Adrian Chen reports: We’ve come up with the menacing term “troll” for someone who spreads hate and does other horrible things anonymously on the Internet. Internet trolls are unsettling not just because of the things they say but for the mystery they represent: what kind of person could be so vile? One afternoon this fall, the Swedish journalist Robert Aschberg sat on a patio outside a drab apartment building in a suburb of Stockholm, face to face with an Internet troll, trying to answer this question. The troll turned out to be a quiet, skinny man in his 30s, wearing a hoodie and a dirty baseball cap — a sorry foil to Aschberg’s smart suit jacket, gleaming bald head, and TV-trained baritone. Aschberg’s research team had linked the man to a months-long campaign of harassment against a teenage girl born with a shrunken hand. After meeting her online, the troll tormented her obsessively, leaving insulting comments about her hand on her Instagram page, barraging her with Facebook messages, even sending her taunts through the mail.
Aschberg had come to the man’s home with a television crew to confront him, but now he denied everything. “Have you regretted what you’ve done?” Aschberg asked, handing the man a page of Facebook messages the victim had received from an account linked to him. The man shook his head. “I haven’t written anything,” he said. “I didn’t have a profile then. It was hacked.”
This was the first time Aschberg had encountered an outright denial since he had started exposing Internet trolls on his television show Trolljägarna (Troll Hunter). Usually he just shoots them his signature glare — honed over decades as a muckraking TV journalist and famous for its ability to bore right through sex creeps, stalkers, and corrupt politicians—and they spill their guts. But the glare had met its match. After 10 minutes of fruitless back and forth on the patio, Aschberg ended the interview. “Some advice from someone who’s been around for a while,” he said wearily. “Lay low on the Internet with this sort of stuff.” The man still shook his head: “But I haven’t done any of that.”
“He’s a pathological liar,” Aschberg grumbled in the car afterward. But he wasn’t particularly concerned. The goal of Troll Hunter is not to rid the Internet of every troll. “The agenda is to raise hell about all the hate on the Net,” he says. “To start a discussion.” Back at the Troll Hunter office, a whiteboard organized Aschberg’s agenda. Dossiers on other trolls were tacked up in two rows: a pair of teens who anonymously slander their high school classmates on Instagram, a politician who runs a racist website, a male law student who stole the identity of a young woman to entice another man into an online relationship. In a sign of the issue’s resonance in Sweden, a pithy neologism has been coined to encompass all these forms of online nastiness: näthat (“Net hate”). Troll Hunter, which has become a minor hit for its brash tackling of näthat, is currently filming its second season.
It is generally no longer acceptable in public life to hurl slurs at women or minorities, to rally around the idea that some humans are inherently worth less than others, or to terrorize vulnerable people. But old-school hate is having a sort of renaissance online, and in the countries thought to be furthest beyond it. The anonymity provided by the Internet fosters communities where people can feed on each other’s hate without consequence. They can easily form into mobs and terrify victims. Individual trolls can hide behind dozens of screen names to multiply their effect. And attempts to curb online hate must always contend with the long-standing ideals that imagine the Internet’s main purpose as offering unfettered space for free speech and marginalized ideas. The struggle against hate online is so urgent and difficult that the law professor Danielle Citron, in her new book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, calls the Internet “the next battleground for civil rights.” [Continue reading…]