In our zeal for technological innovation and breakthroughs, we’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of poor digital behaviors. Crimes like identity theft and financial loss from malware and ransomware are so commonplace they barely raise an eyebrow.
One of these aberrant behaviors though, continues to capture our attention. The Troll. At its best, trolling is a light-hearted way to poke fun at friends - or spouses in the case of Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively. It can also be used to show how compassion and understanding can win out over negativity and hatred. Such was the case when Sarah Silverman responded to a troll calling her the C-word on Twitter. Unfortunately, these are the exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to trolling.
Trolling and cyberbullying have been shown to impact suicide rates, depression, the growing polarization in the U.S. and Europe and, according to PEW, even the open exchange of ideas in society. While trolling has been around for a while, we seem to be just waking up to the negative impact it is having on society and the scale of the problem. The upside of this is that we’ve started to make this part of our own public discourse. Efforts to curb trolling are happening in both the public and private sector. Companies like Alphabet hope to cut down on online harassment, corruption and extremism through AI-based APIs. On the public side, the DOJ has ramped up its efforts to prosecute state-sponsored trolls and even the White House has tried to promote better behavior on social media as part of the First Lady’s BE BEST initiative. More on how that’s working out for her later.
In the meantime, as we try to work all of this out, it’s safe to say this past year we’ve seen the bad side of this trend escalate to a whole new level of mainstream. So, before they are put in check, let’s take a moment to "celebrate" these folks whose sole purpose in life is to harass, upset and provoke people into a fight or argument for their own amusement or gain. Ladies and gentlemen, we welcome you to The Troll Awards!
Looking back over the course of 2018, we’ve nominated a small group who have gone out of their way to truly embody what it means to be a deplorable human. This year’s nominees are:
South Park Susan
Susan Westwood earned her nomination by trolling the "old school" way - in person. This self-proclaimed "white and hot" 51-year old decided to launch into a racist rant and harass two [black] sisters who were waiting for AAA assistance for their car, which wouldn’t start. In the video of her assault captured by the sisters, #SouthParkSusan can be heard telling them they didn’t belong there, even though one of the sisters lived in the same building, how much she earns per year ($125,000) and calling 911 to falsely claim that individuals near her residence were attempting to break into nearby residences.
For her efforts, Susan has been fired from her job at Charter Communications, evicted from her apartment and is now facing four different criminal charges. Sorry (not sorry) Susan, but as deplorable as you are, you are not this year’s winner. Check with the City of Charlotte, NC courts though, I hear they have a consolation prize for you.
Kristopher Zylinski got his nod by trolling female MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighters. In a January 2018 post he stated that, "99% of woman are too weak and lack the reflexes to do enough damage to stop 99% of men. Even if they knew bjj [Brazilian jiu-jitsu] they just don't have the size of strength to use the holds. Its dangerous to teach any woman to try and strike or fight a man. Just my 2 cents. [sic]". I bet he’s really popular with the ladies.
Sensing opportunity, McDojoLife offered $1000 to any pro female fighter willing to come fight @KrisKlutch. After a few starts and stops, the fight finally happened when Kris sparred with former MMA fighter Tara LaRossa. And, the winner of the match was… definitely not Kris, who tapped out not once, but twice. In case you can’t imagine how fun that would be to watch him go down in flames, you’re in luck; because McDojoLife captured it on video.
Well, Kris... I’m afraid the results here mirror those of your sparring session. Hopefully your consolation prize will be a newfound appreciation and respect for what women are capable of.
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to imagine a more active troll than @realDonaldTrump. To be fair, Mr. Trump is also probably the most trolled person in the U.S. as well. But that didn’t keep him from having a great year by any troll’s standards! Trump has name-called, finger-pointed and flat out lied to forward his own agenda nearly every day this year. He has gone after his own appointees like Attorney General Jeff Sessions mercilessly. He’s attacked former CIA directors, former employees like Omarosa Manigault Newman, porn stars, actors, professional and collegiate athletes and, of course, his favorite target, any media outlet that is not FOX News.
In a review of his twitter feed by CNN, they estimate since taking office in January of 2017 he has trolled 106 individuals directly, news media outlets 257 times ("fake news") and gone after Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia 127 times, labeling it a "witch hunt." This is a valiant effort Mr. Trump, and I know you hate to lose, but this year, you’re going to have to settle for Runner-Up. Unfortunately, you’ve been trumped (see what I did there) by the winner and 2018 Troll of the Year...
Hmm... where to start. How about with your efforts to influence elections and polarize our country? In 2018, Russia went so far as to troll "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" movie producers and reviewers. A study found that over 50% of posts about the movie were from bots and trolls whose goal was to "propagate widespread discord and dysfunction in American society." When your playbook includes ideas like this, you’ve landed on some serious evil genius shit right there.
Russian trolls were also up to many of the same election influencing tricks we saw back in 2016 leading up to this year’s midterm elections. According to a Facebook post, they removed over 100 fake accounts linked to Russia’s IRA (Internet Research Agency) meant to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions. Now that midterms are over, I’m pretty sure these guys are just gearing up for their holiday campaign about puppies "savagely attacking" kittens so they can create a little more anger and divisiveness in the country.
On a serious note, this just reinforces that even with all of the effort by social media networks to contain and eliminate the more hateful side of trolling, we have a long way to go. Look for 2019 to be the year the tech industry puts even more effort into identifying and managing aberrant behavior online. Aside from Alphabet and the government, we’re watching for the emergence of new companies with novel solutions to address the societal problems we’ve created. Ones that train AI to be more human and revenue models that attempt to optimize for happiness and profits instead of revenue over anything else.
Companies can also play a big role in helping to curb trolling by staying above the fray and providing social media training to all employees. This is especially important as any exchange between an employee and customer could end up on Facebook Live or as the next trending Twitter meme. If you are attacked by someone trolling, having a social media group trained in how to (or not to) respond is also a good practice. There are a few good primers on engaging with trolls here, here and here.
Happy New Year! Here’s looking forward to better behaved trolls in 2019.