Internet trolls are at best a nuisance and at worst a menace. They can be vicious, mercilessly hounding those whom they happen to target, and they use their anonymity to their advantage, using reckless language without fear of repercussions. Dealing with them is not easy. While they can be banned in a few situations, the more determined trolls can find ways around such barriers and if they gain allies in their pursuit, the resulting swarm can be hard to contain. The attacks on feminists and others over what has come to be known as Gamergate is an example.
For some reason, a woman named Brenda Leyland took it upon herself to hound the family of Madeline McCann, a British child who has been missing for some time and whose case has aroused widespread attention in the UK. Using the Twitter handle @Sweepyface, the 63-year old Leyland, described as a “church-going mother of two”, sent about 5,000 thousand messages aimed at the parents and their two other children. The news story goes on to describe other people who pick on targets for seemingly trivial reasons and then attack them mercilessly, even if they have no personal stake in the issue.
Why do they do this? A study titled Trolls just want to have fun described in Psychology Today says that it arises from a combination of a “”Dark Tetrad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.”
Internet trolls are horrible people.
Trolls truly enjoy making you feel bad. To quote the authors once more (because this is a truly quotable article): “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”
So what can one do if one becomes the target of trolls? The recommended advice is to ignore them (“Don’t feed the trolls”) and not to let them have the satisfaction of thinking they have drawn blood. But this is easier said than done, especially if the troll escalates to actual plausible threats and gains converts to their cause. Then the authorities have to be alerted. But unless it goes that far, it is hard to know what to do without embarking on a program of limiting people’s rights on the internet by criminalizing speech, as Jonathan Turley is concerned about.
As for Leyland, she came to a tragic end. On October 4, she was found dead in a hotel room, two days after she was asked on TV about her role. Suicide is suspected. You can see the confrontation with her and read some of her tweets here. While her tweets reveal an obsession with the McCann case, they were apparently not threatening, and reveal someone who saw herself as doing a public service and correcting a miscarriage of justice. This kind of self-righteousness is not uncommon with such people. Even the people involved in Gamergate apparently think that they are on some sort of crusade to restore ethics in journalism.
Was Leyland a troll? I am not sure she fits the bill of a sadist, someone who wanted to merely make the victims feel bad or delights in causing pain in others. She seems to be an otherwise regular person who somehow became obsessed with the idea that there was a miscarriage of justice and that the parents of Madeline McCann were getting away with something. Why this middle-aged mother, living in a quiet rural town, became fixated on this particular injustice and chose this particular method of trying to redress it is something we may never know. But it shows that not all trolls, if she can be labeled as one, are adolescent or young adult males with weird fantasies.