‘Online platforms give trolls a visibility and an instant hit’

British Psychological Society event on trolling.

Ahead of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology’s session on internet trolling, we spoke to Professor Catriona Morrison and Dr Shazia Akhtar at the University of Bradford.

What’s the aim of the APPG meeting on internet trolling?
Our purpose is to understand the extent and effect of trolling on MPs, who are very visible targets. We have almost 200 respondents so far but they are, by the nature of psychology research, a self-selecting sample. Very few academic studies have been done on online abuse. A small amount of research has gone into the nature of someone who engages in trolling – not surprisingly ‘loners’, with sociopathic tendencies. Online platforms give trolls a visibility and an instant hit – you put it out on the internet and it is immediately visible, so it is a different concept to a poison pen letter, and if at all incendiary is likely to get reactions, if aimed at a high-profile person. What we are interested in is the way that people choose to deal with it. J.K. Rowling said in a tweet the other day that to ignore them was effectively to let them win, but some people will still choose that strategy.

Don’t MPs sometimes deserve a hard time online? Isn’t this just the modern version of accountability and the ‘voice of the people’?
There is growing evidence that public figures share a greater risk of being threatened and stalked, relative to ordinary citizens. Consider the murder of the MP Jo Cox. Politicians, in common with other people in the public eye, attract more inappropriate, intrusive or aggressive attention on social media than the population at large. This is a consequence of their public profile (local or national), their responsibilities to their constituents and their being seen as being in a possession of power. MPs have told us about death threats, people tweeting that they should be hung… and one said that it was the ‘lower level attacks that make social media a horrible place to be’.

Does what you find with MPs generalise to the rest of the population?
We’re in the process of surveying the general population too. And with the MPs data we’re still looking at it, but the extent of trolling on female MPs does seem to be much greater than male MPs. Also the psychological impact on female MPs is more profound than male MPs

What’s the answer? Better online policing, teaching people how to deal with it, or a mixture?
Definitely a mixture! Teaching people to deal with it would be a good starting point, but policing online platforms, although a mammoth task, is equally important.

Should psychologists be working with/within the internet and social media giants, to better understand, identify and tackle trolling?
Certainly the involvement of psychologists would benefit in the policing, but it is a balance with free speech and direct abusive insults.

In my experience, trolls draw a surprising amount of personal identity and energy from their trolling behaviour. In terms of behaviour change, this has surely got to be one of the hardest challenges?
We haven’t asked the question of whether trolls should be banned or advised of the error of their ways. But their perceived cloak of anonymity is likely one of the reasons they think they can get away with making comments and threats that they would not make face to face.

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology meeting on internet trolling, organised by the British Psychological Society, takes place on 13 June

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