Monday, September 26, 2011

Beware of trolls



This is a longer, unedited, version of a contribution that I have
submitted to the "Comment is free" section of the Guardian, today, (26
September 2011).

Whether they choose to publish it, I intend to make this the basis of a
continuous campaign, circulating editors of all media where I find
examples, with a version of this, as an open letter or a press release.

I welcome any constructive positive comments, additions and help with
editing for length and presentation. I hope that as many of you as can
manage such help will join in - if you have any help to offer please
e-mail me - or this nasty practice will go on keeping you ill.


Some people may not have known the meaning of the word, nor what any
kind of Troll is like; some may have only known about the dark
unpleasant folklore characters of Norse Mythology and their unpleasant
deeds, until Sean Duffy was imprisoned for being a one of the Internet
generation of Trolls (Internet troll jailed after mocking deaths of
teenagers, Guardian, 13 September 2011 -

Any human, still in the dark, should know that an Internet Troll is one,
"who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online
community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with
the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or
of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion." (Wikipedia - There is further
enlightenment in Martin Belam's, "All you trolls out there – come out
and explain yourself" (Guardian, Comment is free, 13 September 2011 -

So, now we know what they do, who are they and why do they do it?

It seems that there may be different types of Troll with various motives
or ambitions and each may have different explanations.

Unless you ask them and they give you a truthful answer, there is a
certain amount of deduction based on the evidence of their behaviour.

They all have in common that they conceal their true identity behind an
alias or nickname working in, preferring the dark at the fairy tale
trolls do and, likewise, not wanting any light shone upon them. Some, we
suspect, or actually prove, take more than one false name to add another
layer to their intrigue, or to give the impression that the number of
Trolls is actually greater, as though more of them gives a greater
rectitude to what they do.

We can identify the lone Troll, or one who appears to have no
associates, who seems to make a career of it, using the same nom de
plume in different newspapers and different topics. What can the motive
be? simply something to do, they may be unemployed; a sense of defiance
of the law or customs and getting away with it, power over the
authorities for once, since this may be otherwise a very power-less
person. may use the same name to gain notoriety and a reputation for
being elusive - in old days "The Scarlet Pimpernel" masked people The
Lone Ranger, Batman or modern the graffiti artist "Banksy". There seems
to be no other gain but unlike some of the heroes just mentioned there
is a cost to some particular members of society or society as a whole in
sheer vandalism for no personal gain.

More often there does seem to be a motive and some gain for Trolls and
they may not be working alone, either without any formal dialogue or
agreement amongst themselves but just from realising there is a mutual
benefit by acting in a co-ordinated way, or there may be a deliberately
planned orchestrated effort.

My personal interest is as a Research Psychologist, diagnosed with M.E.
(Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) in 1988, 23 years ago at the time of
writing, who also tries to represent other people with M.E.

The elements that I have identified are far from modern, restricted only
to M.E., to any one particular medium, or for only one purpose. I hope,
however, by using my experience and those of fellow sufferers to
illustrate a practice that is ubiquitous, much more common and harmful
than may be appreciated both to individuals and society and, largely,
remains hidden due to a combination of stealthy Troll practices and
inertia on the part of those who could help to prevent it but, in
failing to do so, probably quite unwittingly conspire with Trolls to
keep it all going.

The goal for Trolls, either working alone and/or in concert on comment threads after news items about M.E. is to have the discussion closed down. Why would they do this? Leaving aside the lone Troll, who may get some sadistic pleasure from anonymously abusing an already weaker vulnerable person than they themselves may be, the main reason is that they simply wish to have no opposition to their own views and there is a strong motive for this: they make a career out of holding it, whether rewarded with money or prestige, which would be threatened if it were

There are several ways of working towards this goal. The most patent
tactic underlying all postings is to persistently make provocative
comments, whether from the same or a different person. Some genuine M.E.
sufferers take the bait, which helps them. Supported by fellow Trolls,
usually to an agreed plan, to preserve their careers. It can also derail
the discussion and shift it to make the Troll now appear the victim of
an attack. This may continue until the moderators receive so many
complaints, some of which may be genuine ones about abusive postings but
some which have come from Trolls about fellow trolls to deliberately
inflate the number, that the shut the comments down, rather than to
smell any kind of rat, look into the reasons for this behaviour and
identify the trouble makers.

Some may be acting to protect a particular business interest. For
example, if, after a relatively favourable news item about a particular
treatment for M.E. there are many postings that are justifiably critical
of it on scientific grounds or there are poor personal experiences,
practitioners and advocates may mount an orchestrated effort to have the
comments closed on the grounds of abusive postings, in order to remove
all arguments, including the unfavourable ones, to leave the impression
that there is no opposition to the article at all. This is not even
selective editing but censorship.

Some seem to have a personal promotion, for example a book or, again, a
kind of therapy. If M.E. suffers post opinions that this particular book
is not about M.E. at all or this kind of therapy has no proof of
efficacy at all, the original promoter will often return with additional
promotional material, distracting from the main thread. After a while,
this may deter genuine posting, to prevent flagrant advertising
continuing and this has the same effect of reducing and distorting
representation as if the the comments had just been closed down. (At
least examples of this behaviour can be seen because they remain open
but abandoned by M.E. sufferers, whereas the other variety, closed by
moderators, leaves no trace).

These Trolls must be pretty desperate or twisted to want to get their
own way, knowing that people are likely to suffer, remaining ill for
decades because of their selfishness.

Those who organise online comments for newspapers must know that this
goes on, or at least that there are some topics more likely to encourage
provocative Trolls than others because some do not have a facility for
comments at all, whereas others are at least given a start. Unwittingly,
therefore, they may be conspiring with, or playing right into the hands
of the Trolls.

It is not a new practice at all. Synonyms for Trolls and their behaviour
can be found in different periods of history - Trojan Horse; for ruses,
wolf in sheep's clothing, maybe episodes of lobbing grenades to counter
campaigning movements which, nevertheless, won through.

The question is whether - as in love or war - it is fair game? That they
continue to get away with it because they can? Or do we seek to stop it
and, if so, who takes the responsibility and who imposes any sanctions?

It is a moot point (surely exploited by Trolls) whether any one
authority is responsible, since it occurs in different media or perhaps
it falls between several stools of responsibility or beyond the scope
of, say, the Press Complaints Commission or any Internet Service
Provider and, therefore, nothing gets done.

It is arguable that, even if there were a nationally, or universally,
accepted authority for regulation of the Internet, any gains by rules
imposed if one private individual or corporation were to take control of
the Internet, would be worth the loss of freedom of expression it
currently has.

I suggest that communally agreed self-regulation would be the best
solution. A set of criteria by which illegitimacy of postings could be
judged, such as any selfish gain for the contributor, orchestrated
posting etc., might be established and built upon. Editors of national
and provincial newspapers should set an example by permitting comments
after all published items and leaving unacceptable postings as bad
examples of why the Trolls have been barred from future discussions.
This preserves the quality of debate and does not punish all for the bad
behaviour of a minority. Above all it protects the freedom of the press
by stopping blanket censorship.

If there is any concern about resources, I am sure there would be a
willing pool of alert pre-moderators watching to assist the newspapers'
moderators in addressing, if not bringing to an end, this dark practice.

Something does need to be done to counter these people who really are
contributing to keep us all ill, while they promote their own careers.

I shall be sending this, or a similar version, as an open letter or
press release to Editors, inviting them to take part in this voluntary

Best wishes
Dr John H Greensmith
ME Community

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