Menace of Trolling

Trolling thrives only in the comfort of anonymity – with timely technological intervention and legal remedies, these sociopathic tendencies would stand dismissed.

Recently, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was subject to offensive tweet-trolling following a passport row involving an interfaith couple. This comes after several years of sinister trolling of many opposition political activists, and lady journalists, especially Rana Ayub and Barkha Dutt, by the right-wing terror trolls, of which, Smriti Irani too has been a victim from the other side.

Truth of trolling

Wikipedia defines it as: "Someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community; with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion."

A troll will use shock value to promote arguments in conversations, commonly on social media platforms. Named after the wicked troll creatures of children's tales, an internet troll stirs up drama and abuses their online anonymity by sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or just simple bickering between others.

A study published by the University of Manitoba, in Canada, found trolls exhibiting the personality traits of narcissists, psychopaths and sadists – taking pleasure in the suffering of others and lacking in remorse or empathy. Serious trolls are immune to criticism and logical arguments. True trolls cannot be reasoned with, regardless of how sound your logical argument is. Serious trolls have sociopathic tendencies. They, in general, consider themselves separate from the social order. They do not abide by etiquette, considering themselves above social responsibility.

There are also various styles to trolling, as with probably any art, and some do not completely follow the mainstream approach to trolling.

Derailment is one of the simplest, but flashiest, methods of trolling. It will ensnare and fool many individuals into actively performing in the troll's piece. Devil's Advocate is a style, named for the rhetorical method it employs, that finds the troll taking a viewpoint that is against the views within the forum. Argued as being either a technique or a style, defamation is not practised by most veterans, but it is a simpler form that most adolescent trolls learn before beginning large-scale, complex trolling techniques. It simply consists of insulting the poster one is targeting, and ruining his image. Freestyle trolling has been used almost religiously since the birth of Facebook, comprising of a quote or seemingly meaningless post to bait and trap Facebook 'Friends' followed by a storm of purposeful idiocy, leading to the eventual blocking of the Troll. Cannibalism is an advanced form of trolling understood only by a few. Cannibals will often covertly present themselves as troll bait, with the aim of attracting as many trolls as possible (e.g. posting a seemingly sincere, yet desperately sad and misguided clip on YouTube), this process is called 'herding the trolls'. Once adequate trolls have attempted trolling, the said cannibal troll's troll bait, the cannibal reveals their true identity, thus consuming the mojo of all herded trolls, this process is called 'eating the trolls'.

Where is the joy?

Every internet troll has a different story and, therefore, different reasons to troll. They may feel depressed, attention-starved, angry, sad, jealous, narcissistic or some other emotion they aren't entirely conscious of. What makes trolling so easy is that anyone can do it, and it can be done from a safe, isolated place as opposed to interacting with others in person. Trolls can hide behind their shiny computers, and avatars when hunting for trouble, and after they're all done, they can resume their real lives without facing any real consequences. Trolling empowers many a coward.

Combatting the devil

You cannot win against a troll. There are only three reliable ways to deal with trolls, all of which focus on removing their audience and power, and depriving them of desperate attention. While it is difficult for most users to let a troll have the last word, this tactic successfully takes the wind out of a casual troll's sails. For repeat offenders: report them to the moderators of the system. If enough people report the toll, this will often prompt the moderators to take action. Take away the troll's ability to post online. This will commonly mean that the troll is kicked out of the system, or blocked by the IP address. Even better is when the troll is allowed to continue posting, but unbeknownst to him: all of his posts are hidden from others' view.

Recently, Rahul Gandhi has adopted a new strategy to deal with trolling. Rahul Gandhi's larger point was to change social media abuse against him with love, by embracing trolls digitally, similar to what he did offline with the prime minister.

Sponsored trolling

A report by the human rights lawyer Carly Nyst and Oxford University researcher Nick Monaco is an early attempt to study the phenomenon of state-sponsored trolling or the digital harassment of critics. Thousands of social network accounts, both operated by humans and by bots are used to amplify attack and gang up on a person daring to criticise a regime or a political figure. Invariably, the person is accused of being a foreign agent or a traitor. The language is often abusive; female targets, such as Turkish journalist Ceyda Karan and her Filipina colleague Maria Ressa, are routinely threatened with rape. The general idea behind the campaigns is to impress upon swelling public indignation alongside drowning the target's voice with clandestine digital howls.

In the less authoritarian states, where voting is still meaningful, trolling often grows out of election campaigns. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa created a troll army for the 2012 election and kept using it after he won. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte hired trolls to work for his 2016 presidential campaign and has since put some of the most prominent ones in government jobs. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party maintains an "information technology cell" with thousands of members receiving daily instructions on topics to promote and ideas to clog.

It's difficult to understand why social media platforms do little, if anything, to stop the trolling campaigns. Twitter and Facebook will remove posts and comments containing death and rape threats, but not insults, treason accusations or suggestions that a journalist is on a hostile spy agency's payroll.

A useful combat weapon would be to empower the targets of abuse campaigns. For example, flagging a dozen similar abusive comments should result in special attention from the network. Users should also be able to turn off comments to specific posts and temporarily disable tagging, otherwise, it's too easy for trolls to take over a feed. And if bots are to be marked, it should be up to the networks to detect them: The technology is there, it's just not being applied consistently enough.

Legal nuances

In India, we can find two different sections in two different laws which can make trolling a criminal act but only if some ingredients mentioned in the sections are present in the comments posted by trolls.

First, Section 66A of The IT Act, 2000, i.e., punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc. Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device, any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character, shall be liable to punishment with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years alongside a fine. It is a cognizable but bailable offence. Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000 enacted to be an anti-stalking, anti-phishing and anti-spamming provision, now looks ambiguous and easily abused. The terms used do not forbear a clear meaning in criminal law.

The newly added Section 354A(iv) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) says if any man (while trolling also) makes a "sexually coloured remark", he would be guilty of sexual harassment. He shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.

In India, if trolls write offensive or menacing character comments or comments with sexually coloured remarks, they can be arrested without a warrant and prosecuted.

Trolling is the subset of Online Abuse. Trolls are the new generation of cyber criminals who propagate "cybercrime of hate". Netizens' need to realise that the comfort of anonymity is unyielding and when law catches up they will knowingly be behind the bars of shame.

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