Troll Farm: Anonymity as a Weapon for Online Character Assassination

Troll Farm: Anonymity as a Weapon for Online Character Assassination

Leslie J. Reynard
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1684-3.ch010
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Anonymity can create cowards. Perceptions of mistreatment can create an urge for revenge. And online social media platforms create opportunities to exact vengeance. This chapter provides an overview of online character assassination as it has evolved within a profusion of social media sites offering forums for uncensored airing of opinions. When opinions constitute political speech, they can be life-threatening. When opinions are commercial speech rating character and competence of professionals, digital defamation can threaten livelihood. In commercial arenas, victims often feel helpless to protect their reputations; however, some legal remedies may be available. This essay investigates the nature of abusive communication online, the role anonymity plays in digital attacks, and psychological characteristics associated with trolls and cyber-bullies. Case studies of individuals' efforts to defend themselves from online character assassination illustrate concepts discussed and strategies being used for online reputational self-defense.
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In a virtual marketplace of ideas, where uploaded information has a global, eternal audience and is under little to no administrative control as to its truth value or ethical weight, ideas can become weapons. Character assassination using online postings to websites – and the emotional, psychological, social, and economic turmoil the inevitably results from such attacks – is a burgeoning problem worldwide. Chetty and Alathur offer a focused overview both of the “dark side” of advances in Internet Technologies (Its), especially social media evolving alongside their benefits to humanity. Their study focuses primarily on delineating the relationships among hate speech, terrorism, and cyberterrorism Within their definitions and descriptions, online character assassination would be a form of extremism they place beneath the umbrella of extremist hate crime or hate speech (Chetty and Alathur, 2018). In this chapter, this form of hate speech or hate crime is explored in relation to ways that anonymity facilitates this form of violence, whether it be rhetorical or physical.

Virtual speech acts transmitted via the internet generally may allocated into one of two categories based upon intent and material purpose: political speech acts or commercial speech acts. Online communication of both categories carried out using social media sites can also be either categorized either as productive and prosocial or destructive and abusive, based upon both intent and outcomes. Figure 1 depicts this fourfold framework of virtual communication dimensions, providing sub-types of online speech acts within each dimension.

Character assassination is earmarked by its personal nature, its viciousness and its deliberate lack of truth. Such speech acts maliciously deployed as weapons to destroy an individual’s reputation can fall into either the pollical and commercial dimensions of online speech acts. It may be apparent in the diagram that all four dimensions and varieties of online message types that comprise them may encourage message-creators to be either braver or more malignant if their communications are posted online under the protection of anonymity. In the case of character assassination, anonymity within the commercial speech dimension is likely to result in permanent, irreversible damage to one’s good name. However, in the realm of political communication, anonymity can operate either to the public good or result in the actual assassination of its human target. While this chapter has as its primary focus the commission of character assassination through social media using an example of a professor who was targeted by a disgruntled student, an example of a politically motivated online cyberterrorism campaign powered by anonymity that resulted in the murder of a journalist is presented.

Figure 1.

Categories of social media speech acts


Technical, psychological, and legal throughputs that contribute to the expanding scope and escalating complexity of abusive communication online include:

  • The proliferation of social media platforms that provide staging areas for online attacks on character.

  • The phenomenon that has become known as the Streisand Effect (where raising the issue of damaging online communications actually worsens the impact by drawing attention to it) as well as audience-generated hurdles to reputational self-defense such as comment sections of news sites.

  • In the United States, competing laws that protect rights to privacy on the one hand and rights to speak one’s mind on the other have produced a double bind. It is difficult to defend simultaneously both sets of contradictory protections offered by the Bill of Rights when one undermines the other. This is particularly true with respect to online commercial speech that constitutes defamation. In this balancing act, safeguards to freedom of speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment are pitted against Fourth Amendment guarantee that one’s right to privacy is sacrosanct (Chemerinsky, 2017).

  • The critical role that anonymity plays in facilitating the free expression of dissent while at the same time enabling the abusive dissemination of false or threatening messages is a key concern. Balancing safeguards to individuals’ free expression while at the same time protecting rights to privacy and safety is a stumbling-block to developing workable protocols and legislation of digital speech, especially on social media sites.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Lulz: Internet slang term that evolved as the plural form of LOL ( laughing out loud ), when acronyms were used to depict a non-verbal affective dimension of communication prior to emoticon innovations. Just for lulz , meaning “for laughs,” often in a mean-spirited vein as part of trolling behavior.

Defamation per Se: Most states in the US have determined communication types that are so damaging to individuals’ and organizations’ reputations that the statements are false doesn't have to be proven. It is enough simply to prove that they have been published in order to prevail on a suit for defamation. Types of statements that can result in defamation per se vary by state. They include claiming someone suffers from a “loathsome” disease (which has come to include allegations of mental illness), engages in “abnormal” sexual behaviors, engages in criminal activity of various kinds, or making statements that are so extreme that the allegation itself is likely to injure one’s reputation in their trade, business or profession.

Narcissism: A personality trait manifesting as extreme self-centeredness, desire for approving attention and praise, belief in one’s “specialness,” lack of empathy, a tendency to exploit others, resistance to criticism, and a sense of entitlement. One of the Dark Triad personality traits linked to cyber-bullying and trolling.

Dark Triad of Personality Traits: Psychological attributes that produce a cluster of personality disorders that includes narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathology (each of which manifests along a spectrum of behaviors for that trait). Psychopathy is sometimes discussed more narrowly as sadism . When an individual has these personality traits at the more extreme end of the spectra and the traits act together in the thought patterns and behaviors of that person, it often indicates an aggressive person with high regard for self and low regard for others which causes them to victimize other people. The Dark Triad is seen as statistically relevant in cyber-bullying and online troll behaviors.

Malice, Related to Defamation: Knowingly and deliberately communicating false or harmful information or doing so without investigating and with “reckless disregard” for the truth. In many venues, public figures must demonstrate malice as part of their burden of proof when bringing a defamation action.

Psychopathy: Sometimes called “anti-social personality disorder” or “sociopathy,” manifests as absence of remorse for bad behaviors, lack of empathy or compassion for others, often superficial charm, failure to learn from mistakes, displays disregard for the rights or feelings of others. One of the Dark Trial traits (also characterized as sadism) linked to cyber-bullying and trolling.

Anonymity: As used in this chapter, the condition wherein an online commentator's actual identity is not made available. In addition to pure anonymity, where no identifying information is provided, this also would include situations where the commentator uses a pseudonym or an avatar for self-representation.

Abusive Communication: In this context, an online message that is false, derogatory or demeaning, uncivil, bigoted, or logically likely to cause hurt or harm to the target/subject of that communication.

Cyber-Bullying: A form of malevolent online abusive communication which intentionally demeans or otherwise targets the victim. Among younger internet users, this would include what they often term as creating drama or pranking or punking , the creation of memes or other disparaging, hurtful depictions of a victim.

Machiavellianism: A personality characteristic that is one of the Dark Triad marked by an end-justifies-the-means attitude and a high willingness to manipulate people and situations to achieve one’s ends.

Defamation per Quod: An allegation that a defamatory statement was made which falls outside the categories of obviously defamatory statements that produce defamation per se . In these cases, evidence that the individual suffered damage because of the statement must be presented to support and prove the charge.

Streisand Effect: The phenomenon that occurs when one attempts to censor online information backfires by actually attracting more attention to the information once the attempt to remove it from view is made known. The name comes from an invasion of privacy situation that arose when Barbra Streisand’s mansion was photographed by a professional who was charting the Malibu coastline; the pictures were published the photographers web-site. Prior to Streisand’s lawsuit, the pictures were viewed only a few times. After the lawsuit, however, the photos received over 1,000,000 views. Relevance here is that lawsuits filed against rating sites such as Yelp or RateMyProfessor for defamatory content will often draw an extraordinary level of attention to the contested posting.

Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230: Federal law that creates freedom from liability for content of online forums which publish information, either visual or spoken by third parties, which may be defamatory. Internet service providers (ISPs) have used this act to absolve themselves from responsibility for online defamation. It also makes it difficult to identify, prosecute or sue for anonymous communications posted online.

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