Beware of (Virtual) Trolls

With the Ides of March just behind us, I feel that it is fitting to issue a warning, for safekeeping: beware of trolls…on the internet.

Yes, I too thought that trolls were mythical creatures who only belonged under bridges in my childhood story, The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  Nevertheless, I have quickly learned that they are real, and they are everywhere!

What does an internet troll look like?  What will they do to you?

Check out the following video and find out:

ARVE Error: need id and provider

Many of you may now be confused.  What does this horribly insensitive video have to do with trolls?  The answer is simple.  According to a March 15th Atlantic Wire article, internet trolls post offensive videos to garner attention.  They thrive off negative feed-back and consider it fun.  The thrill of “trolling” comes from protecting your identity as a troll and tricking viewers into believing that you are the offensive character in real life that you portray in your video.

In light of the devastating losses of the recent earthquake in Japan, tamtampamela’s video has been lambasted by viewers.   She received so many negative comments and death threats that she was forced out of hiding and publically revealed her identity as a troll.  The internet community breathed a sigh of relief…another troll ousted.

Although the offensive nature of troll videos is clearly an issue, there are broader ethical implications. What is the ethical difference between posting an offensive comment you believe in and trolling?  Why is unforgivable for someone to believe that the earthquake in Japan was a benevolent act of God, but forgivable for someone who says it if she admits that she did for attention?  Is it the intentions or the perceptions we care about?

Apparently, we care about perceptions.  By “coming clean,” tamtampamela has come out of the scrutiny and criticism of the internet community.  Now that we perceive that her words are facetious, she is all of a sudden exonerated.  But, the nature of her words hasn’t changed.  The intention, if anything, is worse.  Being a troll isn’t a valid excuse from moral censure. We seem to normalize attention by transgression, and therefore, absolve trolls as simply misguided attention hoarders.  The reality is though that they have crossed a line.

This brings me to a second issue: how do we decide what type of trolling is inappropriate?  Many YouTube users satirize events or stereotypes for attention.  One of my favorite videos pokes fun at the sorority stereotype:

ARVE Error: need id and provider

A recent Slate article also mentions comedians such as Gilbert Gottfried who use dark humor.

At first, I thought that offensive humor and trolling were completely separate, but now I am starting to think that they are really similar. They are both incredibly offensive by nature.  However, I wonder if there is a distinction.  So what’s the difference?  What makes us laugh and what makes us want to angry?

Gottfried wanted to make us laugh—the medium he chose was dark, ill-timed humor. Omgbekah wanted to entertain—she chose to do so by satirizing sorority girls.  Tamtampamela, on the other hand, wanted to gain attention; therefore she lobbed insensitive comments to enrage people. I think that the difference in intentionality is significant.

At the end of the day, we have to take trolling for what it is: a cry for attention.  Some trolls go overboard.  Beware—or help them from under the bridge.