'It absolutely haunts me': What makes trolls so abusive on social media?

  • By Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

It has been a year or so since Neil Markham posted a video on Twitter of his daughter dancing in Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium.

He shared the clip of 16-year-old Ella, who has Down’s Syndrome, after a Spurs defeat with the words ‘the result is never the most important thing’.

Trolls were on to it almost immediately and viciously mocked Ella’s disability.

While Ella has “had a great year”, Neil told ITV News he is still trying to recover from sifting through the torrent of abusive comments.

“I was not particularly well for parts of last year,” he said.

“When you read things calling your daughter this or saying there’s something wrong with your testicles to produce a daughter like that…

“Because you read it, it’s in your head, every time you close your eyes that’s all you see. It lives with people forever.”

Trolls reacted to Neil's tweet almost immediately.

In a bold move, Neil posted his number online and told trolls to contact him directly rather than hurl abuse at Ella.

Many people rallied around him, sending thousands of messages of support, with Spurs captain Harry Kane recording a video message.

“We had thousands and thousands of positive comments of support, but I can’t now recite word for word any of them,” he said.

“I can with the negative ones, they stick with you.”

Some of the most common triggers for this kind of merciless trolling – anger and boredom, for example – are set to be more and more exacerbated as the lockdown continues.

So what is it that makes some trolls so abusive? And how should we react?

It could be in the genes

Dr Punit Shah explains our genetics could be a factor in a troll's behaviour.

Dr Punit Shah, from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, believes it’s possible that some trolls are genetically inclined towards anti-social behaviour.

Studies have suggested identical twins are more likely to share anti-social traits than non-identical twins.

Dr Shah said: “You can see sometimes children can be mean and that’s not because they are mean but because you learn over time what to say and what not to say.

“These childhood traits can continue into adulthood because of genetic disposition.”

More work need to be done to identify the specific sequence that influences this kind of behaviour, Dr Shah said, but he believes there is strong evidence that trolling tendencies can be inherited.

Those traits mean some adults can have issues processing their own emotions, which can result in reduced empathy towards other people.

This may, in turn, lead to a parent with this low understanding raising a child in a way that will make him or her – who may also inherit the genetic code – more likely to resort to trolling behaviour.

My tribe vs your tribe

Ash Sarkar has long been a target for right wing trolls.

As Dr Shah explains, humans have always been naturally predisposed to tribal behaviour in some way.

Whether it’s supporting a specific football club or political party, a blind loyalty and belief in their ‘tribe’ can make trolls extremely hostile towards perceived opponents or ‘threats’.

This concept is not exclusive to one ‘tribe’ over another – Dr Shah points out trolls from either end of the spectrum engage in abuse.

Few on social media in the UK understand the dangers of tribalism better than left-wing commentator and journalist Ash Sarkar.

Ash is a woman, a Muslim and a communist with a large following and public profile. This makes her a regular target for the extreme right-wing troll.

This month alone, Ash, of Bengali origin, has been told to “go back to Pakistan” and been called a “negroid”.

Ash faces this kind of racist abuse on social media regularly.

“It means that I have staked out a place in an ongoing culture war, regardless of whether you want that or not,” she said.

“Some who consider themselves patriotic see me as insufficiently grateful for a place in this country… it’s the idea that the presence of Muslims weakens national identity.”

A few weeks ago, a pile-on ensued after a British talk show host mocked Ash’s appearance, telling her to “get a razor, darling”, drawing from the racist stereotype depicting south Asian women with facial hair.

Ash admits such abuse can “get on top of you”.

“You feel contaminated and it does make you doubt your appearance,” she added.

“And you see yourself through the lens of someone who hates you and it can become difficult to separate your point of view from theirs.”

Some of the responses to Ash's tweets.

And it’s not always been limited to the internet. Ash said she has feared for her safety “many times”.

One of her most frightening experiences was on the train back from Southampton, where she appeared on a BBC Question Time panel.

Sitting by herself, a man approached her and started yelling her name, which forced her to move to a busier carriage.

“I was shaken up, he could have beaten the sh*t out of me,” she said.

The trolling playbook – it’s all about attention

Abusive comments could be part of a 'trolling playbook'. Credit: PA

Research at The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) uncovered evidence of a ”trolling playbook”, which could suggest the abuse that Ash receives is coordinated as part of a larger plan.

The group concluded trolls can be divided into two categories – hateful extremists and those who take pleasure from abusing others.

The former, they say, have realised that attacking public figures with large followings can compel a reply.

This means their message can be shown to a larger audience.

In a report published last year, they refer to a quote published on a far-right site in the US.

"We should always be on the lookout for any opportunity to grab media attention… The most obvious way to do this is to troll public figures and get them to whine about it.

“I keep thinking this will stop working eventually, but it just never does. "We have an army at our disposal, to use for whatever purposes we wish. They enjoy attacking people on the internet.

“Organising campaigns is good in every way: it energises our people, gives them something fun to do, gains media attention and increases [our] level of general infamy.”

This is an aspect of trolling touched on by Dr Shah too, who says social media is ultimately about getting attention.

“My theory is a lot of online behaviour we see is to do with attention seeking,” he said.

“Generally speaking, people are on social media to get attention, whether it’s for their cause, media channel et cetera.

“With trolls, we are in the extreme end of the spectrum, as they do not having anything to get attention for.

“It’s for retweets and likes, and for finding people in your own tribe.”

The second group are people who enjoy causing hurt.

This psychological tendency, known as negative social potency, means that the more people acknowledge trolling upsets them or makes them angry, the more trolls are likely to continue posting abuse.

Anonymity and the keyboard warrior

The ability to hide is key for trolls. Credit: PA

Perhaps the most obvious appeal for trolls is the anonymity social media offers, giving rise to the so-called keyboard warrior.

Dr Shah explains that many trolls’ behaviour demonstrated online would be unrecognisable in reality.

“The benefit of being online is that air of anonymity, anonymity offers people an opportunity to behave in these ways which we know people are capable of,” he said.

“It could be due to boredom, and I think we are seeing that now, where people are not just trolling more but have come across ‘zoom-bombing’ and it is partly due to boredom.

“But it also gives them a sense of excitement. For some people, being mean does offer them a sense of self-worth, which is sad but true.”

The online world also strips targets of their humanity, Dr Shah adds.

If a troll were to come across a victim in real life, for example, he or she would obviously appear as a human and their interaction would be more likely to reflect that.

But on the internet, these “social cues” are lost.

Combined with the factors listed above, anonymity emboldens trolls in their approach.

How should we react?

The Center for Countering Digital Hate has produced guidelines on how to react. Credit: CCDH

The Center for Countering Digital Hate advises the best approach is to simply ignore abuse.

Their guidelines were backed by Rachel Riley and Gary Lineker, who themselves have been targets of trolling.

The group’s CEO, Imran Ahmed, said: "We advise that victims of trolling don't engage with any abusive comments; instead they ought to block the trolls and take some time out from social media.

“If any messages are really bad or unlawful, social media users should record them, report them to the platform or the police, and if needed, seek help from a professional anti-hate organisation."

Dr Shah said he “broadly agrees” with this approach, though he warned any official censorship could strengthen a troll’s message.

It’s also a message Ash agrees is often necessary, though she admits she does sometimes respond with funny and intelligent comebacks as a way of feeling like she has claimed back some power.

Ash does sometimes reply to trolls with a tongue-in-cheek retort.

Meanwhile Neil, in hindsight, said he may have reacted in the wrong way.

And as disgusted as he was by the abuse, he still believes his trolls didn’t know how much damage they were doing.

“Ella is not scarred through this whole thing, but I am, and probably always will be. The amount of times I probably didn’t have an hour of sleep and then got up and went to work,” he said.

“And they probably think it’s just that you can’t take a joke. It absolutely haunts me.”

“I thought I was strong enough to take it on, I probably was not.”