Out of the Cave: An ESL Class on Internet Trolls

Out of the Cave: An ESL Class on Internet Trolls

I’m going to guess there’s hardly an ESL teacher in the world who has never played the game ‘Taboo’.

It’s fast-paced fun, and more importantly from the teacher’s perspective, it elicits and uses lots of vocabulary in a bid to avoid saying the target word and five other related words. I think I’ve played it a hundred times with different levels of students, and it actually taught me an important skill: how to describe something without giving away the word itself.

This is exactly how I began our class on Internet trolls. I suspected that my students knew the word already, so I elicited it using four ‘hooks’:

  • A picture of Pepe, the Internet frog
  • Another image frequently linked with trolling
  • An incendiary Youtube comment intended to offend others
  • A clip of the character Gerald Broslowski and the other trolls from South Park

My students instantly recognized one or more of these hints, and we soon found that ‘trolling’ has become an internationally accepted word for this behavior. Eliciting the words in my students’ first language revealed some interesting metaphors; the Chinese expression for an Internet troll is a ‘White Eye’, someone with no pupils in their eyes who is therefore oblivious to the sensitivities of others.

5 Ideas for An ESL Class on Internet Trolls

  1. 1

    What Do Trolls Do?

    All sixteen of my students had an opinion on online trolling, or had experienced it in person or vicariously. With such a strong knowledge base, I knew we were in for a robust discussion, but I wanted to establish a platform of vocabulary which would enhance the debate and add lots of detail. I taught, checked or reviewed these words:

    Troll, Anonymity, Chat room, Newsgroup, Comments thread/section, In-jokes, LOL/Lulz,
    Frustration, Disgust, Offense, Outrage, Fake(ry), Indifference, Morality, Racism
    Ad Hominem attacks/insults

    I then elicited the most common actions of trolls using the question-answer dialogue format I so often favor during this section of classes:

    Teacher: We can imagine this troll, right? Is he a boy or a girl?
    Students: Boy! / Probably boy / Maybe is boy
    Teacher: And how old is he, approximately?
    Student 1: Maybe teenager?
    Student 2: Young, maybe still at college. Or just graduated.
    Teacher: And this is a sensitive question, but… what race might he be?
    Students: White! / Like you, teacher [Laughter]
    Teacher: OK, I think a lot of people would agree so far. But, what does a troll want? After all, he’s spending a lot of time on his hobby. Why?
    Student 3: He wants to upset other people. To make them feel worst.
    Student 4: To offend people. Insulting and offending.
    Teacher: [Puzzled face] Why would someone want to do that?
    Student 1: The lulz! [Laughter]
    Teacher: Right! Say more about that… [Encouraging hand gesture]
    Student 1: Is funny, yeah? To make other people feel bad. He thinks is funny.
    Student 2: He is laughing when they are crying.
    Teacher: So, trolls enjoy making people upset. What kind of people?
    Student 5: Maybe gay people?
    Teacher: I think that’s quite common. Who else?
    Student 2: Women too. Is very common. Very insulting. Like Hillary?
    Teacher: Yes, absolutely. Anyone else?
    Student 6: I read an article about a troll who insulted a dead woman.
    Students: [Mutterings of familiarity, and groans of disgust]
    Teacher: This is what I’m talking about. Why would anyone do that?
    Student 2: Maybe he is sick. Like, crazy in his mind.

    I dispatched my students to the furthest reaches of the Internet in search of the best troll examples they could find. As usual, they did not disappoint; within ten minutes, we’d gathered examples of the awful ‘RIP Trolls’ mentioned in our dialogue above, as well as Twitter trolls who stalk celebrities, someone who orchestrated a vicious online campaign against a Muslim activist, and another troll who targeted a feminist chat room. This requires quick reading and judicious selection of source material, two themes of our research sessions.

    We organized our findings into categories:

    1. Trolls who seem to have a political agenda (and may, we suspected, have been paid by a political party or activist group)
    2. Trolls who hate a particular group - the LGBTQ community, women, Muslims, African Americans and Jews were the groups most commonly targeted
    3. Trolls who just seem to enjoy causing emotional chaos for their own enjoyment.
  2. 2

    What Makes a Troll a Troll?

    We examined some of these messages, postings and tweets to see if there were common themes. Here’s what we found:

    • Lots of misspellings, some of them evidently deliberate
    • Heavy use of capital letters, as though the troll were SHOUTING
    • Repeating ‘flooding’ of a chatroom or discussion forum
    • The frequent use of racist and/or offensive language
    • A willingness to be utterly disrespectful to perfect strangers
    • Ad Hominem attacks which criticized the individual’s intelligence or background rather than the actual point they were making
    • Sudden and deliberate changes of topic, designed to frustrate others
    • The posting of graphic and offensive images
  3. 3

    Why Do Trolls Behave As They Do?

    I wanted to go beyond my students’ affirmation that trolls are seeking only ‘Lulz’ and try to establish the average troll’s state of mind and intentions. My students agreed that trolls were likely to remain part of our online discussions, and would probably become more sophisticated and dangerous as they gained new skills and tools. As such, we felt the need to carry out an amateur psychoanalysis of an everyday troll, and we teased out these explanations for his behavior. Important vocabulary is included in bold:

    1. Trolls enjoy the thrill of anonymity. Without any risk of censure, they can operate with total impunity. Trolls create fake accounts to deceive webmasters and forum moderators, so that if one account is closed, another can quickly be created.
    2. Trolls seek schadenfreude, a selfish delight in the unhappiness of others. My students compared this to emotional torture, and I quickly taught the word sadism to describe pain caused purely for the pleasure of the inflictor.
    3. Alongside causing pain anonymously, we felt that trolls might find enjoyment in the power trip of insulting others in a risk-free context. Remote, untouchable and relentless, a determined troll might think himself the emperor of the artificial environment he has helped to create (or, conversely, helped to destroy).
    4. When I asked exactly what kind of emotional pain a troll seeks to cause, my students found examples of trolls who sought to create outrage and disgust, others who focused on exacerbating grief by denigrating the memory of the departed, and others who wanted to sow fear and doubt.
    5. We found at least one example of trolling being used to support political aims; although my students were very aware that trolling played a role in the 2016 US Presidential Election, they chose to focus on the official Russian use of trolls to manipulate opinion during the crisis in Ukraine.
    6. Overall, the most common tactic or raison d’etre of trolls was found to be the creation of an antipathetic reaction - simply getting a rise out of people - with the intent of stirring things up and gaining notoriety.
  4. 4

    What Effects Do Trolls Have?

    My students got together in groups for about ten minutes to brainstorm answers to this question. During these discussions, I usually keep out of the way and simply monitor what’s going on; this probably isn’t the time for a lot of corrections, but if I hear the target language or structures going astray, I’ll briefly step in with a quiet hint.

    I then asked for feedback, rotating between the groups until we’d filled the board with ideas:

    1. Trolls create fear and uncertainty within online environments which are intended to be safe
    2. Trolls are a major nuisance to moderators; I reminded my students of the 80/20 principle, and they could imagine a small minority of trolls causing the vast majority of online trouble.
    3. We found examples of where trolls has so overwhelmed a website (with repeated spam postings, for example) that it crashed; this is a non-technical example of the Denial of Service (DOS) attacks sometimes used by hackers to temporarily disable a website or domain.
    4. We agreed that trolls are probably in a position to influence the outcome of democratic elections. I made a note to create a lesson based on the alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, something I’m looking forward to trying with my students once all the facts are in.
    5. We also agreed that trolls have lowered the standard of internet discourse by bringing in extraneous topics, fomenting distraction, and perhaps by characterizing all Internet-based discussions as lazy, offensive, intellectually bankrupt and immoral. My students worried that this would discourage people from using the Internet for perhaps its most useful purpose: free and open communication.
    6. They also worried about the amount of fakery inherent in trolling: fake accounts, fake names, fake backgrounds, fake news and opinions… My students are concerned that, in the coming years, it may become nearly impossible to judge a faker from a real contributor, especially in the case of new users who’ve just signed up to a site; this, in turn, casts enormous doubt on much that is said on the Internet, as its origin and level of seriousness can’t readily be gauged.
    7. My students impress me on a daily basis, but this very mature and perspective comment really stuck with me:
      Teacher: This is what I want to understand: why troll the family of a dead soldier, or a murdered teenager?
      Student 5: I think it’s like this… Maybe the troll is criticizing people for caring about things. They care too much, he says. They have too many feelings and get too upset.
      Teacher: Wow. So, his point is that we shouldn’t care about each other?
      Student 5: Yes, and that people who care or who love or who, you know, they’re not safe… they’re … what word, when it’s easy to hurt you?
      Teacher: [Open gesture to the class]. Who’s got this one?
      Student 3: Vulnerable?
      Student 5: [Claps hands] Yes, vulnerable.
      Teacher: [Big thumbs up to student 3]
      Student 5: Is easy to insult a vulnerable person. Like a criticism that they became vulnerable. Is their fault, maybe, that they’re not stronger. The troll is just like a bully in a school. He sees it’s easy to make you cry, so he does it every day.

    In his excellent research piece on this topic, Richard Seymour characterizes a troll’s view like this: “Caring too much about anything is a fault deserving of punishment.”

  5. 5

    How Should We React to Trolls?

    This became a vigorous and fascinating policy discussion. My students had a range of views on how we should respond to those who seek only to harm and offend others, and to degrade our trust in our institutions and leaders. Most of them recommended tougher responses by Internet Service Providers and by the government; they applauded a new British law which specifically addresses the problem; they recommended that we follow the existing advice: ‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’; and finally, they cited the importance of education, both in the morality of personal discussion and how best to use the Internet and avoid trolls.

    It was seen in exactly the same way as physical bullying, with which trolling shares many characteristics: it’s done mostly by males, for their own enjoyment at that of their cohort, and it takes aim at the vulnerable, those who cant defend themselves, and those who have publicly emoted on a topic of importance to them, and it is treated as little more than a game by its perpetrators. My students looked forward to a time when humans no longer derived enjoyment from harming each other, a hope that I made a point of applauding.

It’s a strong possibility that there will be trolls for as long as there is an Internet.

Understanding this phenomenon and crafting a response created huge opportunities for language practice, and I’ve never heard my students produce the target language as consistently as they did during these discussions. By raising awareness of trolling and its dangers, we can begin to address this debilitating and frustrating game, and to see its players as childish, selfish, inhumane and misguided. At the same time, we learned a great deal about the format and style of Internet discussion, and found that we agreed on the importance of elevating those conversations, and creating a vigorous but civil discourse in online communities.

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