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 752.

    I remember in the 1990s a friend and I would go to chat rooms and "yank bait", which usually meant throwing a "verbal grenade", i.e. suggesting the American army was not the best in the world, and wait for the right wing zealots to start screaming (the misadventures of youth).... However, nothing was personal or nasty. This evolution into trolling dead children is really stomach churning

  • rate this

    Comment number 751.


    Yeah I know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 750.

    What is freedom for? To be allowed anonymously to abuse the bereaved? Really? Is that what people have striven against oppression for? Dear God, if people think has any place on a continuum of censorship they really need to question their own reasoning. Run it by someone in a country where they have REAL problems with the curtailment of free speech. Jeez. Really??

  • rate this

    Comment number 749.

    744 Mundane - Of course he should be prosecuted!! Everyone should be held responsible for their actions, and this man's actions were repeatedly offensive and unacceptable. He broke the law - see post 731. Ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law, whether you think it is an ass or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 748.


    If you read post 731 you'll realise that it is actually an offence to troll in the U.K. although prison does seem a bit heavy handed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 747.

    @735.Northerncheeks "RE: your news story 'Blame shared over Gulf oil spill'. "

    Stop trolling :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 746.

    737. Kris from Washington
    I am interested in a society where people are free to develop their potentials, to choose what they want to be, a society with equality and social inclusion. I do believe freedom is at the foundation of this society. Responsibility does not limit freedom, it makes freedom wider, more inclusive. There is no freedom without responsibility.

  • rate this

    Comment number 745.

    740. Hevsta
    Agreed - I like to show my kids older music videos [yes, from the 80s ;-) ]but often have to censor them first to ensure there are no vitriolic, homophobic, mother-offending messages on view first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 744.

    736. mcgannas

    The part I find extremely worrying is that he could even be prosecuted at all. The way our society condones the ridiculous increase in security we have in place of our literal freedom is leading towards anarchy. With so many disillusioned youths, if we keep going down this road, the recent riots are, in my opinion only the beginning.

  • Comment number 743.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 742.

    Recent phenomenon? I think not. As a former Usenet user of some years, trolls were part of many problems that a user would experience in any newsgroup. The answer then is still relevant: DO NOT FEED THE TROLL. Mind you, we didn't have such things as comment voting and such on Usenet...

  • rate this

    Comment number 741.

    714.Kris from Washington

    Fortunately we don't have a 3rd world country on OUR southern border.

  • rate this

    Comment number 740.

    One of the worst places for "trolling" is youtube. And it's usually young men who have few social skills- they've spent most of their time glued to a computer rather than out with real humans.. so to them it's not real, not real people or feelings. I feel they've ruined what youtube could be, because of their own inadequacies. They should have compulsory human contact time as punishment!

  • rate this

    Comment number 739.

    733 Frances. I would hope the Court would request psychiatric reports before sentencing, however we all know that people DO feel less vulnerable typing insults into a PC or mobile phone rather than spouting them face to face. Road rage is the same - culprits think they will never have to face any consequences. I am talking from experience - I now reread and sense read EVERYTHING I post online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 738.

    Well done Dom Joly. If you are not prepared to say a thing directly, face to face, you shouldn't say it at all. Power to the troll-slayer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 737.


    In that post you state the difference between us. You want a "healthy" society(whatever that means. Could mean ten different things to three different people). I want a free one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 736.

    729. Mundane
    I agree. Jail time might be a bit over the top. Then again, there are several ways in which individuals can be held responsible for what they do. There was a time, not that long ago when those responsible of slandering were expected to publicly restitute those who had been offended. We could find more creative and constructive ways of restitution than jail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 735.

    RE: your news story 'Blame shared over Gulf oil spill'.

    As a BP shareholder, I would like to thank the BBC for playing down the blame apportioned to BP for its role in the Gulf oil spill.

    I would also like to thank you for not opening the story up to general comment.

    Thanks for reporting on the story in the national interest!

  • rate this

    Comment number 734.

    I am smart enough to not put myself in that position

    I think anyone stupid enough to do so earns whatever they get from it.
    If I was an idiot and posted my full information online, I think(mind you, I can't tell you exactly what I'd do - because I'm never going to be in that position), I would be outraged if someone used it against me, but I would accept that part of the blame lies with me

  • rate this

    Comment number 733.

    Legitimate argument is one thing; when some low-browed numpty decides it's a good idea to start posting insults on tribute pages set up to dead teenagers, that's entirely another. Maybe you think it's ok, as it would be ok for someone to come up to you at your child's funeral and say such things. Or maybe, like me you think he's psychologically damaged and seriously in need of psychiatric help.


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