Why does a certain young demographic spend intelligence and energy in a process designed to scare, anger and humiliate complete strangers? A dive into the world of trolling.
I am ordinary Homo sapien with an ordinary name. I have opposable thumbs and normal sensitive sensibilities. Off-key singing makes me want to muffle larynxes. Wickets given away carelessly make me want to break cricket bats, preferably on calcium. Celebrity quotes can invoke kolaveri. Critics who diss my favourite stars make me contemplate mousetraps and duct tape. I could grind my teeth and express strong opinions at the dinner table, but that seems so…ordinary. Oh, but I’ll show them. In just a few minutes, as soon as I get to a terminal, by a worn chair, noise reduction headphones on, a bag of crisps on one side, skull and crossbones at the door. My opinions matter. My anger matters. My indifference matters. I matter. I am not ordinary. I’ll show them. By the way, you can call me Kynes.
What happens when Kynes gets online is trolling. The phenomenon is ubiquitous and amorphous. Which means it happens all the time and you never know how it’s going to hit you. Creating fake Twitter/Facebook accounts and spewing nasty stuff under somebody else’s name, jumping into discussions uninvited and spewing nasty stuff. I’m sure you noticed that ‘nasty’ is the common thread here.
Here’s a crash course on trolling. There’s a video on YouTube of Sachin Tendulkar’s biggest sixes. The comments string is bustling with “Sachin is God,” “Greatest innings ever,” “10 years on and goose bumps even now.” And then:
Kynes: hahhaha shoaib got sachin out for 0 in ipl. shoaib doesnt come to play, he comes for sachin ki biwi aur dhoni ki biwi aur indian ladies. ha hahhahahahha f*** your sachin
Pandemonium ensues. The fanboys are out of their minds with rage. Expletives fly, fill the page. Spittle blurs screens across networks. And Kynes smiles in grim satisfaction. Sips on a lukewarm drink. He starts to hunt again, this time in earnest. Cracks his knuckles and gets down to hacking someone’s account.
If the worldwide web were an ocean, the likes of you are buoys bobbing on the surface, content with where the currents take you. The troll, however, has taken a dive. He knows what’s underneath. And he can pull your strings from below, just for the heck of it. All he has to do, as netizen @Alphasoldier once said, is “mainline anything with the word hostess on it.”
I don’t know @Alphasoldier’s real name, or where he lives, or if he is a he. What I do know is that in August 2012, his group hacked the Twitter account of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and began parodying multiple versions of it. The PMO panicked and shut down six accounts, including that of IT Minister Milind Deora! ROFL! ^_^ (That’s how you make smileys in secure chat platforms).
I reached out to @Alphasoldier through a common friend who dabbles in hacking and trolling out of academic interest. (Or so he’d like us to believe). I had a brief discussion with him on mIRC, the geek’s version of g-chat, at a pre-determined time. I did this in the hope of gaining proper perspective into the why of ‘trolling’.
@Alphasoldier is irked that the term troll covers everyone from underage pranksters to a whole community of hackers that comes together to do serious damage, like AnonOps and the PMO Twitter incident. There are ‘many’ such communities online. Another giant is AnonIndia. “And this definitely isn’t the same as pranking,” says @Alphasoldier. “Trolling, I think, has a far broader meaning. It is usually done to start a fight, or draw many more people into the fray, to send out a message.”
Fair enough. Higher cause, making a statement, bat-sign on the clouds, a flaming Z on the hillside, Phantom skull on the jaw, I get that. Is that what these guys are, then? Online crusaders? Not exactly, as it turns out. While certain regressive policies by the government trigger a unifying, righteously indignant response from the wired-in, trolling is hard to distinguish from pranking during peace time.
I asked @Alphasoldier if he trolled celebrities, movie stars and such. He said sure. Shah Rukh Khan is a regular target. He was quick to add that when the big boys do it, trolling is technically more sophisticated. I also asked him about trolls he tipped his hat to — the alphas or the icons of trolling. “The famous one is PakBhaba,” he said.
He explains, “Trolling in India started majorly with Pakistani trolling… announcing in a discussion that Kashmir should belong to Pakistan, that Kashmiris should fight India. He adds, “In the end PakBhaba’s group ended up in a Pakistani newspaper, which was his crowning glory, so to say.”
About the most common troll attack, you must have seen it on pages with Muslim personalities, articles on religion or cricket, and every online discussion on Kashmir or Indo-Pak relations. “Some people consider trolling to be successful only if many people copy it. This starts the process of copycat trolls, and so on,” @Alphasoldier says.
I didn’t get it. Why? These guys are supposed to be smart. What was the point?
The response was mind blowing. @Alphasoldier goes all Matrix Reloaded on me and says, “When u annoy somebody, u realise what their true colours are. people say things in annoyance, that they wouldn’t say otherwise.”
I put the troll on the couch and asked doctors to decipher him. I must admit I was looking for an epiphany, some sort of satisfyingly complex explanation about why a certain young demographic spends intelligence and energy in a process designed to scare, anger and humiliate complete strangers.
Psychiatrist and relationships consultant Dr. Vijay Nagaswami sums him up thus. “I think it just gives them a bit of a kick, to be disruptive and obnoxious in a state of anonymity. Often trolls are bored people, sometimes they are angry people with personal axes to grind and, sometimes, they could be quite obsessed with their personal philosophies that they want to expound on, but without being accountable for their views.”
@Alphasoldier and sundry other trolls would argue that it’s about being noticed, about controlling an environment. Perhaps a bit of narcissism too.
Dr. Sanjay Chugh, a neuro-psychiatrist and specialist in adolescent psychiatry, disagrees. “Narcissism may be the case although not always. At a broader level, such people would perhaps be struggling with their own internal issues of low self-esteem and insecurities.”
Troll doesn’t like the insecurity bit. “I think, for many, it’s also being part of something much bigger than them. To participate in an operation has thrills of its own. Many of us have been alone for long periods of time etc.,” @Alphasoldier says.
Ah, a teeny bit of a breakthrough, that ‘etc.’ But enough about the troll. Let’s talk about you — the thousands of participants in online forums, the scores of celebrities with engorged friends’ and followers’ lists and unending playlists. What happens to you when you get trolled?
Humiliation is an unpleasant prospect at best and, at its worst, can be terribly distressing. Dealing with a troll is a tricky business. A mind game that the victim can rarely win.
In a recent attack, the financial records of Michelle Obama, Ashton Kutcher, Beyonce Knowles, Jay Z and a bunch of other celebrities were hacked and posted on a celebrity site. It was 12 days before the site was shut down.
An incident closer home. Those in Tamil Nadu will be able to relate to the polarising issue of Sri Lankan Tamils. Celebrities, especially those in the movies, have had to pick a side and picket. Singer Chinmayee, an avid tweeter, politely refused to get political on Twitter.
The result? A two-year campaign by four users on Twitter, replete with abuse and profanity. She sought police help and had them arrested. She couldn’t talk because the case hasn’t been closed yet.
Then there’s Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, who closed his Facebook account because he couldn’t take it anymore. “I would be lying if I said that it has not hurt. Criticism is part of the package when you’re in public eye, but Internet anonymity has changed the complexion of things,” the singer said.
Why do you think they do it? Krishna believes the deeper reason “is frustration and a need to attack someone they perceive has reached a position of fame and power, and makes a bit of money. The feeling by itself cannot be faulted. But that cannot justify the act.”
Krishna candidly admitted that part of the reason he left Facebook was because he felt compelled to argue with the trolls. “My own tendency to respond to many of the posts made me feel that I was wasting a lot of time,” he says.
The victims invariably subscribe to one set of sentiments — anger, disgust and a vague fear. They want it to stop. Period. They want their voices out there and nothing to muffle them but polite dissent. Say something shocking, but not on my timeline. Invariably.
There’s this other viewpoint, of the casual browser who chances upon web pages — reading an article and the multiple comments below, or viewing a video and scrolling lower, lower, lower. From his point of view, it’s a gas. Aishwarya Rai’s controlled responses, SRK’s blustering declarations, the utter chaos of cricket fans, even the out-of-control profanity that buzzes under ‘item numbers’ in various languages — it’s all bonus entertainment. He might have chanced upon Krishna’s argument with his troll, or read through Chinmayi’s polite refusals even.
Which begs the question, “Do we want it to stop?”
There’s a potential storm round the corner. The new Criminal Law (Amendments) Bill that will make stalking/voyerism non-bailable offences if repeated a second time, includes cyber-stalking, and as a corollary, trolling. I can only begin to guess – armed with anti-viruses and thick manuals against cyber attacks – what that Law will whip up online.
But let’s face it. The pranks and profanity apart, the science of trolling, the technical brilliance of it and the perseverance it requires are cool. You wish you could do all that, if only to strike back. The troll in me identifies with this. I would have liked to be part of the team that struck at regression and online oppression. Like Kynes, I would like to be notorious online, a recognisable name in an elite circle.
There’s another aspect too. Trolls and hackers are how the system evolves. They bend rules. They test protocols. They put their minds together and write amazing code. They bounce the government out of your favourite online hangouts. They fight for the freedoms you write about.
They are how WikiLeaks happen.
Then how do you salvage disrupted discussions, defiled forums, infringed privacy, spooked celebrity? You can’t really be selective. @Alphasoldier did the PMO thing and he tormented SRK as well. You can’t have one without the other. (Although I have no clue what purpose PakBhaba served).
We muggles sense them only when there’s a mushroom cloud over an important server or when a celebrity cries out a particularly heart-rending denial.
For good or bad, trolls are part of the online experience. They’re not here for a pat on the back. You don’t have to talk to them. They are a community unto their own. Here's what Dr. Nagaswami prescribes: “The best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them. I’m not sure one should worry about what they feel. They don’t, do they?”
You can email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on facebook at facebook.com/vi.ananda