Under The Bridge - round 2 in our conversation on internet behavior

McCracken, T.

Three billy goats are trying to cross a bridge and they have a problem. There is a troll under the bridge and the troll wants to eat them. Through a variety of tactics, the first two make it across and the third has the skill and size to eliminate the Troll. Killing the monster hiding under the bridge, the third Billy Goat successfully secures the bridge for future crossings  (children’s story The Three Billy Goats Gruff).

The Troll feels significant. Strong. Powerful. The Troll plays the role of punisher and gatekeeper. Choosing whom to annihilate so it’s empty belly can be filled with a sense of self-importance gained from torturing lesser beings in its environment. 

The Troll is a bully. 

Sometimes. 

Internet trolling can just be a humorous interruption, a casual non sequitur - a random unrelated comment on a post, blog, IG conversation just aiming for a few laughs. More often though, Trolling behavior devolves into the definitions for cyberbullying and because adult humans tend to dismiss bullying as an adolescent problem - we can equally believe folks grow up and grow out of the behavior. Spend any time on social media and what we want to believe, and reality, collide.

Internet Trolls and CyberBullies have become increasingly common, increasingly vocal, and increasingly emboldened by their elite position as universal judges choosing random goats to eviscerate while selling tickets to the show. 

  • It’s just humor. It’s just entertainment. 
  • It’s a valid platform for exposing frauds and snake-oil salespeople. 
  • It’s public service. 
  • No context necessary, we’re just here to have fun. If you think differently you're too sensitive, you're the problem, you're missing the point. 

Common justifications in the troll world.

Regardless of the Troll’s self-justifications, it is a behavior belying deep insecurities and/or antisocial tendencies. 

A casual review of Trolling behavior in a post put up by Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/better-living-technology/201408/why-the-online-trolls-troll) suggests people become Trolls for the following reasons:

1.  Anonymity (online disinhibition effect) – suggests that deviant behavior is easier to engage because there is a low risk of consequences.

2.  Perceived Obscurity – no one can really see me hiding under this particular bridge. The internet is huge after all.

3.  Perceived Majority Status – in an online group with a specific focus amongst which I feel my thoughts or goals are supported by the group, I’ll say stuff I’d never say in a room of as many people.

4.  Social Identity Salience – this basically intimates that the online identity I have within my accepted group of peers ( we all hate XYZ) matters more than my own, actual individual identity IRL.

5.  Surrounded By Friends – group think 101

6.  Desensitization – no one is really getting hurt, or in any way bothered by my behavior because I can’t see it. And If I can see it, I can ignore it because it’s not really real. One ugly comment today with impunity means 10 more tomorrow – with impunity.

7.  Personality Traits – self-righteousness, social superiority, social dominance tendencies, and according to other research a Caste style approach to elite class intolerance (we know better than XYZ).

8.  Perceived Lack of Consequences – this circles back to the impunity thing and an odd sense of majority status by way of making other people angry, or feel hurt.

There is a developing body of research on this new-ish expression of human behavior because it is becoming both prevalent and in certain circumstance, particularly problematic with an array of consequences including suicide (https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/11/07/Suicide-of-K-pop-star-Sulli-puts-spotlight-on-cyberbullying/4371573147309/).

Anyone can become the target of online bullying and trolling. And for a variety of interesting possible explanations, the martial art and self-defense world is one of a handful of commonly robust genres for attack.  Anecdotal evidence points to  the gaming community and women with significant social media profiles as two of the other troll magnet locations in social media. There are probably more.

Both research and general consensus (along with advise from grandmothers) tells us ignoring a bully is the solution. Something about playing with pigs in the mud...the pigs love it and you just get dirty. A good percentage of the time, this is solid counsel and goes to Rory's interpretation of Trolls = fishing by throwing out tasty bait to see how much attention you can attract. No tasty bait? No fish. The trolling fisher will find a new spot on the water to play. 

There is also a tipping point at which the behavioral motivators for online bullying create an elite caste of perceived untouchables engaging in both indirect and boldly vicious attacks. Attacks the trolls would never be willing to volley in a face-to-face encounter with their target.   Attacks including hijacked IG accounts in which the troll/bully puts up damning or incendiary posts under the person's identity, accusations of fraud, character assaults, body shaming...this list would be exhausting if I kept going. 

One of the questions I am playing with is whether or not the pandemic's push to a dominantly virtual world will create an increase in an experience of impunity by keyboard blackbelts and self-appointed judges regardless of the target group. 

I am also considering how particularly easy it is for all humans to fall into a dominant pack of voices attacking seemingly easy targets when life is frustrating. Displacement and projection are powerful defense mechanisms when life, emotions and circumstances suck. We are in a ripe season for a dark fall in human behavior.  


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