Keeping off social media when grieving or vulnerable could help avoid trolls

Zelda Williams: taking a break from Twitter. Popculturegeek, CC BY-SA

When I read that Robin William’s daughter Zelda was deleting her Twitter and Instagram because of abusive messages in the aftermath of her father’s death, I recalled Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins, a biologist, talks about the risks that organisms take to survive: “If you go down to the water-hole to drink, you increase your risk of being eaten by predators who make their living lurking for prey by water-holes. If you do not go down to the water-hole you will eventually die of thirst. There are risks whichever way you turn.”

While a hungry lion attacking a thirsty zebra might seem quite far removed from the experience of Zelda Williams, there are some similar dynamics. Our need to express grief may not be quite as pressing as the need for water, but both can be seen as instances of vulnerability in the eyes of a predator – some just happen to be online.

Much has been written about why we say things online which we later regret, but what is less well understood is the behaviour of those who intentionally set out to attack and inflict pain on others. While the term “online predator” has been somewhat maligned when referring to sexual behaviour, we do know that such individuals tend to seek out the maladjusted or vulnerable as their victims. In this context we are talking about trolls as predators – behaviour which is correlated with psychopathy and Machiavellianism, but especially with sadism.

What research has not shown is how or why these individuals select their victims. My hypothesis is that there is a common factor: noticeable weakness.

In the case of Zelda Williams, her public grief was effectively an advertisement of vulnerability, which seems to attract a particular type of predator – the “RIP troll”. Research has argued that such individuals are attempting to lampoon media and public over-sentimentality, though this is of little comfort to their victims. As has been noted, there is still an aspect of human psychology which enjoys inflicting pain on the others, which is most easily achieved online, where can also be easy to remain anonymous.

While in no way wishing to engage in victim-blaming, I suggest that those in mourning consider avoiding social media for a while. In many cultures, it is traditional for the bereaved to withdraw from social engagements for a certain length of time. Usually interpreted as respect for the dead, mourning periods have a protective function, in removing the individual from events which may trigger grief. Fundamentally, it is much easier to avoid RIP trolls when offline.

This will be cold comfort for those who lack strong offline social support, and research has long shown that social networking sites are used by young adults for emotional, as well as informational support (Zelda Williams has also said the support she received online meant a lot). Risk of attack is mitigated when one’s profile is only visible to those we personally know and trust, but as social networks have become larger and more open, that is increasingly difficult to achieve.

Harmful speech may not be illegal, but it is nonetheless harmful – and companies need to understand their moral responsibilities as well as their legal ones. Twitter have announced that they are in the process of evaluating how they improve their policies to better handle tragic situations.

At the same time, it is worth bearing in mind that such tools will always be co-opted, and as such we should choose them wisely: for example, it seems that Facebook’s reporting function is being used to silence dissent. However, in the same way we now have pretty robust defences against email spam, users expect protection from harmful speech. In the meantime, the best way to avoid suffering the attacks Zelda Williams received is to observe a cyber-mourning period of sorts.