“Susan Carland, filthy traitor c***. Why are you still in Australia? Go and live with your black pets in their diversity utopia of Africa.”
That’s just one of the many charming tweets I’ve received from trolls on social media. There have been many others too, including the guy who sent photos of bestiality to my Facebook account (ironically while telling me what an appalling person I was), most from anonymous accounts.
I’m certainly not unique in being on the receiving end of online troll-hate – barely anyone of social media can avoid them. They seem to be as ubiquitous as they are annoying, and as bigoted as they are enthusiastic at typing IN ALL CAPS.
Generally, I perceived them as pathetic, arrogant loud-mouths who warranted my disgust. And most of all, they must be ignored.
But someone I spoke to for my series “Assumptions” on ABC RN suggested we should think of them in a surprisingly different way.
Laura Demasi is a social researcher who has investigated the people who are most active on social media and she told me that far from being self-assured grandstanders, the reasons trolls act as they do is because they are actually desperate for attention.
“What drives people to do and say these things which are really controversial and sometimes downright hideous, is usually a kind of craving for attention. And what they’re really looking for is acknowledgement, and validation. They just want to be heard,” she said.
It’s one thing to want attention and validation, but why go for it in such toxic ways?
“You’ve got to say something controversial, otherwise no one hears you, and you don’t stand out.” Laura pointed out.
In a sea of unending voices on social media, the troll was sending out a flare.
I was desperate to know, though, what kind of person does this? Are they happy, well-adjusted types?
“When I met some of these people, upon first meeting, fell into two kinds of groups. The first one was the really outwardly confident type person. But the other half, which was really shocking to me, was that it was completely opposite to the online persona. These people were really socially awkward, really shy, some of them couldn’t look you in the eye, some of them could hardly talk. I think the reason why they’re so attracted to the online world and that context is because they can be brave and they can be bold and they do things that they just can’t do in real life. A lot of them did not strike me as particularly happy people. If you’re unhappy and you’re lonely, these are the people who are more likely to sit online all night, because they’ve got nothing else to do.” Laura explained.
The more I spoke with Laura about what her research revealed, the more the behaviour sounded oddly familiar, until suddenly it clicked.
Watch the video below to see the horrible ways women are treated online. (Post continues after video…)
Trolls were just like my tantruming toddler, desperate to do anything to get my reaction. And if I wasn’t giving them enough attention for everyday behaviour, smashing a lamp or punching the cat would do it.
Laura agreed, “Yes, it helps to understand their motivation. It’s just a cry for attention. It’s the three-year-old having the tantrum in the shopping centre.
Granted, it’s not particularly edifying to think of another adult in such a way. But It does create a shift in sentiment that reminded me of the power dynamic; just as I was the mother and adult in control with my screaming, irrational toddler, so too am I in dealing with trolls.
Which is why my standard response with trolls is to merrily tweet back to them, “Sounds like someone needs a hug!”
Just like a toddler who is beside himself with rage over the colour of his dinner plate, I’ve found my response to trolls diffuses the situation by changing the dynamic; I’m showing I don’t take them at all seriously, I haven’t responded with a similar level of venom, I’ve acknowledged them without endorsing their idiocy. And I’ve cheekily pointed out that they are behaving like a child who’s a bit overwhelmed.
It’s not the perfect response that stops all trolls (and as Laura and I went on to discuss, trolling can terrifyingly escalate to death-threats and genuinely frightening intent), but sometimes it’s both effective and satisfying.
So maybe the next time you get trolled, try to just #Cuddle.
To hear the full interview and more content, including a discussion when things move from trolling to death-threats and trolling’s cousin, the mob moral pile-on, listen to ABC RN today at 3:30pm or download the podcast here or here under “Assumptions”.
Have you been trolled online?
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