Arguments rule the online world — witness the attention given this week to a Twitter row between Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling and journalist Piers Morgan. And although sometimes amusing, it doesn’t take much for online banter to slip towards insults, harassment and worse. That is the grim domain of the Internet troll, and it’s this murky online environment that brave cyber-ethnographers are now trying to study.
This May, it will be a full ten years since the abduction of three-year-old Madeleine McCann from her family’s holiday villa in Portugal and the worldwide coverage that followed. Yet, a decade later, people on the Internet still swap 100 messages or so an hour about the case. Many of these accuse and insult her traumatized parents, celebrating their daughter’s disappearance and gloating over their misery.
Such people are among the basest and most antisocial Internet trolls, and in a paper in Computers in Human Behaviour, psychologists describe how they tried to engage with this troll community, to study their attitudes and behaviour, and to work out what makes them tick. Their research put them in the cross-hairs for several weeks, and the trolls did not disappoint. Once the goal of their study was exposed by others in the anti-McCann community, “you need better English to do a PHD luv!” was among the more polite messages sent in response to questions from “the psychology student studying trolls”.
Things got heated when the scientists tried to introduce some science into the debate. Much of the suspicion towards the McCann family was generated by a claim from the Portuguese police that sniffer dogs had found evidence of a cadaver in their holiday apartment (no charges were brought). When one of the psychologists posted a reference to an academic paper showing that such dogs made frequent mistakes in hot weather, and invited discussion, the trolls were more interested in insults and attacks on the researcher’s motive, labelling them a “shill” and blocking them when they tried to steer conversations back to the findings.