, and the incredible speed. On top of that the task of balancing the right of free speech and the need to prosecute wrongdoing case by case.

      – “Individual voices in a community count”: As you say, this is an offline example, your idea
      to crowdsource support sites for troll victims is not more than just that, an idea.

      Laurel, I do really thank you for the effort trying to “fix the troll and bullying problem”, but, I’m afraid, you didn’t manage to do it. You end your post with a lot of questions. So, if not my thoughts, your own question marks prove that the post doesn’t deliver on its title.

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