There are many forms of technology that play such an important role in our daily lives, that it almost seems impossible to imagine what life would be like without them; indeed, we may even wonder how we possibly managed in our recent past when they didn’t exist. As with most things in life, technological innovations can be used for both good and bad. The internet and social media in particular are important examples of technology that can be used for good, but equally can be a source for much evil.
One of the more detestable aspects of social media is the act of trolling. There have been numerous reports of people becoming severely distressed as a result of cyber-bullying from online trolls; some have even taken their own lives as a result of it. Thus, when we as believers in particular choose to engage with social media, it should be clearly apparent that we ought to be aware of trolling, and avoid falling into the traps laid out by trolls, or worse still, becoming trolls ourselves.
It is therefore somewhat unfortunate that there seems to be an ever increasing band of Muslims online, who on the one hand proudly assert allegiance to their faith, whilst on the other behave in an extremely abusive manner with anyone that they disagree with, and calling upon their fellows to encourage them in a continued cyber-bullying session against individuals and groups they disagree with. Of course, there are the trolls on the other side, and the resulting exchange of filth between both groups makes for very difficult reading for the innocent ‘bystander’, who had the misfortune of such an exchange appearing on their Facebook or Twitter feed.
However, what I find particularly interesting, is that a number of people who get roped into trolling sessions are individuals that I know; individuals who in person are very agreeable, yet their online persona is something completely different. What is the cause of this disconnect between an individual’s online behaviour, and their ‘real-life’ personality?
Before attempting to answer this question, it would be worth considering what trolling actually is; in trying to define it a number of difficulties can arise. An editorial in the online journal ‘Fibreculture’ attempts to deal with this very problem. Given that trolling is a relatively new phenomenon, they use a definition provided by the Urban dictionary as a starting point:
The art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly p***ing people off, usually via the internet, using dialogue. Trolling does not mean just making rude remarks: Shouting swear words at someone doesn’t count as trolling; it’s just flaming, and isn’t funny. Spam isn’t trolling either; it p***es people off, but it’s lame.
The most essential part of trolling is convincing your victim that either a) truly believe in what you are saying, no matter how outrageous, or b) give your victim malicious instructions, under the guise of help.
Trolling requires decieving; any trolling that doesn’t involve decieving someone isn’t trolling at all; it’s just stupid. As such, your victim must not know that you are trolling; if he does, you are an unsuccessful troll.
Thus, trolling isn’t merely firing off random comments or spamming – that’s apparently ‘not cool’. Trolling is something far more sophisticated and from this definition, it is something planned and calculated that involves deception with the intention of harming the victim.
The editorial points out that deception is actually a very important feature of trolling and that makes sense. In its simplest form many Muslim trolls hide behind a fake identity through a ‘kunya’ when hurling out their carefully planned attacks online, or perhaps they will lie and exaggerate the truth in order to get a response. However, there is a more interesting dimension to this; do Muslim trolls really believe in the things they are saying? Or is it the case that in reality they don’t truly believe in much of what they say, as all they are really concerned about is feeding their own egos through the distress they cause to their victims? If this is indeed the case, one wonders how far such cognitive dissonance exists within these individuals. Furthermore, herein lies a dichotomy; as believers we are constantly commanded to exhibit the best of manners and speech in our conduct, which seem diametrically opposed to the principles of trolling.
However, the editorial also explores a very interesting idea, that trolling is actually an extension of the underground internet culture; hacking being another example of it. Expanding on this, they posit the idea that they are not an anomalous group of internet users, rather they are the ‘immune system’ of the internet, as a means of fighting mainstream sensibilities in a space that is becoming increasingly corporatised. For them, this is a battle to keep the internet a true ‘zone of freedom’. However, yet another dichotomy exists within this paradigm for the Muslim troll. Most of them do not believe in absolute freedom of speech, yet through their behaviour they align themselves with the trolls fighting mainstream culture who do. They aim to keep the internet as a zone of absolute free speech in order that they themselves can say pretty much as they wish.
The reality of course is that online spats rarely result in any tangible outcomes. In an analysis of online political argumentation, Marcin Lewinsky reports that most online discussions are filled with fallacious arguments, irrelevant, unqualified, unoriginal arguments, straw men arguments and abusive language. For Muslims who are serious about engaging in debate for the sake of progress in development, it should be clear that for the most part, online discussions are unlikely to bring about the changes they wish to see. Indeed, it might be seen as a method the devil is employing to take them away from that which is meaningful.
To further understand who these trolls are, a recent study looked at 1,200 subjects in an attempt to unearth their personality traits. They demonstrated that ‘Dark Tetrad’ scores were highest amongst those who said that trolling was their favourite online activity. The ‘Dark Tetrad’ of personality traits consisted of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism. For those who are trolls and proud, this study illustrates the uncomfortable reality of who they really are.
So why do people troll? An article in the website Psychology Today explores this question further, and the author provides 8 plausible reasons. Firstly, is the idea of anonymity, which lulls an individual into the belief that they can say as they wish without any consequence, or for those who don’t use a ‘sockpuppet’ online, their abusive nature online will not be picked up by those people who hold some importance in their lives (employers, work colleagues etc.). This is of course an obvious point, but for the believer who is supposed to be in a continual state of God-consciousness, trolling might actually be a symptom of weak belief.
The online world can easily cause us to form a bubble; social media and search engine algorithms mean that we only see those things that are of interest to us, and it can be very easy for us to fall into the ‘perceived majority status’ which the author describes. Thus, we may hold racist beliefs, but we wouldn’t dare articulate them in public as we know this is a minority view. However, if we perceive it to be a majority view online (because our online world is geared towards our interests), we are more likely to espouse these ideas. For all the discussion that surrounds social isolation of certain Muslim communities, it seems that the online world exacerbates this particular problem.
A particularly concerning point made by the author is that of desensitisation. We may see so much abuse occurring on our own timelines, that we might deem it perfectly acceptable to do the same to others, and we lose the ability to think before we type. Over time, it seems our prefrontal cortex is switched off the moment we enter the online world. Given the constant reminder our Lord gives us in the Qur’an to be a thoughtful band of believers, the thoughtlessness that many of us exhibit online is in direct contradiction to what God has commanded of us.
For those of us with a commitment to God, it is apparent that every aspect of trolling is completely antithetical to the persona of the believer. For those who have fallen into this gutter of social media, one hopes that they are able to see their own evil, and strengthen their bond with God in order to climb out of it. For others who are intimidated by the tactics of trolls, the words of God are sufficient:
“And [they are] those who do not testify to falsehood, and when they pass near ill speech, they pass by with dignity.” (25:72)