I have written and published about this often, but trolling is no laughing matter, no matter how amused we can be about it (especially if our teenagers do it and we recognize ourselves in it). Whether the motive is just a prank or something more sinister it is never a walk in the park for the victim to start with. In fact, it can cause PTSD, just like a real life violent incident can cause trauma. Sadly often it is women that are the target, but not exclusively. Racism, Homophobia, Ableism, etc. are also frequently evident.
The cause of the PTSD? As research in neuropsychology shows, strong negativity triggers our Fight & Flight response. It doesn’t matter if it is online or real life. That means that extreme negative reactions in any online environment lead to a downward spiral where people are reacting with even more vehemence or try to hide, sometimes literally by locking their social media accounts. You can see a whole online community go down in a matter of hours. Yes, Twitter and Facebook can be that dangerous.
Extreme examples not only include strongly worded messages in social media or email, but a phenomena called doxing: stalking the victim with messages at their real life home or work addresses, sending them prank gifts, trying to hack their accounts, sending emergency services to their doorstep. Really? Yes, really. Like many bad habits online it sadly orginally hails from the gaming community, where in online games opponents started pranking each other to distract them and so win a game.
After GamerGate the methods of the gaming world have been turned on the rest of us, in the last 5 years or so, including methods that the Alt Right employs. I am not going to dive into a full explanation of that, including the US political situation, as there is ample research demonstrating this. However, we still need to deal with the effects of this in our own environment.
So, really, what can we DO about it? How do we create environments that are safe for employees and students of Dutch universities?
First, support the victims. Reach out to them, reassure them of your support. Just like Ineke Sluiter, president of KNAW wrote in her keynote at the Leiden Dies. Simply the recognition of the issue behind the scenes is a start that is a warm bath.
Second, make sure the victims are safe and remain safe by offering extra resources, for instance by providing monitoring of their email & social media accounts as a filter (only the serious reactions actually get through), practical support from the janitor at their workplace, legal advice, offering psychological & social support services etc.
Third, in any non-public space of the workplace provide moderation of the online space, and make sure that is backed up by a code. Yes, house rules help. They redefine the social contract participants feel, and moderators can refer to it when taking actions to uphold them.
Fourth, for public spaces like social media, where employees or students are attacked for their status as being part of an academic environment, also give guidance on what is normal and what isn’t, what you expect all members of the community to do. Setting norms, or social mores, is extremely powerful and defines a community.
If you want to talk about any of these isses or solutions, please reach out to me in the comments or through email (firstname.lastname@example.org).