From games to social media: The evolution of trolls

Chi Almario-Gonzalez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 20 2017 06:45 PM

Once upon a time, in the world of computer games, there were trolls.

Trolls were enemies of the protagonist player. The pesky trolls rattle, confuse and block the player from pursuing his quest. Trolls were annoying but easy to defeat because they are not the main enemy. The main fight usually happened between the player and a dragon or a monster.

From computer games to social media, trolls have evolved.

Ateneo de Manila University Lecturer William Yu said trolls on social media were called such because they have the same behavior as computer game trolls.

“They are annoying and cause some damage, but they’re not that powerful,” said Yu who teaches at the Ateneo computer science department and is currently senior vice president of Novare Technologies.

Yu recalled that in the 1990s, group mailing lists were popularly used. He remembered that in these groups, there were usually a few participants who raised controversial topics “just for the sake” of disrupting the conversation. Yu said these agitators were then branded as trolls.

“Whether you call them idiot or you call them names, they feed on that and they actually reply more. These are the real trolls,” he said.

Yu said there are three different kinds of social media trolls.

  • The real troll. These are real people with real social media accounts. They believe in their cause or advocacy and “enjoy” disrupting conversations and act as troublemakers.
  • The paid troll. Yu divided them into two types:

-The paid troll who believes in the cause but “needs incentive” to actively organize a community to do the job of trolls. Yu said incentives can come in form of subsidized data and cellphone load, and several other offers.

-The troll army. Yu described them as those “who do not believe in the cause, do not even care.” They could even be people from other countries. They get paid to create fake sites and accounts. They use these accounts to act as trolls. After a day’s work, “they go home and don’t care,” said Yu. Once a project or assignment is done, Yu added, these trolls stop working.

  • The robot or bot. This troll is a computer program. The troll bot can give an automatic reply to posts on social media once they detect a programmed word or phrase.

“They are useful if you just want to spread insult. If you want to just say pangit ka or biased ka, the bot can easily do that,” said Yu. But bots can be easily detected because their responses are generic. Still, Yu said it is easy to “write” or program a bot. Bots can also operate for a long period and can respond quickly.

Of the three kinds of trolls, Yu considers the paid believer to be the most dangerous. Even after a project has been completed, the paid troll who believes in the advocacy is expected to continue his work.

Unlike the real trolls, these paid trolls were initially “seeded” with an objective to confuse, disrupt and attack personality or institutions on social media.

Yu said these paid believers usually have already created a following or have expanded their community at the time they were hired to spread a message.

“Sometimes it’s not even about getting paid. It’s just for the glory of it, like I endorse you, you endorse me. I mean, die-hard fans and trolls, sometimes the line is blurred, Yu added.

Like computer trolls, social media trolls may be annoying but they can easily be overpowered, if people fight back, Yu said.

Yu is optimistic that with greater awareness of the outbreak of fake news and sites, the social media environment will “get better.”

“But if it will get better by itself, I don’t think so,” said Yu, “we have to make a concerted campaign to educate people.”

He called on traditional media, the academe, social networks and search engines to work together to provide quality content and provide mechanisms to arrest the proliferation of fake content.