Social media and trolling, it’s complex

When you work in the social data world you come across all types of human interactions some wonderful, some strange and at times some things that are just nasty. The way people treat one another at times is simply shocking.

The world has a population of 7.3 billion of which just under half are internet users, with all this user diversity there is going to be some strong and at times conflicting opinions. The anonymity an internet interaction can offer means that more than ever there is the opportunity for even the most extreme personalities and views within society to express themselves without fear of retribution.

Welcome to the trolls, those people who choose to create conflict and controversy mostly on social media. They start disagreements and make controversial comments in order to create a reaction.

Trolls Hit the Headlines

These trolling moments are more frequently making it into the mainstream news, recent trolling instances where racist abuse was aimed at Premier League Footballers Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba (after them both missing penalties) are examples of this. These are just a couple of high profile instances, trolling is rife across all audiences and social media platforms.

Those recent Rashford and Pogba instances sparked much debate in the football world, resulting in England manager Philip Neville calling for players and fans alike to boycott social media platforms, hoping a boycott would prompt them to take action.

“I’ve lost total faith in whoever runs these social media departments, so let’s send a powerful message: come off social media (for) six months. Let’s see the effect it has on these social media companies.” Philip Neville

This rhetoric was repeated elsewhere with the need to take action very much being placed on the social media providers doorstep but what questions are we, as a society, asking of ourselves?

Why Does Trolling Arise?

Trolls could be considered as a manifestation of societal and individual behavioural problems, listening to ex-footballer John Barnes recently talk about racism in football made me think about whether it really should be down to the social media platforms to do something about the trolls or whether we as a society need to take a closer look at ourselves.

“We keep looking at the symptoms and not treating the cause. I compare it to a cold. When we feel symptoms we take tablets and suck sweets, and it makes us feel better for a while. But we haven’t found a way to treat the cause, and sooner or later it will come back. With racism it is exactly the same.” John Barnes

John Barnes went on further to state that if every racist was silenced in a football stadium it would still be full of racists, could the same be said with internet trolls? The social media platforms could do more to silence them but the racists, sexist, homophobic views many appear to hold or use an insult are still ingrained within our society, will they simply find other ways of expressing it and other ways to bully and humiliate others?

Pop star Ed Sheeran quit social media back in 2017 because of the trolls and the continuous abuse he received, but it’s not just celebrities or footballers facing abuse everyday people do too and at times it can be extremely scary.

From BBC News: “A teenager claims internet trolls “ruined her life” by superimposing her face on pornographic messages that were shared on social media. Victoria, from Leeds, was told to ‘go kill yourself’ on the streaming app and her home address was shared on Twitter as a ‘house to burgle’ ”

Anecdotal evidence indicates that most trolls are men, but why? As discussed earlier, trolling can be seen as a symptom of societal problems and in order to address it requires action from not the social media platforms but society itself.

There are further suggestions that many trolls, are also disadvantaged. Of course this isn’t exclusive, but the picture being built is that many trolls are disadvantaged, young men. When we marry this with why psychologists believe trolls, troll, we can build the picture further. Psychologists believe they troll due to: boredom – simply they are bored and it’s a form of entertainment; attention, they want attention, any form of attention be it positive or negative, and disenfranchisement.

Young men are increasingly struggling with identity, leading to depression and even suicide (suicide is the biggest killer amongst men under 45 in the UK). The crisis in masculinity that’s apparent could also explain why much of the troll abuse is aimed at women (see article xx to explore the abuse women face further).

Social media trolling, it is complex and placing the responsibility of dealing with it at the doors of the platform providers will not solve the issue – perhaps social data itself can unlock new insights into trolling and how to combat it? For brands, an understanding of your own social media audiences and the behaviours surrounding them is important.

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Ellie Osborne
Ellie Osborne
I am the Head of Social Media Intelligence at Join the Dots I InSites Consulting. I’ve worked in the industry since 2003 both agency and client side. I am a Certified Member of the Market Research Society with an understanding of qualitative, quantitative and social data disciplines (I'm a big fan of mixed modes!). Sectors I've conducted work in include: Financial Services, Utilities, Public Sector, Business-to-Business, Education and Healthcare. More content by

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