Trolls Under the Online Bridge: What Students Need to Know

During a period of ramped-up online trolling, educators can help their students understand what trolling really is, its impact and how to protect their identities on the internet.

Just as nearly 6,000 tweets go into the world every second of every day, so do countless bullying attacks, penned by individuals with a desire to silence, intimidate, upset or control other internet users (mostly strangers). The execution of these attacks is known as trolling.

Experts say that trolls have a need to exert power. Many trolls are attention seekers; others are angry, sad, jealous or narcissistic. Their goal is to provoke an argument or bully other members of online communities. Because social media never shuts down, it is a little like Las Vegas: The trolls never have to sleep. But, unlike Vegas, what happens on the internet does not always stay on the internet, which is one reason why trolling can be so dangerous.

Trolling is not the same thing as the uncomfortable disagreements that often happen on social media platforms. It is about silencing others through hate speech, harassment or intimidation. In fact, according to Women, Action and the Media (WAM), 27 percent of the harassment that happens on Twitter is hate speech, including sexist, racist and homophobic rants.

Educators must ensure that their students understand that trolling can happen to anybody who expresses themselves on any social media outlet. While Twitter is the favorite playground for trolls (see the great infographic “Reporting, Reviewing and Responding to Harassment on Twitter”), WAM says that approximately 17 percent of the trolling reports they get come from Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms.

Sherri Williams, a media scholar and veteran journalist who teaches at Wake Forest University’s Anna Julia Cooper Center, says it is important to be in discussion with students on what trolling really is and its impact. “When marginalized people, including black women, tell their own stories and challenge the status quo, they often get trolled,” she says. And the level of trolling has increased since the 2016 presidential campaign, as trolling is being amplified by the polarized and emotionally charged times. “We are starting to see even more profound hate show up online, ” Williams says. “It isn’t a stretch to see one person tell another one to shut up because they don’t like what they say online, and see it escalate to very violent rants. And in some cases, cause personal harm.”

Williams, who teaches and researches about the impact of the media, says institutions that encourage open discourse, such as schools, college and universities, have a responsibility to talk and teach about trolling and how students can protect themselves. “One of the problems is that there are few policies that protect [internet users] from vicious and hyper-sexualized trolling,” she says. “And, unfortunately, there are few consequences, because you can do it anonymously.”

Michelle Ferrier teaches media entrepreneurship at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.  She knows the power of online harassment because trolls have targeted her online for her writing. Ferrier has been a champion of protecting people in this amplified age of unfiltered racism and misogyny. She founded TrollBusters, which she calls a “rescue service for women writers and journalists who are experiencing trolling.”

“[TrollBusters] came out of a hack-a-thon in 2015 for women news entrepreneurs,” Ferrier says. “It continues to be a way to counter the Gamergate-type attacks that are happening to women on Twitter. It is an opportunity to see whether positive messaging and support can help women stay online in the face of some of the ugly attacks that were happening against them.”

Ferrier notes that trolls don’t just target journalists or women, and the perpetrators aren’t exclusively male. But, according to Ferrier, the most vile and consistent attacks seem to be waged against women journalists based on their gender, race or ethnicity, and because they express their opinions through their writing.

Being on the receiving end of prolonged or mass-level trolling is associated with a variety of negative consequences for victims, from driving users off social media to precipitating depression, PTSD and even suicide. But there is no recourse, short of reporting it. Williams calls for the social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, to put stronger policies in place to protect users.

Ferrier says it is important for educators to equip their students with the tools they need to protect themselves from trolls. TrollBusters’ Pinterest page offers online protection tips that can be readily shared with students.

Here are some additional tips that students can use to keep their online identities as safe as possible:

  • Safeguard the passwords to all personal online accounts and addresses.
  • Encrypt email addresses.
  • Back up data in a safe and protected way.
  • Protect the data on cell phones.
  • Use private and secure options to use the internet.
  • Don’t share physical locations publicly.
  • Add privacy protection to websites and domains.
  • Always use https:// as a secure prefix to surf the web.
  • Use privacy plug-ins to block cookies.
  • Make sure to install security updates on software as soon as they become available.
  • Never use information that is not readily known and available as the answer to security questions.

If a student is being trolled, encourage them to report it to the platform they are using and, if the harassment includes hate speech or threats of violence, report it to the police. Of course, the number one recommendation: Don’t feed the trolls.

This blog was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.

Collier is a multimedia journalist based in Lansing, Michigan. Her work appears on, Pacific Standard, Essence, NBCBLK and others. She is the author of Still With Me...A Daughter's Journey of Love and Loss. Twitter: @andreacollier.

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