Is the US election proving a feast for online trolls? | Digital Culture | DW | 18.10.2016
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Digital Culture

Is the US election proving a feast for online trolls?

Politicians have long used anger, vitriol and hero-worship to shore up their camp and push people to join the fray. Now, Internet trolls have raised the game to a new level, with politicians feeding the flames.

The West is facing several emotionally charged crises, with the US election, the Brexit fallout, and the migrant influx all splitting public opinion into bitterly embattled camps. The race between Trump and Clinton has proven to be especially volatile, with the Republican candidate proudly using social media to insult and demean anyone opposing his viewpoints.

As millions of new users go online to discuss these issues, they are often surprised by the intensity and aggression dominating the comment sections and message boards. It seems as if the conversation has been hijacked by so-called Internet trolls, and they are louder and more attention-hungry than ever.

The trolling abuse seems to have reached a whole new level with the battle for US presidency, with countless online threads polluted by digital vitriol. Noticeably, many of the posts insult minorities and anyone outside Trump's camp, provoking numerous and often vulgar responses.

Walking 'insult generator'

Professor Whitney Phillips from the Mercer University in Georgia believes that Trump himself has "fanned the flames" with his crude rhetoric and online feuds. Similar to online trolls, Trump manipulates the public by stirring outrage for attention, she claims.

"He has set a standard and it's been normalized at this point that one of the candidates for president runs around engaging in, essentially, twitter antagonisms," she told DW. "He is a walking 140-character insult generator."

At the same time, the researcher says she is not sure "if Trump is using the trolls, or the trolls are using him."

While Trump's behavior encourages his supporters to be antagonistic, the wide-spread internet trolling emboldens Trump "to say even more outrageous things," Phillips said.

"Everybody is sort of feeding off of the negative energy of everybody else, and I have never seen anything like this before," she said.

Don't retweet trolls

Another reason for the growing influence of political trolling is that more and more people maintain an online presence and try to engage with the trolls, which often makes things worse. Instead of silencing sexist, racist and other negative statements, the troll's posts tend to gain more traction when people respond.

"We all amplify their voices, even when we are condemning what they are saying," according to Philips.

Conventional media is also aiding both Trump and internet trolls by giving them airtime, reproducing outrage to keep audience interested, she added. This has caused modern trolls to grow "in power and prominence, simply because there is so much coverage of these behaviors," Phillips said.

"Talking about these issues makes the trolls more powerful but we can't not talk about the issues because bigotry is wrong," she said.

In order to avoid "feeding the trolls" users should stop rebroadcasting their content, even to dispute it, according to Phillips.

"Don't amplify the hatefulness. If you see a horrible anti-Semitic image on twitter, don't retweet it."

Parties to stir up 'mayhem'

Politicians consciously use trolling strategies as a campaign tool, social media psychologist Arthur Cassidy told DW. Prominent figures can use social networks to "wage psychological warfare" or invoke past transgression to break down their opponents emotionally.

"We see much evidence of this against Trump, primarily with copious reports of his misogynist attitudes towards women, especially younger women, and his self reports of sexual prowess in his younger days," he said.

The UK expert believes that parties are already aware of "the huge psychological potential of social media to radically change international opinion." Some political camps aim to "destroy the content of high level political dialogue and cause mayhem" online by pushing provocative agendas.

"The overall aim is to produce political instability" and change users' minds, Cassidy told DW.

Looking past the comments

Although many readers may feel dismayed when looking at trolling comments, it is important to keep in mind that they generally offer a "skewed perspective" on the general public, US professor Phillips told DW.

"The first thing to note about comments is that, based on some of the literature I've read, only one percent of readers bother commenting" she said.

"And they are the ones who are the most invested in the conversation, either because they really believe or because they really want to freak other people out, but they are already on the extreme behavioral ends" Phillips added. 

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Sympathy for the troll

Phillips, who is also an author of the book "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" on internet trolling, says that trolls are ultimately driven by desire to connect with others and be part of a larger story, such as the US election. 

"Knowing that people can hear you and they are taking you seriously, even if you are not being serious, it speaks to a desire to connect with other human beings that is misguided, often hateful, and comes from the place of privilege, but at the bottom, it's just about wanting to be heard," she told DW.

Still, online platforms should stand up to trolling when it tries to silence other groups, and balance free speech with the need for diversity online, Phillips added.

 "If it's a violently anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim conversation, then probably not a lot of Jewish people or Muslims are going to feel comfortable participating, because they would just get attacked," according to the scholar. "If it makes so that other people can't or don't want or don't feel safe participating, then you have to take those comments away."

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