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The Dangers of Modern-Day Trolling

Christopher Frawley Christopher Frawley
21st August 2020
The Dangers of Modern-Day Trolling
Trolls are a major source of fake news and misinformation (Getty Images).

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

If you’ve used the internet for an extended period of time it is quite likely that you’ve encountered or experienced trolling. To put it simply, trolling is the act of intentionally misleading, harassing, or provoking an unsuspecting individual or group. Trolling can range from anything as innocent as posting a misleading link, to embarrassing a public figure, to spreading dangerous misinformation and actively attempting to sabotage people’s lives.

Dangerous Practices

Although trolling has been around as long as the internet has, it’s become harder to ignore with the rise of social media and the digital age. While trolls were once dismissed as bitter individuals with too much time on their hands, they are now a potentially dangerous force to be reckoned with. Some have transitioned from causing relatively inconsequential online flame wars to wreaking havoc in real life. Along with bots, trolls are believed to even go so far as to influence major elections.

A screenshot of a social media post

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One particularly disturbing technique on the extreme end of the trolling spectrum is swatting. By calling in a fake bomb threat (or something equally dangerous), vindictive individuals have gotten SWAT teams to forcefully infiltrate the home of their target. This practice, which grew more popular as a result of Twitch streaming, is extremely dangerous and has resulted in serious injuries and even deaths. In order to set an example of how unacceptable swatting is, law enforcement has shown no tolerance to anyone foolish enough to play this lethal prank. One individual was sentenced to twenty years in prison for a swatting which resulted in a death.

The King of Trolling

While practices like swatting have been universally damned, other successful trolling attempts have gone viral and garnered a lot of praise. One high-profile example is the continuing work of master-level troll: Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen, an actor/writer/director, proved in his sensational film Borat that performing social experiments on unknowing participants could be a huge hit.

Cohen’s most recent effort, the show “Who is America?” has gained attention for being his most outrageous project to date. In it, Cohen goes incognito in order to lower the guards of his interviewees and get them to embarrass themselves. And he almost always succeeds. In a way, Cohen has turned trolling into something of an art form by duping prominent American politicians and common people alike.

Jason Spencer, a Georgian lawmaker, resigned as a result of his time spent on Cohen’s program. Cohen came under fire for his deceptive practices, but it’s important to note that Spencer dug his own grave. He was put in a bizarre situation by Cohen, who posed as an Israeli militant (one of his many alter-egos). Spencer could have left or declined to participate at any time, but he instead opted to use racist slurs, including Islamophobic, xenophobic, and anti-black ones.

Cohen has entered a grey area in terms of both trolling and misinformation. Some have condemned his work as outright wrong because of how duplicitous his methods are, while others believe it is worth some ethical compromise in order to reveal greater truths and even reach some profound or disturbing revelations.

Deliberate Spread of Misinformation

Many seasoned trolls thrive on attention and negativity, and it’s all too easy to fall into their snare. This is not to say that all trolling is purely mean-spirited. A lot of it can be chalked up to rude fun, like kids teasing each other in the school yard. And not all people who troll are trolls.

However, there are people on the internet who like nothing better than causing chaos to further a personal agenda, or simply for the sake of it. Websites such as Reddit and 4chan (the latter of which we have discussed previously on Misbar) are infamous for housing scores of trolls. These platforms are moderated but still have plenty of opportunities for spreading misinformation and harassment. Gizmodo writer Ashley Feinberg put it perfectly in regard to the dangerous anonymity of websites: the internet gave all our worst impulses just what they needed to thrive.”

One major source of trolling contention is the prevalence of fake social media accounts, otherwise known as “bots.” These fake accounts are used to repost content en mass, around the clock, in order to gain more exposure and further the agenda of whoever created it. Another infamous misinformation tactic is the creation of hyperrealistic and intricate material presented as truth, aka making a deepfake. In one instance, a video of Mark Zuckerberg making alarming claims went viral before it was revealed to be completely fabricated. Another edited video of the U.S. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was convincing enough that President Trump retweeted it

With digital technology advancing every day, skilled trolls have been able to manufacture more and more convincing material. With this in mind, it is more important than ever to check multiple sources and do individual research before promoting something potentially misleading or outright untrue.

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