Trolling: Who does it and why?

Photos: Jade Goody (PA), Stephen Fry (BBC) and Miranda Hart Celebrities are often targets for abuse

An internet "troll" has been jailed for mocking dead teenagers on various websites. Public figures, including Stephen Fry and Miranda Hart, have also been victims of trolling. So what is it and why do people do it?

For some the word derives from a fishing term for towing bait behind a boat, for others it comes from the Norse monsters. But today trolling is more likely to involve a keyboard and mouse than a trawler, and if not a monster, it is a very modern menace.

Opponents might characterise it as the internet equivalent of road rage, vandalising a grave, or kicking a man when he's down.

Trolling is a phenomenon that has swept across websites in recent years. Online forums, Facebook pages and newspaper comment forms are bombarded with insults, provocations or threats. Supporters argue it's about humour, mischief and freedom of speech. But for many the ferocity and personal nature of the abuse verges on hate speech.

In its most extreme form it is a criminal offence. On Tuesday Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks after posting offensive messages and videos on tribute pages about young people who had died. One of those he targeted was 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde, who had been killed by a train. "I fell asleep on the track lolz" was one of the messages he left on a Facebook page set up by her family.

High-profile cases

Natasha MacBryde
  • Natasha MacBryde - Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks for posts on social networking sites about the 15-year-old after she took her own life
  • Hayley Bates - MP Karen Bradley raised trolling in Parliament after a Facebook page was set up mocking the 17-year-old's death in a car crash
  • Jade Goody - Colm Coss was jailed for 18 weeks after posting obscene messages on Facebook sites set up in memory of the Big Brother star and several other dead people

Duffy is the second person to be jailed for trolling in the UK. Last year Colm Coss was imprisoned for posting obscene messages on Facebook tribute sites, including that of Jade Goody.

Trolling appears to be part of an international phenomenon that includes cyberbullying. One of the first high-profile cases emerged in the US state of Missouri in 2006, when 13-year-old Megan Meier killed herself after being bullied online. The bully, Lori Drew, was a middle-aged neighbour who had set up a MySpace account to win - and later betray - her trust. Drew was acquitted of unauthorised computer use in 2009 due to concerns that a conviction would criminalise false online identities.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects free speech and makes it difficult to punish people who post offensive messages. But concern over internet vitriol is growing.

Facebook's former marketing director Randi Zuckerberg and Google head Eric Schmidt have both suggested anonymous posting should be phased out.

One of the difficulties is that trolling is a broad term, taking in everything from a cheeky provocation to violent threats. And why people do it continues to baffle the experts.

"Online people feel anonymous and disinhibited," says Prof Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. "They lower their emotional guard and in the heat of the moment may troll either reactively or proactively."

It is usually carried out by young adult males for amusement, boredom and revenge, he adds.

Arthur Cassidy, a social media psychologist, says young people's determination to create an online identity makes them vulnerable to trolling. Secrecy is jettisoned in favour of self-publicity on Facebook, opening the way for ridicule, jealousy and betrayal.

And the need to define themselves through their allegiance to certain celebrities creates a world in which the rich and famous become targets for personal abuse. As a result trolling is "virtually uncontrollable" until the government forces websites to clamp down, he says.

But it's not just young people. Scan any football, music or fan site and there are people of all ages taking part in the most vituperative attacks. But many of the theories that have been put forward as to why people do it don't stand up, says Tom Postnes, professor of social psychology at Groningen University in the Netherlands.

View from the internet forums

Will Brooks photo

Will Brooks on setting up

It was £35 to join MyFC so I don't think anyone joined with the intention of trolling. But disagreements on the forum all too easily turned to abuse. Finding out that respected professionals in their mid-fifties could post in that way was an eye opener. I've since discovered that forums have a habit of turning sour as it only takes a minority to skew them. As a format they've lost their innocence.

After researching "flaming" - the term for trolling in the early days of the internet - he rejects the idea that people "lose it" when online. If anything they become more attuned to social convention, albeit the specific conventions of the web. Provoking people appears to be the norm in some online communities, he says.

Most trolling is not criminal - it's about having a laugh, says Rob Manuel, co-founder of the website B3ta, which specialises in altering photographs for comic effect. "Trolling taps into people's desire to poke fun, make trouble and cause annoyance," he says.

He first became aware of the phenomenon in the 90s when a friend cross-posted on fan sites for Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, asking: "Who'd win in a fight - the Emperor or Gandalf?" Manuel says his friend sat back and laughed like some "mad scientist looking at insects in a jar" as hundreds of passionate posts followed.

'No guilt'

We're all capable of becoming a troll, says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist in the US and author of You Are Not A Gadget. Lanier admits he has sometimes behaved badly online and believes the cloak of anonymity can encourage people to react in extreme ways.

"The temptation is there and we can get caught up in impulses. If someone reacts, it's emotional and it can be hard to get out of. We can all become trolls."

Randi Zuckerberg Former Facebook executive Zuckerberg says anonymous posting should be phased out

Twitter has given the public direct access to celebrities. And stars, including Stephen Fry and Miranda Hart, have temporarily left the website after coming under fire. Internet experts say the key is not to "feed the troll" by offering them a response. Comedian Dom Joly takes a different approach.

He describes himself as "troll slayer" and takes pleasure in tracking down the culprits and exposing them to public shame, especially from close family.

"There's something about a bully that really annoys me," he says. "They'll say something online that they'd never dare to say to your face."

The deviousness is "freaky". He discovered that one of those who'd threatened him was a 14-year-old girl with nine different online identities. They aren't always very intelligent about how they do it, he says.

The law

  • The Communications Act 2003 governs the internet, email, mobile phone calls and text messaging
  • Under section 127 of the act it is an offence to send messages that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character"
  • The offence occurs whether those targeted actually receive the message or not

"One guy tweeted from his work account that he hoped my kids die of cancer. I let the MD of the firm know and the guy was fired. I felt no guilt, he should have gone to prison."

Some think regulation is needed, but trolling is not the internet's fault, says Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts. "The internet does not create special threats. It's a public square where people will be saying all sorts of things, some of them offensive."

The answer is for newspaper websites and online forums to employ sufficient moderators to prevent the comments spiralling into petty vendettas, he says. To ban online anonymity in order to prevent trolling would be to remove the right of whistleblowers and dissidents to get their message across, he adds.

Manuel agrees. "People are saying nasty, stupid things. So deal with it. Shutting down free speech and stamping on people's civil liberties is not a price worth paying."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 732.

    713. Ged "not being disturbed by a troll is all the reason for them to go unpunished. For a crime to be committed, you need a victim." just because you're not upset doesn't mean you've not been wronged. having malicious intent is enough to punish for many crimes by law including harassment as well as for fraud, physical harm/murder, etc. they're attempted crimes. this is just another extension

  • rate this

    Comment number 731.

    Anyone whose interested would like to know that the U.K law states:

    "[Internet communications that are] grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" is a offence whether they are received by the intended recipient or not." (Communications Act 2003)

  • rate this

    Comment number 730.


    YES! Great quote. My favorite is:
    'I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it' - TJ


    'Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety' - BF

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    While I think what this person did is despicable, a jail sentence is completely and utterly ridiculous. Open your eyes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 728.

    "On Tuesday Sean Duffy was jailed for 18 weeks after posting offensive messages and videos on tribute pages about young people who had died."
    Ignorant, vile, and inexcusable. I find it hard to understand why so many people are defending this sort of behaviour at all, never mind calling it 'freedom of speech'. Put yourself in the position of the families of the deceased....

  • rate this

    Comment number 727.

    @714 Kris
    my mistake - apologies

  • rate this

    Comment number 726.

    "The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen."

    Freedom of Speech is a concept unknown to MPs or Judges in the UK, they should be tried as traitors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 725.

    @673 sublimejackman

    "Don't go on Facebook if people on it are saying things you don't like."

    Isn't that just an arguement for anarchy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 724.

    710. Kris from Washington i didn't mention how the information was obtained, you're avoiding the point. assume it was done so legally. one last time and if you ignore it again i'll let everyone else decide the sincerity of your position. if someone had your private details and published it on the internet, would you agree with their right to do that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 723.

    655. Kris from Washington
    Interesting comment form such a champion of free speech! It is not that you have a different opinion, but that you are right and I am wrong.
    I don't expect governments to act as Mommies and Daddies. But in healthy societies, individuals are held responsible for what they do and what they say. And where I come we distinguish between governments and State Institutions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 722.

    @632. P0lar
    With respect then, you need to make your arguments a little more coherently. I didn't see you making much, if any, differences between the two.

  • rate this

    Comment number 721.

    Not every troll is there to bully. Some trolls are protesting various things. An anonymous form of protest to object because, sadly, people do not respect others opinions and free speech is only free if the "majority" agree with it. I do not agree with some of the more heavily advertised trolling. It is there for a reason and it is protest. Distinguish a troll and cyberbully.

  • rate this

    Comment number 720.

    Can we please, please, please stop with the Hitler hyperbole? It's so tired and overdone. The shock vlaue has looooong since past and it hasn't been clever in um...oh wait, it's never been clever. Such a lazy simile used by lazy minds. _________ is like Hitler. Oh god, SHUT UP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 719.

    @706 Beautifulblackcat

    If he encouraged them to hand over that information, he was operating in exactly the same manner that a spy for a foreign country would.

    If all he did was host the information, as you state, then I agree with you that he should be left alone.

    I am not, personally, convinced that was all he did. But that's just my unfounded gut feeling, nothing to take seriously.

  • rate this

    Comment number 718.

    708.John McCormick:

    Calling HItler a troll has to be the understatement of the century!

  • rate this

    Comment number 717.

    @700 John

    I thank you for the polite, mature replies, but I believe that our discourse is bound to end as it began. We have a fundamental difference of opinion, and nothing either of us has to say will change that.

    I believe that the freedom of speech is absolute above all other rights.
    Without it, no other rights can exist or be exercised.

    That's a lot coming from a second amendment junkie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 716.

    A head teacher I know was close to taking one of her weak teachers into competency procedures. The teacher realising she was under pressure conducted a long campaign of untruths about the head via Facebook under an assumed name persuading a significant minority of parents that the head was no good for their children.

    The head resigned after a nervous breakdown. Is this the free speech we defend?

  • rate this

    Comment number 715.

    The fact that the bullies are safely tucked up in bed laughing .. and I wonder how many of them sent 'two faced condolences' ... makes the punishment of this disturbed individual over the top.

    This on top of the riddiculous prison sentences for a bit of rioting ...

    Seems like the UK justice system is being run by little old ladies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 714.

    @691 Wil Monckton

    You misinterpret the focus of anonymity in my post. I suggest that anyone with half a brain online should be anonymous to some extent in order to protect themselves, much like you don't carry a wallet full of cash in Tijuana.

  • rate this

    Comment number 713.

    plath, not being disturbed by a troll is all the reason for them to go unpunished. For a crime to be committed, you need a victim.


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