05/02/2014 11:10 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Defense Against Offense: The Reality of 'Trolling' and Its Impact

It's an oft-repeated adage of Internet usage that you're not supposed to take anything seriously. When someone says something inflammatory, you're to chock it up to the violent privilege of anonymity and move along. Don't worry: it's just a joke. Chill out: no one would say that in "real life." Calm down: they're just a troll. Whether you're spending your time in YouTube comments, parsing apart the opinions of Redditors, or moving through anonymous discussion boards, you're encouraged to bring a thick skin. In the same way that the apology has slowly begun to put the impetus of offense on the offended, it has now become the job of every Internet user to pretend to be as detached and armored as possible.

In the past few weeks, at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, campus has been inflamed in heated debate over sexual assault. Following a recently published article in the Atlantic Monthly that discussed, at length, the assault of a student in one of Wesleyan's three residential fraternities in 2010, and a lawsuit brought against the school by another student assaulted in a different fraternity in the spring of 2013, the discourse regarding the nature of sexual assault, and the best ways to combat it has risen in pitch and intensity. As eyes moved to the possibility of co-educating residential fraternities in an effort to reduce the number of male-dominated spaces (and the accompanying sexual culture and power dynamics they promote), all of campus looked to speak up. In many ways, this is and was the best possible outcome. To have a campus so rhetorically charged and emotionally invested in a topic such as this is one of the best ways to enact lasting and supported change.

I am not looking to parse apart the arguments for or against fraternities. My opinion on that is not crucial to what I see as an alarming and oft-ignored issue (certainly not as dire as sexual assault itself, but aggressively contributing to the instability of space that often makes support for survivors and foundation for conversation so difficult to enact). No, the valence of the conversation that has most affected me has taken place not in student testimonials or WSA (Wesleyan Student Assembly) minutes, but rather in the more private avenues -- specifically, the Wesleyan Anonymous Comments Board, a site that, while not officially associated with the University, serves as an unofficial, and often avoided, hub for discussion. Here, the conversation has turned ugly and mocking. Here, participants have opted to shame survivors and minimize suffering and trauma. And, because we are trained in this day and age to write off the ugliest opinions as the least worthy of engagement, the WesACB -- which was never quite palatable to begin with -- has become a garden for those opinions and intentions that we like to pretend don't lurk in our communities.

In February of this year, both Slate and the Guardian published articles on a new psychological study coming out of the University of Manitoba. This study sought to analyze the behaviors of those who online might be termed "Internet Trolls" -- either by themselves of others. An "Internet Troll" is user who intentionally posts inflammatory comments on a site in order to rile up other users. In some cases, that's as innocent as derailing discussion with stupid jokes or unrelated content. More sinisterly, one can find others on site such as Reddit who might post rape jokes in threads about the suicide of a victim, or use racial slurs when others are trying to discuss hate crimes. These are the people who you are told are simply mischievous, ludicrous and rude -- opinions ignored, but often undeleted. They are a harmless sort of vile, according to common digital-era wisdom.

The study out of the University of Manitoba, however, is looking to combat that common wisdom. Participants were asked to pick their favorite Internet activities, of which trolling was one, and were subsequently evaluated psychologically. Arguably, unsurprisingly, those who claimed they liked sending unsuspecting users to vulgar shock sites, making intentionally offensive remarks, and "corrupting" discussion were exponentially more likely to possess qualities of the so-called "Dark Tetrad" -- Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Sadism and Psychopathy -- in their everyday lives and encounters. Not so harmless, in other words.

Looking back at how this plays into Wesleyan's current jolt of discussion, a quick glance at the WesACB seems to confirm the study's suggestions. In one thread, a user posted (anonymously, of course), "I want to sue Wesleyan -- someone sexually assault me please." On that same thread, another post replied, "I want to be given rophinol [sic] and get fucked on a couch while frat boys watch. good [sic] lawsuit potential here worth at least 640000". Now, of course, many would argue that this is just a tasteless joke, and should be ignored. But after the findings out of Manitoba, that seems a little naive. And knowing that campus is in the grip of a truly sensitive -- and for some, traumatic -- discussion, that seems unfair to those struggling to be heard. It doesn't matter if this is humor. It doesn't matter whether the person was just trying to provoke a rise. Whether or not someone like this believes what they're saying, they do believe that their ability to say it is more important than the damage it might cause others. Triggers -- and they are a psychological reality: visceral and terrifying, for some -- don't depend on intention. Trauma doesn't check to see whether you were kidding before it flares up. If we are to say that we want to change the discourse on our campus, we need to be willing to look for where that discourse gets ugly.

Now, I'm not arguing that we "police" or "censor" what can and can't be said. But what I do believe is that Freedom of Speech does not privilege casual cruelty over security. Freedom of Speech does not protect you on the Internet, from anything but federal action. It doesn't mean you can't be banned from a site. No, we shouldn't go around tracing IP addresses, and suspending students for making vile "jokes" (and truly, as a side note, this has nothing to do with whether rape can or can't be joked about. I sincerely believe that it cannot, at this point or for a while, but these comments aren't about humor transcending suffering or any such justifications), but we should be willing to engage in destructive discourse without segmenting it into that which should be taken seriously, and that which should be ignored without examination. We can speak out (a thoughtful, kind response can be more about supporting the attacked than "feeding the troll"), and recognize the power we do have to make conversation safer and more productive. We should do what we have to and what we can to protect those about whom we care. To ignore this sort of abuse is not about defending a right (which doesn't apply in this case except in heavily abstracted, stretched theory), but rather about putting useless vitriol above the comfort and security of our fellows -- slippery slope fallacies be damned.

Whether it's in the specific instance of this discussion, or in the wider universe of online discourse, we need to be aware that there is impact, and effect to the things that glare out of our little screens. To often, the online world becomes an excuse for solipsism. That cannot be the case. It's the job of a community of any type -- on campus, or online -- to understand that severity is not marked by the forum. We shouldn't be blaming those who take grave remarks gravely, even if we are taught that a thick skin makes debate more convenient. Especially in the case of sexual assault -- where the question of discussion and tone are being seen as truly important factors for change -- convenience is not the end goal, nor should it be. A snide little chuckle after hitting "post," does not lessen the words in the box.