Many sports fans believe that paying for a ticket entitles them to verbally abuse athletes. Though players are conditioned to tune out the booing and not take it to heart, sometimes spectators cross the line and unleash highly personal attacks. This type of mentality also applies to the bottom feeders on social media who regard Internet access as a license to disparage others.
Whether it’s the loudmouth up in Section 114 or the coward on Twitter, trolls do their best work under the cloak of anonymity. One wonders how fearless they would actually be face-to-face with the objects of their derision. Trolling is simply an unfortunate reality in a society that covets autonomy and freedom of speech. Conventional wisdom suggests you ignore these pitiful souls desperate for attention – and certain platforms do enable moderators to weed out the riff-raff. But it’s impossible to eliminate trolling – or even control it in most cases.
“Trolling can be a nasty, outrageous business,” writes Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. “That is, in fact, the entire exercise: to disrupt and upset as many people as possible, using whatever linguistic or behavioral tools are available.”
Sometimes, trolls simply go too far. Lindy West, a columnist for The Guardian who often addresses controversial issues, reached her breaking point when someone created a bogus Twitter account as her dead father, including a stolen photo of him that West adored. West tried to overlook the troll’s biting comments but eventually decided to write about the situation. The next day she received an email from her tormentor, who apologized for his actions and deleted the Twitter account and two other gmail accounts.
“I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being,” he wrote. “It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self … It was the lowest thing I had ever done. It finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this (stuff). I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way — and for no reason whatsoever.”
The writer concluded by saying he was done being a troll and that he had made a $50 donation to a cancer hospital where West’s father had been treated.
According to Phillips, trolls revel in their victims’ pain and discomfort. Like the Wild West where black-hatted villains used fists and sidearms to bully and intimidate, the Internet is a vast frontier that encourages sociopathic behavior. Sadly, trolls will always be among us, though perhaps as in Lindy West’s case, some may reclaim their humanity.