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It’s no secret that people on the Internet can be mean. That’s an unfortunate fact of online culture: when you give people anonymity, they often feel free to say whatever they want with no regard for how it may affect others. After all, when you’re just typing words into a machine, it’s easy to forget that there are real people reading those words on the other side of the screen.
But what happens when you meet and confront a troll face to face? Well, let’s find out…
Chris Gethard Confronts His Internet Tormentor
In 2010, actor and comedian Chris Gethard noticed a scathing review of his work on IMDb. The author was relentless, noting that Gethard should never act again and suggesting that his agent should consider hanging herself. Naturally, Gethard was curious about why someone hated him so much — so he decided to track down the troll.
Some Catfish-style detective work led Gethard to the Facebook profile of a guy named Travis. He sent him a friend request and asked if he’d like to chat on camera sometime. In 2011, Travis made it to New York, and the two of them met up to record one of the most awkward exchanges I’ve ever seen.
Travis said he stands by everything he wrote in his original post and took every opportunity to throw more jabs during the interview. However, he did provide some insight into the mentality of a troll.
“It allows you to say things that you wouldn’t necessarily say to someone’s face,” he said. “With that being said, you’re not trying to hurt someone’s feelings, and you don’t assume that somebody is trolling their own name and watching that and being made sad by it.”
“It’s just jibber-jabber. You just get out there, you say things, you talk, and no one’s listening.” He pauses and looks at Gethard. “Except for you.”
Travis repeatedly noted that he and other trolls are just having a good time and that his online comments don’t reflect any real emotion. He also said that he’s less likely to troll people online if he knows them personally, even if they’re only acquaintances — because he doesn’t want to hurt someone he knows.
But if it’s just that guy from that TV show he hates? Fair game.
The BBC Tracks Down Notorious Troll “Nimrod Severn”
After speaking to a source familiar with online trolling culture, the BBC managed to put a face to the notorious troll known only as “Nimrod Severn.” His real name is Darren Burton, and his favorite pastime is visiting RIP tribute pages on Facebook and leaving hateful, racist comments about the deceased.
Why would someone do this? When a reporter from the BBC confronted Mr. Burton, he offered little explanation for his behavior — though it’s worth noting that he seems just as terrible in person as his anonymous remarks suggest.
When asked if he ever thinks about the people he’s hurting, Burton replies: “What do I think? I think fuck ’em. That’s what I think.”
The reporter later asks how he justifies his actions.
“Is it breaking the law?” Burton asks. (In some cases, the answer is yes.) He then goes on to claim that because Facebook is an “open forum,” he can say what he wants.
No remorse. No empathy.
Lindy West Confronts The Troll Who Stole Her Dead Father’s Identity To Harass Her
Being harassed on the Internet is such a normal, common part of my life that I’m always surprised when other people find it surprising. You’re telling me you don’t have hundreds of men popping into your cubicle in the accounting department of your mid-sized, regional dry-goods distributor to inform you that – hmm – you’re too fat to rape, but perhaps they’ll saw you up with an electric knife? No? Just me? People who don’t spend much time on the internet are invariably shocked to discover the barbarism – the eager abandonment of the social contract – that so many of us face simply for doing our jobs.
But despite the thick skin she’s developed over the years, she was taken aback (to say the least) when her dead father contacted her on Twitter.
“Someone — bored, apparently, with the usual angles of harassment — had made a fake Twitter account purporting to be my dead dad, featuring a stolen, beloved photo of him, for no reason other than to hurt me,” she writes. “The name on the account was “PawWestDonezo”, because my father’s name was Paul West, and a difficult battle with prostate cancer had rendered him “donezo” (goofy slang for “done”) just 18 months earlier.”
“Embarrassed father of an idiot,” the bio read. “Other two kids are fine though.” His location: “Dirt hole in Seattle.”
West didn’t know what to do. Typically, the best advice you’ll hear from people who regularly share things online is “don’t feed the trolls.” Ignore them and they’ll go away. And that had always been Lindy West’s policy — but this time she decided to go off script and discuss the whole thing publicly.
The result? The troll emailed her the very next day to apologize:
Hey Lindy, I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either.
I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.
I have e-mailed you through 2 other gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults.
I apologize for that.
I created the PaulWestDunzo@gmail.com account & Twitter account. (I have deleted both.)
I can’t say sorry enough.
It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever.
I’m done being a troll.
Again I apologize.
I made donation in memory to your dad.
I wish you the best.
She later followed up with him to discuss the incident on an episode of This American Life. West and her troll talked for two-and-a-half hours.
“He was shockingly self-aware,” she said. “He told me that he didn’t hate me because of rape jokes — the timing was just a coincidence — he hated me because, to put it simply, I didn’t hate myself. Hearing him explain his choices in his own words, in his own voice, was heartbreaking and fascinating. He said that, at the time, he felt fat, unloved, ‘passionless’ and purposeless.”
He explained how he had changed since he stopped trolling her. He started taking better care of his health, he found a new girlfriend, and he went back to school to become a teacher. Becoming a volunteer at a school seems to have had a massive impact on him: “Seeing how their feelings get hurt by their peers,” he said, “on purpose or not, it derails them for the rest of the day. They’ll have their head on their desk and refuse to talk. As I’m watching this happen, I can’t help but think about the feelings that I hurt.”
He apologized again, and West forgave him.
“I didn’t mean to forgive him,” she said, “but I did.”
The Troll Mentality
What can we conclude from all this? A few things:
- Generally, trolling comments are nothing personal. Trolls project their insecurities onto others as a coping mechanism of sorts. They’re hurting, and they deal with it by making others hurt too.
- In the heat of the moment, as trolls are blowing off steam in comment sections around the Web, they forget that a real human being is on the other side reading what they’ve written. The Internet creates a feeling of distance — if you’re not standing in front of someone, it doesn’t feel like what you’re saying will actually hurt them.
- Sometimes, ignoring trolls and cyberbullies isn’t the best policy. A well-written response might just open the troll’s eyes and change their ways.
Have you ever dealt with a troll online? Or, have you ever been a troll? What are you thoughts on the mean-spirited troll culture of the Internet? Let us know in the comments below!