When the modern internet was first invented, one of its founding principles was the idea of free discussion. That’s why forums and chatrooms have been mainstays in the online ecosystem — no matter how advanced the rest of the internet has become. Nearly every website features a section for comments in some form, but wherever there’s commentary, you’ll find trolls waiting to pounce.
For those who don’t know, trolls are a kind of internet user that thrives on conflict. They’re the ones you’ll find on the comment sections of news articles or places like YouTube, where they freely post all manners of slurs, bad arguments, and offensive content designed specifically to get people mad. Nobody knows why trolls care so much about getting a rise out of people, but recent developments in social media have made it even easier for them to pinpoint and harass other users.
On Twitter, a little-known networking feature is gaining traction with trolls as a covert method to organize harassment campaigns. Using tools built into the platform, trolls can summon their brethren to target specific users all at once. The result is chaotic, offensive, and downright miserable for those on the receiving end. You won’t believe what these trolls are getting away with!
Nice users, naughty lists
As part of its platform, Twitter allows users to create “lists” of accounts for the purpose of following, organization and sharing. These lists can be either private or public, with the latter used as an effective way to recommend accounts for friends and followers to check out.
That said, not everyone is using this feature as intended. According to a recent article from CNBC, legions of internet trolls are utilizing the list feature as a way of signaling to their comrades which Twitter users are most deserving of their ire and scorn.
Just as any user can make a list titled “favorite accounts” and share it with friends, trolls can create a list of so-called “enemies” and distribute it across forums, chatrooms and even the darker parts of Twitter itself.
By the very nature of the function, you don’t get a say when you’re added to a list. This presents numerous problems for people who find themselves at odds with troll ideology.
Scores of journalists, artists, and activists have found themselves on public harassment checklists, with loads of notifications from the trolls who regularly scour these lists for victims. The inflammatory content includes racial and gender-based slurs, threats of sexual violence, public shaming and ridicule, and even death threats.
What is Twitter doing about list-based harassment?
To put it mildly: not much. For reasons that aren’t fully understood, Twitter is inconsistent with adhering to its own rules and policies — often applying uneven pressure on both harasser and victim in an attempt to appear “unbiased.”
Lists, it argues, are just one of the many features that Twitter offers. If trolls misuse this basic function, it’s the responsibility of individual users to report the inflammatory accounts and wait for Twitter to make the move.
What follows next is generally unpredictable. Twitter has been known to sometimes sit on reports without acting, and in some cases, it’s gone ahead and banned the person doing the reporting for either repeating or rebutting an offensive statement made by a troll.
It is important to note, however, that trolls often game the reporting feature for their own amusement. If a user proclaims that they’re reporting a troll for abuse, many of them think it’s funny to mass-report the tattletale in retaliation. If a user gets enough reports, that’s often enough for Twitter to indiscriminately ban them without considering the context or circumstances.
What can be done about trolls on Twitter?
In the short term, the only way to really avoid trolls is “not to feed them.” This is an old internet proverb, referring to a troll’s general need for attention in order to function. If everyone ignores their efforts, they’ll eventually give up the game or become bored and leave.
For some folks, however, this isn’t always an option. Some trolls are fueled by rancid, burning hatred at specific groups of people — meaning their ideology will keep them coming back again and again. For these situations, blocking problem users yourself is one of the best options.
Twitter has recently enabled another function to help stem the tide of troll lists: notifications. Now, when you’re added to a list, you’re automatically notified as it happens. This can allow you to delete yourself from a list before trolls have a chance to catch on and find you. That said, you can also purge your account from lists manually by visiting the list section of your profile on Twitter.
The German method
If you’re facing an especially severe troll problem, one method that’s been surprisingly effective is changing your profile’s location to Germany. For whatever reason, a sizable portion of internet trolls is drawn to the symbolism of the Nazi party.
Whether this is the product of genuine racism or simply shock-value is debatable, but the country of Germany has maintained strict bans on Nazi symbolism since the aftermath of the Second World War. Because of this, accounts that share Nazi imagery are automatically blocked by default on the German version of Twitter.
When some harassed users changed their location to Germany, they immediately saw a rapid drop in the troll activity that was targeting their profile.
Between lists and location settings, there are numerous ways to fight back against harassment on social media. Most important, however, is maintaining your privacy. The less a troll knows about you, the less they can do to you.
If there’s one thing you take away from this article after reading, let it be this: “Don’t feed the trolls.” Stay calm, cool, and collected and no troll will be able to harm you. Unlike real life, when someone is harassing you online, you can always turn the computer off and walk away.