The days of innocent trolling are behind us. Long ago, in the age of Smosh and MySpace, the act of trolling was limited to the occasional Rickroll or the Trololo guy. Now, trolling is being used as a political weapon. Over the past decade, those with ill intent have clocked onto the powerful influence social media—in particular echo chambers—has on our public psyche and thus, have developed entire infrastructures to influence political and societal discourse. Enter, troll farms.
A troll farm, or troll factory, is a relatively new phenomenon. It essentially refers to an institutional group of trolls that seek to interfere in political opinions and decision making—and as ‘memeable’ as the concept appears on the surface, they can have some pretty significant consequences for democracy.
One study, by the think tank Freedom House, showed that 30 governments worldwide paid ‘keyboard armies’ from troll farms to spread propaganda and attack critics. According to the report, these governments use paid commentators, trolls, and bots to harass journalists and erode trust in the media. Now, a recent paper has revealed that troll farms in Eastern Europe are running 19 out of the top 20 American Christian Facebook pages.
The MIT Technology Review has exposed that an internal Facebook report from 2019 indicated that Eastern European troll farmed “content was reaching 140 million US users per month—75 per cent of whom had never followed any of the pages.” The report also highlighted how the troll farms were reaching the same demographic groups singled out by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 US election, which disproportionately targeted Christians, Native Americans and Black Americans.
Another investigation led by Buzzfeed News in 2018 found that at least one member of the Russian IRA, indicted for alleged interference in the 2016 US election, had also visited Macedonia around the time when the country’s first roll farms emerged onto the scene. Although, admittedly, it is difficult to find concrete evidence of a connection—with Facebook failing to pin down a connection between the IRA and Macedonian troll farms in its own investigation.
However, the troll farms highlighted in the MIT Technology Review are largely based in Kosovo and Macedonia—and their prime target of Christian Facebook pages, similar to their target demographic in 2016, is somewhat suspicious. Though they split their efforts among multiple pages, they are mostly operated by the same groups. Collectively, their Christian Facebook pages reach an audience of 75 million users a month—an audience around 20 times larger than the next largest Christian Facebook page.
Generally speaking, those who see and engage with the posts published by these Christian pages don’t actively ‘like’ or follow the particular sources they’re coming from. Instead, Facebook’s engagement-driven algorithm pairs users to content the AI thinks they want to see. For this reason, internal studies have revealed that diverse posts are more likely to reach a big audience. Troll farms use this dynamic to their advantage—spreading provocative misinformation that generates a bigger response to spread their online reach.
Facebook was aware of the troll farms and their manipulation of American citizens as far back as 2016, but still, it did nothing to address the issue. Jeff Allen, author and reporter, who used to be a senior-level data scientist at Facebook, wrote: “Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church.”
Although the evidence is now out in the open, the problem lies in the difficulty of quantifying how much influence content from these troll farms have on American Christians, as well as the wider population as a whole. That said, judging from past research on how subconsciously digital content can amplify our reasoning and cognition—it’s a given that the content produced by these farms will have some influence. Accompany this with the fact that Christian pastors have congregations in their pews, at best, one morning a week—whereas Facebook is a never-ending, 24/7 content churning machine—and it paints a worrying picture of how reliant communities are becoming on social media. Not to mention, of course, that Christian pastors themselves could be engaging with bad faith Christian content found on Facebook. Time will tell whether these troll farms will have a tangible impact on democracy and society—until then, let’s pray to God that it won’t.
The more beautiful and purer a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it. Rule 43 of the internet. It’s one of the many reasons why anonymous internet trolls, from the comfort of their own basement, hiding behind a dimly lit screen, engage in the act of trolling.
If you don’t know what trolling is yet, where have you been? Over the last decade, the term—once only surfacing on the backwaters of internet forums like 4chan—has seeped into mainstream culture. Mainstream media outlets caught on to the trend around the mid-2010s, producing reports which seemed humorously behind-the-times for younger internet dwellers. Jokes aside though, trolling—the internet slang term used to describe any internet user behaviour that is meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone else—can have a significant tangible, and detrimental, impact on the lives of innocent people.
So what makes people troll? Who are the people carrying out acts of trolling? Are they men? Many would argue that the majority are, but if that’s the case, then why? That’s what we’ll be unpacking in this edition of the Why do men column, joined by Siân Brooke—a Gender and Data scientist at the University of Oxford.
Now, to be perfectly transparent I was a little misleading with the headline. Not all men are trolls. Brookes highlights how “part of the standard operating procedure for trolls is anonymity. However, they overwhelmingly target women and the behaviour of trolls are typically antisocial and masculine.” In other words, it’s difficult to pin down the gender of each troll online, since they tend to hide behind a veil of anonymity, but the majority display masculine traits.
This shouldn’t really take anyone by surprise, gender differences in online—and offline—communication aren’t a new phenomenon. As Brooke highlights, “Studies suggest that women are more active in blogging and are more interested in the social aspects [of the internet], seeking to build communities constructively.”
Previous academic research has indicated that the perceptions of gendered behaviour lead individuals to subconsciously anticipate future gendered behaviour, as Brooke notes: “Individuals explain the same behaviours differently for men and women based on gendered implicit biases. It has been found that women trolls were perceived to have fewer motivations, malevolence and instigation were less often identified by others than for men or gender-neutral (completely anonymous) trolls. Overall, perpetrators who are women are characterised as mild whereas perpetrators who are male are responsible for more severe deviance.”
On the face of it—and to put it in simple terms—many would argue that if you actively troll, you’re just a bit of a dick. And to a degree, this is true. Psychologists have attempted to pindown internal and external behaviours which may make someone more prone to trolling. Looking at the data, you might actually feel sorry for them. For instance, a psychological study conducted by the Federation University Australia pinpointed which personality traits predicted trolling behaviour. These included “the role of gender, psychopathy, sadism, emotional empathy, communication ability, narcissism, and other negative traits in motivating Internet trolling. Their results showed that psychopathy, sadism, and enjoying the pain of others are personality traits that contribute to internet trolling,” Brooke added.
She continued, “Unsurprisingly, emotional empathy and anxiety meant that an individual was less likely to become a troll. Interestingly, they found that gender did not significantly predict internet trolling. However, these sorts of psychological studies do not hold all the answers. While gender is not found to be relevant in the model, the behaviour that is significant is typically masculine, such as a lack of emotional empathy is. My research argues that there is not an innate difference in the psychology of men and women, but rather gender differences are so heavily socialised that they appear natural.”
Alongside gender, the specific context and platforms used affect how trolls are perceived by others. Brooke argues how “trolls of Wikipedia are seen to be motivated by internal factors relating to their sense of self-worth, whereas on Yahoo! Answers trolls are more influenced by external factors—such as social capital and standing.”
So, the multifaceted and complex nature of trolling has come a long way since the ‘troll face’ meme, drawn on MS paint with a mischievous smile meant to represent the facial expression of an internet troll. If you were around in the days of the late 2000s Facebook or even Myspace (rest in peace) you may remember it was plastered all over your timeline—it was something I just couldn’t get rid of, like my student loan. But still, the premise behind trolling has remained untainted—to cause harm and unwanted distress to the victim, often with little to no repercussions for the perpetrator.
Rapid developments in the technological sphere is bringing trolling to worrying new lows. For instance, the use of deepfakes—manufacturing audio, images and video that appear real, or could be passed off as real, when they’re actually fake. Of course, most deepfakes have been used in lighthearted contexts, such as splicing the face of Nicolas Cage over pretty much everyone and anyone. However, combine the creepy technology with the act of trolling and it gets rather more sinister.
As Brooke explains, “Deepfake pornography is a particularly concerning trend—generating fake pornographic content of individuals and celebrities, and sharing them widely. Women and especially POC women are overwhelming the targets of such abuse. Even if these images are not shared, their creation is incredibly concerning and is an act of gendered violence and harassment.”
Brooke draws upon how trolling within recent years has taken a political turn—often masked in different forms. As a feminist woman working in academia, Brooke shared that she’s been subject to “concern-trolling: harmful and demeaning messages or comments masked as constructive feedback; as well as sealioning: endless demands for evidence or answers that maliciously aim to derail the conversation and exhaust the speaker.”
She added, “In recent years, the language surrounding trolling has changed too. It’s become more political and intertwined with conspiracy theories. A common construction of trolling is now used by the far-right to derail liberal conversations.” Whether you agree with their political orientations or not, trolls have taken to hacktivism—an internet form of activism—too. Brooke draws upon an instance in 2015, where the Anonymous affiliate GhostSec replaced a website that publicised and supported the militant group ISIS on the deep web with an advert for Viagra and a message to “calm down.”
Although I don’t condone internet trolling in the slightest, there is an element of humorous creativity that, I have to admit, a part of me does respect. That being said, the vast majority of trolling online lacks such creative energy and instead is used to derail healthy political discourse. There’s so much more to be said about the psychology of trolling, and in particular why masculine individuals tend to gravitate towards it. If trolling was a chest buried in the desert, I’d only have dug the hole and brushed the sand off its lid.
To open the chest would require writing a book—and there’s definitely more qualified people to write such a book, Brooke being one of them. Regardless, I hope this column has helped you gain a little bit of understanding of why, the next time you make a provocative tweet and you encounter an anonymous troll fishing for a reaction. Don’t feed them—feel sorry for them. As science shows, they’re either, quite simply, douchebags or have their own demons they’re trying to mask through trolling strangers online.