New University of Canterbury research into the behaviour of online trolls has revealed the many actors involved and a surprising number of benefits to trolling – and not just for the trolls.
When University of Canterbury (UC) doctoral student Maja Golf-Papez left a marketing career in Slovenia to start her research into mischief-making consumer behaviours among online trolls, she didn’t expect to be entertained or find benefits to trolling.
A postgraduate student with the College of Business and Law, Ms Golf-Papez initially thought trolling and cyberbullying were similar. She has come to realise they describe two distinct behaviours that need to be differentiated.
“Trolling is when someone is deceptive and mischievous. A troll typically has no intent to cause harm but is trying to provoke a reaction. Whereas cyberbullying is targeted with the purpose of causing harm to an individual person.”
In the pursuit of understanding trolling behaviour, she sought out trolls to interview. As she did so, she was trolled many times and found trolls had been removed or banned from pages before she got a chance to interact with them.
“Good trolls are elusive and, I find, highly intelligent characters. They know how to look after themselves and operate within but on the fringes of the law.”
Once she tracked them down, Ms Golf-Papez started her data collection by interviewing celebrity trolls.
As with other groups in all areas of society, a certain level of celebrity has been attached to individuals in the trolling community. Some of these trolls have half a million followers, who are eager to see what they’ll do next, encourage their behaviour, dress themselves as targets and ‘reward’ trolls in the online currency of likes, comments and reactions, both negative and positive.
From these interviews, five case studies were established highlighting different types of trolling behaviour across different channels.
As another part of her research, Maja interacted with some targets, bystanders and online moderators, and conducted more than 300 hours of online observation of trolling across different channels, including gaming platforms, forums, social media channels and news platforms.
Ms Golf-Papez has published a paper about her research in the Journal of Marketing Management and says she has been surprised by the benefits of trolling she has found. A number of trolls are gaining financial benefits from view rates and advertising space as well as conventional business transactions, she says.
“Some more risky brands are paying trolls to pose as customer service reps to respond to complaints and questions in a way the brand couldn’t or wouldn’t usually.”
In a society constantly in need of entertainment, Ms Golf-Papez’s research considers whether trolling has become just another form of entertainment. While audience members find trolling amusing, some trolling acts cause problems for the targets, firms and online moderators.
Ms Golf-Papez hopes her findings will help to differentiate the behaviours of trolls and cyberbullies, inform education around what, if anything, targets or online moderators should do in response to online trolls and ultimately inform policy makers when they are writing laws around online behaviour.
Her academic supervisor and paper co-author Associate Professor Ekant Veer says Ms Golf-Papez’s research explores a relatively underdeveloped consumer practice – online mischief making.
“We know little about what motivates online mischief makers, their drivers, and the community that surrounds them, supports them and encourages them in their practices.”
Associate Professor Veer says Ms Golf-Papez’s work has the potential to show not only that actor network theory can play a real role in understanding online phenomena like trolling, but also that trolling is a multifaceted practice that has both positives and negatives.
“Her work is already challenging the way trolls are defined and the way in which they are different from cyberbullies or other online negative behaviours.
“UC has provided a place and space for innovative, alternative and often risky research like this, which will mean our researchers will continue to achieve more than in a restrictive system.”