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COVID-19 and The Trouble with Trolls

Troll (noun): “a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content” (Merriam-Webster).


Trolling, at the term is currently used, refers to malicious, antisocial online behavior. But trolls and trolling have always been around in one form or other, even during pandemics, creating distress and disruption. In Padua, Italy, during a Bubonic Plague outbreak in 1576, a pamphlet was circulated widely in the city, “claiming that wicked ones (sciagurati) were spreading the disease intentionally with infected clothing and poisonous ointments (untioni) rubbed on door handles and knockers” (Cohn, 2010, p. 119). During the 2003 SARS epidemic, a hoaxer in Hong Kong posted a bogus news item on a faux news site, claiming that Hong Kong would soon be declared an infected region and sealed off from the rest of the world. Such a rumour quickly spread around the city, causing frightened people to rush to stores to purchase supplies (Cheng & Cheung, 2005).


During the recent spate of panic buying, in which people were trying to stock up on supplies, a widely-circulated photo was said to depict panic buying in Vancouver. The photo wasn’t even taken in Canada but nevertheless fuelled panic buying (Young, 2020). According to a recent news report, Taiwan authorities “accused Chinese Internet trolls of sowing panic over the coronavirus outbreak, with much of the disinformation falsely implying the island has an out of control epidemic.” The motivation of the troll or trolls was apparently to “cause misunderstanding among the public and to sow panic to seriously jeopardise our social stability.”


And then there were the infamous bat soup videos. One clip, since taken down, showed a smiling Chinese woman holding a cooked bat on camera, stating that it tasted like chicken. (FYI: Most exotic animals taste like chicken.) The video caused outrage, with some people blaming Chinese eating habits for the outbreak. In fact, the video was not taken in Wuhan or even in China; it was filmed in 2016 on an island in Palau, in the western pacific ocean.


Previous research, conducted before the outbreak of COVID-19, revealed a form of trolling in which medically healthy people fake illnesses online (e.g., in support groups) (Pullman & Taylor, 2012). Whether that happens with COVID-19 remains to be seen.


The problem with trolls led the WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to declare that “at the WHO we're not just battling the virus, we're also battling the trolls and conspiracy theories that undermine our response.”


Misinformation can be spread for all kinds of reasons. People who genuinely believe in some conspiracy theory or wild rumour may circulate the misinformation. Sometimes the misinformation originates from deliberately faked stories or images, seemingly intended to create panic and social disruption. If we want to address the problem of such “fake news”, we need to understand why trolls do the things they do. Who are these people and what, if anything, can be done about COVID-19-related trolling?


Trolls enjoy their malicious activities (Buckels et al., 2014; March, 2019). Buckels et al. (2014, p. 97) put it this way:


“Internet trolls share many characteristics of the classic Joker villain … Much like the Joker, trolls operate as agents of chaos on the Internet, exploiting ‘hot-button issues’ to make [Internet] users appear overly emotional or foolish in some manner. If an unfortunate person falls into their trap, trolling intensifies for further, merciless amusement.”

Anonymity online facilitates trolling. Several studies have been conducted to construct a psychological profile of the Internet Troll. Research indicates that trolls tend to have the following personality features (e.g., Buckels et al., 2014; March, 2019; Sest & March, 2017):


· Primary psychopathy. That is, the person is callous, manipulative, superficially charming, does not feel emotions deeply, and is lacking in remorse for his or her actions.
· Sadism. Internet trolls enjoy directly hurting or humiliating people, and gain enjoyment from witnessing others being hurt or humiliated.
· Lack of emotional empathy. Internet trolls know what will upset people, but they do not empathize with the distress felt by their victims.
· Negative social potency. Internet trolls find it rewarding to cause social mayhem. Creating social disruption can provide the troll with a sense of power.

Most, but not all, trolls tend to be men. The research is inconsistent on this point.


If trolls enjoy their malicious activities and feel no remorse, then it is highly unlikely that any sort of public service announcement would persuade them to change their ways. Common advice on the Internet is “do not feed the trolls.” That is, don’t reward trolling behaviours with attention. That is not going to be an option if trolls circulate fake but plausible images that go viral.


Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from the WHO proposes that we do battle with the trolls. But how? There are no simple or easy solutions to this Tolkien task.


Tighter regulation of the Internet has been proposed, such as the censorship of particular posts and the down-weighting of particular topics in Google searches. For example, if you Googled “COVID-19”, the first results to pop up would be controlled such that reliable sources came up first (e.g., posts from the CDC or WHO) and less reliable sources were down-weighted (e.g., posts from conspiracy theory websites wouldn't appear in the list of top hits). But censorship and down-weighting create problems; for example, they can feed the convictions of conspiracy theorists, who believe that censorship vindicates their theories (“The truth is out there, but Google doesn’t want you to know”). Such censorship is also unlikely to be effective in regulating sensational images that go viral. Perhaps something akin to disease surveillance could be used. Health authorities such as the CDC and WHO utilize surveillance programs in disease outbreaks are monitored. Something analogous could be done for troll outbreaks, where there is surveillance of the Internet for egregiously fake news. Once detected and determined to be important, such stories could be refuted before they go viral.


Everything is viral.

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Article in The Guardian

A shortened version of yesterday's blog was published today in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/07/life-never-return-normal-coronavirus-shape-generation

©2020 by Dr. Steven Taylor.