How to Starve the Trolls

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MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP / Getty Images

A woman views the YouTube video of Amanda Todd in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 16, 2012

It was a bad week for Internet trolls.

News of the tragic suicide of 16-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd after an ugly incident of stalking, bullying and blackmail hit just as Reddit’s biggest troll, responsible for numerous highly offensive postings in sections with names like “rape bait,” was finally outed. Both stories involved nonconsensual distribution of sexualized images of young girls.

In Todd’s case, a pedophile who took a screenshot of her breasts when she was 12 stalked her online. She tried to escape by moving from school to school, but the perpetrator repeatedly posted and e-mailed the photos, making her a target for online and schoolhouse bullying. As word of Todd’s death spread, Reddit’s “Violentacrez” was revealed by gossip site Gawker to be Michael Brutsch, a 49-year-old Texas programmer.

So why do trolls do what they do? Clearly, we have an Internet culture that enables them, part of a broader society that piously decries the sexual exploitation of teenage girls, while simultaneously celebrating it in marketing and pop culture. The fact that Todd’s classmates could taunt a 12-year-old who had her topless photos distributed by a sick pedophile as a “porn star,” not a victim, speaks volumes.

The trolls themselves haven’t been studied extensively, but Brutsch seems to exemplify many of the traits that have been included in prior profiles. For one, trolls benefit from the lack of face-to-face interaction on the Web, which allows them to say outrageous things that would get them ostracized or even beaten if said in the real world. For people who are relatively isolated and feel powerless in their ordinary lives — as Brutsch appears to be — the Net provides a world where they can wield power and influence others.

Unlike most real-world bullies, trolls online can find a large ready-made audience that consistently encourages them, without any negative consequences. In fact, Reddit rewards users whose posts generate the most response by promoting them to the “front page.”

And public affirmation was certainly a driver for Brutsch. “I was playing to an audience of college kids,” he said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper last night. “[T]he audience was appreciative and supportive of the sort of gallows humor that I put out there.”

Reddit also offers real-world bonus items for its top participants, which egged Brutsch on. “Honestly, the biggest thrill I got was those meaningless Internet points,” he said, showing off trinkets he’d received from the company for winning those points, like a bobble-head doll in the shape of its alien logo.

Such “reward dependence” is a characteristic seen in many studies of antisocial behavior. And, indeed, trolling may unmask outright psychopathic traits like sadism that otherwise would often remain hidden. Oxford University’s Kevin Dutton, an expert on psychopaths, says, “People who have a nasty streak may have psychopathic traits like ruthlessness and lack of empathy.”

Both are clearly visible in Brutsch, who told CNN, “There are hot-button topics that you can make a comment about and just enrage people. Sadly for me, I enjoyed doing that. I liked going in and making people really mad over what amounted to meaningless things.”

One study of real-world bullies, which likely applies to trolls as well, found that the pleasure regions in their brains were activated when they saw other people being deliberately harmed — and the degree of activation was linked to their levels of sadism.

The anonymity of trolling for trouble on the Internet, however, may bring out a particular type of pathological behavior. In full-fledged psychopathy, there is a physical fearlessness that’s lacking in trolls. “They don’t act up in everyday life because they are frightened of sanctions,” says Dutton. “They’re nasty cowards, but when you get them on the Web, that fearlessness doesn’t matter anymore because there are no consequences. That’s the kind of person being unlocked here.”

Like other bullies, trolls also need to get a rise out of their victims if they are to enjoy the interaction. That’s why “don’t feed the trolls” is a constant admonition on many comment boards: their biggest fear is being disregarded and made irrelevant.

The best way to stop trolls, then, is to create an unfriendly environment. Reddit defends itself by citing everyone’s right to free speech, but just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. The Net amplifies both the positive and the negative. That means that giving support to those who push content that sexually exploits teens — or any other type of objectionable material — only ends up making it more acceptable.

Brutsch and pedophiles like the still unprosecuted man who stalked Amanda Todd shouldn’t get social support on mainstream websites for fundamentally antisocial behavior. If removing this content from such sites only drives it underground, good:  that’s where such trash belongs, making clear that it is not socially acceptable. If we want to prevent future tragedies, we need to be sure we stand with our daughters and our sons, not with those who would make them into involuntary “porn stars.”

MORE: The Tragic Case of Amanda Todd

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

58 comments
deveidmiller5060
deveidmiller5060

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vradenburgjoy
vradenburgjoy

I just can't understand how Cruel people like Trolls can be. I have been Trolled a few times, but if I were a teen I don't know how I would had handled this? Amanda Todd was a Beautiful girl, and every one want's to make Hollywood, but we can't. You have to be born into Hollywood, they don't need Talent, Amanda was reaching for the Sky, and she landed hard, un like a Snow flake they all say she was,, more like a Rock. Humans are very Cold, and you need to be one step a head. Love is dying. It say's in the Bible, "That in these last day's Lovers of righteousness will cool off" Goodness' You may not believe in God, but one sure can say' "There is a Devil" It can not be denied,  And he hates Humans When you read, "Why don't you just Kill yourself?" That's not the way' a real person of any self esteem or of any intelligence would talk. I have been Bullied as a Child, and when you try to tell your Parents. "They just say' Stick and stones bla, bla...." But I believe The One True Way to Stop or Slow down the Bullying Is to Teach your Children, Morals, Standards and most of all Raise them with Love, so they won't Bully, because. Words Hurt More" To young tender minds, Teach your Children to Love, not Hate.....

jammyyy
jammyyy

Hmm… I read blogs on a similar topic, but i never visited your blog. I added it to favorites and i’ll be your constant reader. girlsdoporn

Blk
Blk

They do make an off switch to your computer, if you've literally got no avenue other then killing yourself the Trolls are obviously not the only problem.

Not to mention giving out naked pictures of yourself at 12, which could also be viewed as distributing child pornography. 

I'm not saying what this guy did is right, quite the opposite, but were blaming this dude because how could we blame a dead girl, a dead 12 year old girl who is not in the slightest bit to blame here. I mean we might as well get into a mob and lynch him right? This dude is scum but the reaction of the girl also shows a lack of maturity that should have barred her from the internet.

biggsy1977
biggsy1977

 @SarahL So many social network, blog or anything else tbat allows discusion, actively encourage trolling. There is also a financial reward for many of these companies. They get paid per page view from businesses that advertise on their website. The trolls say something salacious & so many people rush to comment & this drives up the advertising revenue the website earns. It a disgusting form of exploitation. I myself am in the middle of trying to show a self admitted troll on YouTube that his actions could have disastrous effects. He posted a video of himself bullying & harrasing a 6 year old boy on Minecraft on Xbox Live. He, like many others refuse to see the potential harm that's having. Not only did he bully this child, he's uploaded a video on to YouTube so other's can say their piece. It's quite vile what's being said. It's the threats against the 6 year olds life that I'm finding most disturbing. You can also see the 6 year olds 'Gamertag', this could facilitate anyone viewing this video to directly contact this 6 year old on Xbox Live. Ipm not sure thevage of the bully, but the insinuation from people commenting who seem to know this troll, is that the troll is an adult (I'm from the U.K. so that means 16+ to me). The person YouTube name who's put this video up is Aftermath Game Videos. The video itself is relatively benign, but the fact that it allows people to dirrectly contact this 6 year old is quite scary, especially given the nature of some of the comments.

vradenburgjoy
vradenburgjoy

@biggsy1977 So very True, it's all about the Money, and the big bucks. These Billionaires have No idea how much Blood they have on their hands....I'll keep a look out for this 'Gamertag guy' And lets all work together to get these Trolls to take action and put them behind Bars....

Blakkar
Blakkar

If you don't feed the trolls they go away. Take the time to learn net etiquette before you comment on it. People should be teaching these things to their kids and monitoring their net use on a consistent basis its up to parents to protect their kids from the net and educate them on proper use.

franklingalvin
franklingalvin

And all abusers should be both revealed and reported to authorties.

Samantha-ElizabethAnnEmery
Samantha-ElizabethAnnEmery

All kinds of people use reddit... just like facebook. Please don't make blanket statements, since you're supposed to be a reputable source...

rjgriger95
rjgriger95

This article is complete trash. This is basically the same thing as a Fox "News" article.

bubbagates123
bubbagates123

I see a lot of posts mentioning free speech when it comes to blogs and things like it. What you need to remember is once you sign up to join one of those things, such as this blog right here, you agree to the terms of that blog/forum/whatever thus your free speech can be limited by the document you just agreed to.

So before everyone goes off crying about limiting free speech, you need to read the agreement that you most likely agreed to but did not read. You'll likely find out that doing what trolls do is not normally allowed and you and the blog itself are now liable for any damages for postings that are not allowed by the term of the agreement you signed. That's one of the reason why you will see posts removed from various blogs because they violate those terms

Definition of a Internet Troll = Keyboard Tough Guy

Whatever123
Whatever123

"If removing this content from such sites only drives it underground, good: that’s where such trash belongs, making clear that it is not socially acceptable."It seems to me that this comment favors restricting free speech.  While I agree that Brutsch was a bully/troll - I think the real issue is beyond trolling.  Children dealing with cyber bullying need help and a man in his 40s taking pictures of a 12 year old semi nude should be prosecuted.  The problem is that miss Todd didn't bring the incident up to her parents, school officials or police.  It seems obvious this is because she was embarrassed and knew she had done something foolish.  Maybe we should look at the root of the issue, a 12 year old girl decided based on her understanding of the world, that exposing herself was a good idea?  When children make mistakes, who should we blame?

whodat
whodat

Situations like this point out the need we have in society for compassion, and the consequences of living in a society without compassion.

Compassion is the ability to experience the needs and feelings of others. In a culture where compassion is valued, Amanda Todd's story could not have happened.

The tragedy of this story is that while Amanda has made the irreversible decision to walk away, we are left behind to deal with it. If you want to do something to change our culture, then look within and start by setting a good example.

People emulate other people they admire. If you want to live in a compassionate culture, live it, teach it, model it for others -- even when you thik noone is looking. For in the world we live in today, somebody is always looking.

PhilSmith
PhilSmith

"Todd’s classmates could taunt a 12-year-old" ----- How they were raised by their parents.

StuartStewart
StuartStewart

Ok if Reddit rewards people for saying stupid things like this then I think the site deserves to get shut down. Turn the tide. They encourage this garbage

dowdyfinklestein
dowdyfinklestein

There are gangs of trolls who collaborate to take control of whole boards, like those Usenet news groups. Featured in my upcoming novel is a "gang" -- about a dozen strong -- that includes academics and practitioners in the field of Psychology facilitated by three digitally savvy but uneducated hacker types with criminal and psychiatric histories.  Great fodder for social psychologists!

Anothermuse
Anothermuse

Lumping all trolls the same as pedophiles seems extreme. Though I can't argue with the whole issue of wanting power they don't posses. It is antiscocial behavior that most would never undertake in real life.

Annonyminity (I know I can't spell) is a huge factor. Even the posts here have more trolls than not. It's sad, as it would be nice to actually have conversations and rational debates on some of these boards. Or just have fun with the content. But, there are so many people that just want to spew their very twisted view of the world. That power issue does seem to be the driving factor though.

JonathanMartin
JonathanMartin

The real problem is that kids aren't being raised by loving parents anymore, but by indifferent school and childcare systems. They are sitting ducks for these pervs to come along and exploit their insecurities. Short of building a police state, you can never completely end this type of behavior. You can only take away their bait by raising awareness for parents about how much their kids need them

nothereeither
nothereeither

Seems "Trolls" has taken on a new meaning since the 90's and usenet - now they are stalkers, pedophiles, etc. Wow! Kind of like the word hackers, who used to be highly skilled programers who could code any solution to a problem, now the media has a hold of the word, they are third graders still living at home.

Give a noobie a blog... Wait, is that Bullying, too? Sigh.

tillzen
tillzen

Trolls rape by whatever means available to them. Those able to leave home rape in the real world while those trough bound rape via post or stalk. These are the last-in of the internet bottom feeders and they scream at a world that has yet again left them behind. Their furious posts and impotent acts are screams from a coffin that the real world long ago buried in an unmarked grave.

Kinggrayiv
Kinggrayiv

Ugh. Brutsch is an idiot, and there are plenty of idiots on Reddit, 4chan etc, but seriously... this writer seems to have absolutely no idea what she's talking about, and once again a one-eyed article is published on this subject. Maia, spend some time lurking on these sites if you want to write something with more substance.

callofmurphy
callofmurphy

You need to interview people from the other side people that know more about it even if their opinion is wrong.

callofmurphy
callofmurphy

Biased Journalism at its worst its like she got lazy and decided to make an article with one side complete and the other side deflated. Good job this has now caused me to never visit Time Magazine ever again.

JaceGordon
JaceGordon

It seems like we're talking about the -other- definition of trolls, as in, not the trololololololol type, but the pedophile type.

KennethSpaas
KennethSpaas

Simply put the reason why this can happen is because sadness, depression makes people grasp for a more positive lifestyle. Unhappily that positive lifestyle ain't around anymore. Cause if you move up to 'better' places you see 90 % of those places have people whereof you are ABLE to think O_0.

I'm not a relic kind of person. I'm just saying that we are ALWAYS pushing future and future and we're not really looking into the mirror which can solve it all. We rather press another message board advertising/criticizing the behavior instead of really blocking/downgrading the behavior. 

Even these post gives reasons to be madly infuriated about some of the critics here. Yet as it's said. Don't feed the trolls. Unless it's with a heartwarming message like this. There is always a choice to step away/back from YOUR pain.

MARK my three words. Said an ex-veteran king. (no that's just a joke :P i wouldn't give me a capital i.)

ConnieKraus
ConnieKraus

Two Steps in Dealing with Trolls: 1. Report them. 2. DO NOT respond to them at all.

ConnieKraus
ConnieKraus

The question isn't whether trolling is done in real life or online. The question is WHY a person feels the need to do it.

RickNuthman
RickNuthman

I totally disagree with this article's assessment of trolls.. I troll people online all the time, but I also troll people in real life. Some people may take it too far, but you can't simply characterize internet 'trolls' as people hiding behind a keyboard anonymously. Some people will do that, sure, but like everything else, you can't categorize everyone into one single personality type.

JeremyWilliams
JeremyWilliams

HOW ABOUT THE 'PLANTED " ARTICLES APPEARING IN SEVERAL LEADING PAPERS AND MAGAZINES THAT PROACTIVELY CREATED THE ATMOSPHERE THAT SUPPORTED THE INVASION OF IRAQ THAT HAS LEAD TO THOUSANDS OF DEAD INNOCENT WOMEN ,CHILDREN AND MEN

e.suitcase
e.suitcase

There are millions of users and posts on Reddit, many of them helpful, friendly, and inspiring. Your article paints it with a broad negative brush without taking the time to note the many positive actions taken by the Reddit community (charity drives, etc.). It's almost as if you are trolling CNN and its userbase, because this certainly isn't quality journalism. It's uninformed trash and it has no place on a "news" website.

EricTheActor11
EricTheActor11

@GregGreenburg Thank you I"ll finish reading it soon.

Moe1138
Moe1138

"So why do trolls do what they do?"  If you have to ask, then you have not a clue.  It's the same reason a dog licks its balls...because it can.

Look no further that our great public school system.  No? keep reading...

"We All Must Come Out In Support of LGBTQ Kids in Our Schools"

Eric is the Executive Vice President of Growth, Development, and Partnerships at Teach For America.  

This is the reason why they can.  How many of our schools lately have captured teachers abusing OUR children? Just look at the headlines.  

"Mark berndt, teacher, allegedly spoon-fed semen to students."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/mark-berndt-teacher-spoon_n_1247637.html

 THAT'S  WHY !!!!!!

obama_sux
obama_sux

The description of the "internet troll" also fits all too well our current occupant of the White House.  His permanent financial harm to the American people is quite deliberate.  The entire concept of equal outcome without the requirement of equal input is similar to that of a sadist and a sociopath.  Our only hope is to push him aside in a few days by electing Romney and hope that Obama doesn't decide to use America nuclear arsenal against us at home.

bibleverse1
bibleverse1

If you suspect your child or a child you know is being bullied online unplug them from the matrix. No phone, no computer, no communication . The inconvenience may save a life. Children grew up healthy and strong without being plugged in for many years.