Bryant, Arkansas business-owner Dani Martin logged onto her store’s Facebook page for a weekly live video stream when the comments feed was invaded by more than 50 men asking about a couch. This is a common troll tactic called a couch auction, and women doing direct-sales of products like makeup and jewelry are often the target.
Martin says the videos are a way for she and her husband to connect to customers and vendors of their business, The Cotton Shed. But not long after she began hosting the videos, comments about a couch made it impossible to continue.
"Show us the couch."
"Has the couch auction started yet?"
"When are you going to start talking about the couch?"
What started as a few strange comments from one man became a bombardment of similar remarks. Comments from the intended viewers of the live stream were being buried by the onslaught of couch auction comments. Martin opted to end the live stream early as comments became more lewd in nature.
The entire interaction lasted less than seven minutes, Martin said.
"I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And you know you’re live on camera, and you're trying to talk about your business. It was very unnerving because it was clearly some type of coordinated activity," Martin said.
Once she had recovered from the shock of her business’ page being targeted by trolls, Martin began researching the men she had managed to block during the altercation. Upon inspecting their Facebook pages, Martin found some had listed their employers. She then took it upon herself to try and enact justice by informing the employers of the trolling.
"If a group of 50 men walked into my store and started saying those things I would call the police."
Martin felt her actions were necessary to protect her business, especially since Facebook community guidelines don’t cover these kinds of attacks. When she learned such experiences usually target women in direct sales, Martin was even more offended.
"This is clearly harassment based on gender because it's predominantly men targeting women. And you know a lot of these women are stay-at-home moms or single moms, and they're trying to do this activity to earn some extra money for their families and now they got to deal with this," Martin said.
The people who organize these trolling raids operate from a secret group. You can't search for them on Facebook, you can only find them if you've been added by moderators or administrators of the group. If one troll finds a target they will post the link to the live stream in the group so they can all commence the attack.
Secret groups on Facebook can focus on any number of things from surprise party planning to substance abuse support groups, but unfortunately they also happen to be the perfect venue for groups of internet trolls to connect and organize harassment.
The couch auction that Martin fell prey to is a common tactic used by trolls looking to cause mischief. A more intimidating form of trolling has been growing in recent years. Some trolls spread misinformation and post comments that are intended to polarize social media users on sensitive issues.
Experts have found troll armies infiltrating social media feeds all over the world. The storm of chaos and discord they leave in their wake has taken the blame for major political phenomena. These trolls spread propaganda and incite unrest by piggy-backing on politically charged issues to further divide opposing parties. Whether they are bots or actual people enlisted to troll others, their threat is apparent and the government is struggling to implement a way to fight them.
Professor Nitin Agarwal at the University of Arkansas Little Rock is the director of COSMOS, Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies. His research includes cyber information campaigns, deviant behavior modeling, and data mining. When asked to comment on the danger trolls can pose to society, the professor cited Macedonia’s failed referendum to change its name and join NATO and the EU to illustrate how the damage trolls cause online can spread into real life.
"The leading narrative there in those cyber disinformation campaigns is to strike into the national identity, or populist sentiment in those populations that don’t let them change the name of their country," Agarwal said.
With trolls using the internet to manipulate politics and the future of entire countries, the allusive little green monsters suddenly seem much scarier. Old adages like “don’t feed the troll” seem wholly insufficient to combat them. But that is exactly what Agarwal would advise. His research team has been funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and Science Foundation to detect trolls and the spread of fake news to block them.
"As opposed to getting the content and the malicious user suspended, we try to educate the end user before they see the content."
Agarwal’s team specializes in cyber forensics to develop complex algorithms to detect malicious behavior and its source. But the average social media user must report and block one troll at a time.
When these attacks are organic in origin, there is still little the average user can do. A troll whose goal isn’t to topple governments but just to rile people up for a laugh can be equally hard to deal with, although most would say not nearly as innocuous.
Nico Diaz is a writer who went under cover for eight months infiltrating the trolling community and learning the way they operate. Diaz discovered an entire sub-culture with its own rules and hierarchy.
To operate in this world Diaz created an alias or what trolls would call a sock. David Kelley was the name that rose into veritable troll stardom. Diaz’s ability to execute a joke and produce original trolling material propelled Kelly into the spotlight. He had a following. He had fans. Diaz admits he had fun as Kelly, diving into this world of dark humor where he was celebrated. But soon the lure wore off as the dark side of the trolling world again became apparent.
Diaz was conducting his investigation during the same time the Marines United scandal came out last year. Marines involved were court-martialed for sharing intimate photos of female marines in a secret Facebook group.
Diaz was doxed several times, which is when a person’s true identity and personal information is published for public consumption, including his address and phone number.
Since his exposés on the trolling world, Diaz has become the target of many trolls. They have spammed his blog with hateful comments and contacted his employers in an effort to discredit him as a writer. Diaz says the fun he had exploring their subculture is completely overshadowed by the abhorrent acts of these groups. One woman Diaz spoke with had been active in trolling groups for years, but after a confrontation with other trolls they came after her.
"They doxed her. They found out when her husband died. He died in a pretty bad car crash. They were able to get their hands on the photos from the accident, from the crash scene and they were posting them."
Diaz says what he found was a community with extremes like every other faction of society. Some trolls were bored house wives looking for fun while others prowled the internet looking to spread the darkest most unsettling things you could imagine.
"That’s not unique to these groups," Diaz said. "That’s not something we can credit to trolling groups and say what’s special about these groups is XYZ. But what you can credit to these groups is the negative side."
So much of society exists online which is where these trolls thrive. There have always been pests that feed on the disorder of the world. They set fires because they love to watch them burn but many take it too far. They target a person’s wellbeing and obstruct their way of life.
The internet is seen as this lawless land where anyone can say and do whatever they want. What can one do when online behavior begins to hurt their real lives? Professor Agarwal says social media companies should do more to regulate these behaviors. Dani Martin sought retribution by informing the troll’s employers of their online misdeeds. And classically one would be told to just ignore the troll and they will go away.
Unfortunately experts say trolls aren’t going anywhere soon.