Almost half the population of the planet now has access to the internet, with about one in three of those people regularly active on social media.
But this increased opportunity to socialise and communicate in a virtual environment has offered new avenues for antisocial behaviour.
The problem of cyberbullying has received considerable research attention. However, other online antisocial behaviours with similarly harmful outcomes have received far less consideration – one example being anonymous online trolling.
Trolling behaviours typically include deliberately posting inflammatory comments and argumentative messages in an attempt to provoke, disrupt and upset others. “Trolls” may pretend to be part of the group, but their real intent is to create conflict for their own amusement. Shockingly, more than a quarter of Americans have admitted to engaging in trolling behaviour at some point.
Most concerning, however, is that harassing behaviours online (such as cyberbullying and trolling) are shown to have psychological outcomes similar to those of harassment offline. These outcomes can include depression, social anxiety and low self-esteem.
But while cyberbullying is a clear extension of offline bullying, there is no obvious real-world counterpart to online trolling. This can make it harder to grasp exactly why it happens.
Who are the trolls?
The cover of anonymity allows the troll to treat the internet as their personal playground, throwing provocative comments into forums like grenades into a crowd. Trolls remain unknown to victims and, unlike cyberbullying, their victims are unknown to them.
But trolling has largely eluded most attempts to control it – as shown by the huge numbers of people who admit to having done it.