The trouble with trolls (and how to beat them)

The trolling problem is getting serious. Here's how to remove trolls from your online life forever.

Twitter exploded in activity in response to the news about the tragic suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. The vast majority of the commentary was in the form of loving tributes and remembrances of a widely beloved entertainer.

But two days later, William's daughter Zelda said this on Twitter: "I'm sorry. I should've risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye."

Zelda Williams was driven off of Twitter by a troll or trolls using the names PimpStory and MrGoosebuster. The accounts sent her messages and pictures that are too horrible to relate here. She tweeted to her followers: "Please report @PimpStory @MrGoosebuster. I'm shaking. I can't. Please."

This event is the trolling crisis in a nutshell. A vulnerable person. A sociopath or two on social media tormenting that person without consequence, totally beyond the reach of everyone (in fact, the pain caused and the attention grabbed rewarded them). Even millions of well-wishers and supporters can't overcome the pain caused by the heartless trolling of a tiny number of people.

The Telegraph newspaper this week published an article with a headline that proclaimed, "Online Trolls Are Forcing Women "Offline."

Anyone can be hurt by trolls. But some people are especially targeted -- women, youth, members of LGTB community, minorities and those suffering from personal crises. Trolls silence, shame, harass, horrify and stress people, sometimes to a life-threatening degree.

Can anything be done about it?

The answer is yes. But first let's understand the new world of online trolling.

Trends in trolling

Online trolling has been around since the BBS days. There are many different kinds of trolls. Those in the biggest group don't even know they're trolls. They deliberately make statements in online conversations that are just wrong enough or just offensive enough to set others off on emotional rants. These accidental trolls leave the conversation feeling like they've affected people and have been heard. (If they offered constructive, respectful comments, they might be ignored -- and that would leave them feeling worthless and invisible).

At the other extreme are people who make violent threats against those they perceive as adversaries, perhaps even talking of rape or murder. And, of course, there's everything in between.

Like everything else in technology, trolling evolves and adapts to new technologies, new communications services and new awareness. Here's a look at some of the new forms of trolling.

Imposter posing. There are several trends in trolling that are clearly on the upswing. One involves a form of identity theft, in which a troll creates an account using a name that's the same as, or similar to, the name of a famous person and then pretends to be that person while interacting with others.

The friends and family plan. In a related trend, some trolls try to harass famous people indirectly, by targeting their friends, relatives and followers; they may ignore the celebrities themselves but say horrible things to their children or spouses.

Astroturfing. This ploy is designed to make others believe that a certain opinion is widely held when in fact it's being disseminated by just one troll. The trick is to create many accounts and then post as multiple fake people.

Fake self-righteousness. Some especially crafty trolls harass their victims while convincing others that their cause is just. Someone who can do this skillfully might, for example, accuse his target of racism and cultivate an anti-racist mob of duped nontrolls who also attack the target.

The problem of online trolling is bad and getting worse. What can be done about it?

The trouble with Twitter

Most of the biggest, worst or highest-profile trolling incidents -- as well as cases of harassment, threats and abuse -- occur on Twitter these days.

(Twitter knows it has a problem, and in the wake of the Zelda Williams case that company said that it is "evaluating how we can further improve our policies to better handle tragic situations like this one.")

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