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 772.

    As offensive as this mans comments evidently were, do we not live in a country that has fought for its freedom, and particularly, its freedom of speech?
    I understand that idiots like this exist, but removing their rights to say what they like goes against everything this country should be standing for. "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll die for your right to say it".

  • rate this

    Comment number 771.


    Guilty, my friend! Not bad for a first timer, though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 770.

    766. Themotco
    Semantics matter a great deal when we're talking about people getting sent to jail! Trolling isn't malicious and flaming is, and I think the bbc should have done some fact checking before publishing this article.
    But you're probably just trolling me Themotco!

  • rate this

    Comment number 769.


    "Trolling" the bottom of the barrel! 1/10.

  • rate this

    Comment number 768.

    "Internet anonymity is non-negotiable.
    Freedom of speech is non-negotiable."

    According to your law? In your opinion? I think the law of this country (Great Britain) says different - get used to it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 767.

    Just because something occurs online it's pounced upon by journalists as a 'new' phenomenon. The noble tradition of 'trolling' goes as far back (at least) as Roman times, only then it was perpetretatd by graffit writers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 766.


    For goodness sake!! A lesson in semantics is hardly constructive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 765.

    I always thought that Trolling had nothing to do with Trolls under bridges, but rather, fishing in a specific way from a Troller, ie Trolling. Fishing for flame wars.

    Trolling, ie, multiple hooks with bait through the water and wait for something to bite.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 764.

    This article does not describe "trolling". These kinds of malicious personal attacks are "flaming", which this article inaccurately defines. A troll is just a lighthearted internet trouble maker who people find to be quite annoying or kind of amusing. Maybe bbc is just using the word "trolling" instead of "flaming" because it makes for better headline puns...

  • rate this

    Comment number 763.


    Force of numbers. Challenged at every turn, they will get pissed off - like all bullies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 762.

    All the fun of gladitorial blood-sport with none of the risk. Simples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 761.

    >>Trolling is a phenomenon that has swept across websites in recent years

    Sorry Tom de Castella and Virginia Brown but maybe your research or journalistic skills are lacking in depth but please don’t publish comments like this when the practice has been in effect since the early BB days. The practice isn't anything new so please don't try to dramatise it as a new phenomenon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 760.

    As a you tube video contributer/ Internet video producer i have got quite used to these sort of people, they can be very abusive and make it hard for yourself to do what what you want to do, so makes my job a lot harder of getting the videos out there, but it is the way of the net and has been for a long while, so what do we do ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 759.

    Internet anonymity is non-negotiable.
    Freedom of speech is non-negotiable.

  • Comment number 758.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 757.

    No, flaming is not "the term for trolling in the early days of the internet"... it's a totally different thing, although both may be used together. The stuff mentioned in the first part of the article seems to conflate flaming and trolling... trolling is simply saying stuff to provoke a response, whereas the concept of hatred and aggression is more to do with flaming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 756.

    I must admit, I have always wanted to know who the bullies are on the internet forums. I've read hundreds of these insulting posts, on numerous threads, covering a variety of topics and would love to find out more about the typical poster. I picture a rather weasly person still living in his mum's house, (at 41), armed with a pc and a lonely character and who gets off by being nasty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 755.

    Plain fact of the matter is that wherever you give people an anonymous/pseudonymous platform to air their foetid views, the morons will congregate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 754.

    That's interesting, former Facebook executive Zuckerberg says that anonymous posting should be phased out. However, she knows all too well that Facebook, Google, YouTube, etc are not service providers under 17 USC § 512(k)(1)(B) and that violation allows "button pushing" without any accreditation to be allowed to do so. That make any sense yet, BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 753.

    A great guy once said: "Getting rid of trolls, one troll at a time."

    It's great to be a moderator on forums, the community needs more dedicated moderators who enforces forum rules yet allow freedom of speech.


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