Trolling the Stars

Karan Naik
May 8 · 9 min read

A digital ethnographic study on why people troll

Credit: Giphy

Trolling — is the deliberate act, (by a Troll), of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on internet forums with the intent to provoke a reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument

The internet doesn’t hurt people. It never did. People hurt people. The new digital age we live in has witnessed the beginning of several culture and generation-defining trends. Chief among those is Social Media — platforms and technologies that have brought the world several magnitudes (virtually) closer and accelerated the speed and manner in which we spread information. Unfortunately, these feats of technology have been piggybacked by users and communities who intend to use these platforms for purposes that are negative or at the least controversial in nature.

On such type of user is known as a Troll — a person who seeks to create discord and arguments by posting inflammatory or simple off-topic content.

To the general public, trolls are considered annoying and disgusting, with good reason too. But to digital ethnographers like myself and fellow researcher Ranveer Katyal — that sentiment is shared by intrigue. “Why would someone with the potential of the world’s information at their fingertips, choose to spend their time degrading and annoying other users on the internet?”

Ranveer Katyal and I, Karan Naik, belong to a program rooted at the nexus of engineering, design, and business, here at Carnegie Mellon University. We study innovation and product development within both the digital and physical realm. Which means understanding people and their motivation is always a key area of interest for us. For our course — Digital Ethnography, we chose to research the online community on Instagram, specifically the Bollywood community. Over a span of 7 weeks during our Spring Semester, we conducted research to understand why trolls do what they do, and if we can perhaps help platforms like Instagram innovate and create better to control this sort of nuisance, leading to better experiences for the greater community.

A Componential Analysis of Instagram Users

The most common type of users on the platform, across any sub-community, are general users like myself. We use our personal profiles, interact with friends and other users, and use the app purely for sharing and other social interactions. Our content is general, and intentions socially driven and less financial.

Influencers are what a lot of general users aspire to be. Depending on the number of followers, the level of interaction and engagement with other users is somewhat similar to general users, but the type of content posted is specific to their area of expertise or interest — food, fashion, travel, etc. The language used often clearly indicates their intention to reach a certain level of success, which can be the number of followers or paid sponsorships.

Celebrities are on a whole other level. Because of their popularity offline, these are individuals who can set up an account today, acquire millions of followers in a week, and couldn’t care less about the type of content they post ( provided it doesn’t offend anyone ). All they need is to do is verify their profile with Instagram. But the interaction with the greater public and followers is limited and not personal. Which is reasonable, given it’s impossible to engage with millions of followers on a daily basis.

Trolling and Popularity — an Inverse Correlation

The graphic below basically illustrates how as a user’s popularity increases, they troll a lot less.

An almost universal trend on Instagram is the decrease of negative or controversial behavior, as the number of followers increases. There are exceptions to this, but we’ll save that for another day.

It’s common for aspiring influencers and even Bollywood celebrities to post controversial comments or debate with other members of the community. In fact, one group in particular — AIB — banked on their comedic content to go viral; They frequently trolled celebrities and posted content at the expense of popular Bollywood stars. This kind of content is very popular amongst the Indian masses, and has been known to rile them. Whether or not AIB knew this and used it to their advantage is not something we can say with certainty, but it did work for them either way.

But if you follow their history over the years, it’s clear their content became less targeted and more general, with fewer occurrences of posts that picked on celebrities. The higher their follower count grew, the cleaner their content became. They picked on people less and shifted their focus on original content.

We can’t help but believe that all of this points to something else. Something I’ve coined Follower Critical Mass.

We, unfortunately, don’t have the data to support this, but we believe there’s a point of critical mass of followers that when acquired, an Instagram user or group will tone down the trolling behavior and focus instead of better quality content.

Why we think people troll

The question we all want answered. Why would anyone choose to spend their time spreading negativity, stirring up controversy, and hurting people online? There are several reasons. But the simplest one of them all? Because they can.

There are two components to Instagram that encourage trolling. The first, it’s free. The second, you can create and hide behind any fake profile of our creation. Instagram provides a platform for users to virtually post any sort of content. Leaving aside the fact that they could be reported, as long as trollers skirt around the community guidelines that would lead them to be banned, they can say and do what they like on the platform. There’s little one can do to figure out their real identity or stop. At most, you can report the profile. But the troller would just create a new one.

Since its inception, one of social media’s biggest challenges has been the creation of fake profiles. We’re not talking about bots. We mean active users creating fake profiles to hide under the blanket of anonymity. Using these profiles, users troll the greater community, without fear of repercussions. The anonymous or fake nature of these profiles allows users to express feelings they wouldn’t be able to in real life. These aren’t feelings or opinions that necessarily derogatory in nature, but simply ones that go against popular views.

Not all trollers choose to be anonymous, but most of them do. And in the context of trolling Indian celebrities, the most common types of comments fall under the themes of cultural values or religion.

Into the dark world of trolling

Our approach to this digital ethnographic research closely resembles that of being a participant observant. Close, but not the same. Being a participant observant would mean to engage in trolling ourselves, which would risk two things — our moral compass, and our account being suspended. So we resorted to contacting trollers through the direct message feature and interviewing them to understand more about why they troll.

Our conversations with them and the insights we found can be explained through a cultural model.

The cultural model represents what can is obvious and can be seen, and what isn’t obvious to the regular user.

At first glance, the type of content a trollers post is meant to seek attention — clearly evident by the follow-up conversations and arguments they have on the platform. In the context of Bollywood, most of the content and comments fall under the themes shown — religion, Indian culture, nationalism, or simply an expression of their beliefs.

The celebrity side is even more explicit and obvious — most of their content is driven by a need for publicity and self-promotion, with the occasional pain endorsement or spreading awareness of a particular issue. The content is rarely personal.

What we don’t see is the intent driving a troller’s activity, and the effects they have on a celebrity. From our conversations with trollers, they seem to not comprehend the extent to which they may be hurting another user. Furthermore, because celebrities seem like kings sitting in an ivory tower far away and isolated from normal folk, regular users assume they won’t be affected by the negative comments.

But when hundreds or thousands of users post the same type of comments, it starts getting to them.

What do trolls and great villains have in common?

They don’t believe they’re the villain.

At the end of our six-week research phase, we took a step back and read through our interview notes one last time. The second time revealed an interesting insight, highlighted through a common tone and expression in the language they used.

The trolls genuinely thought they’re being funny. It was almost sociopathic like — they displayed a sense of disregard for the feelings and emotions of the online community. None of them saw themselves them as the villain in this scenario, having no sense of empathy for the celebrities or people they set out to make fun.

Nearly every troller we interviewed truly did not believe they were trolling.

Which lead us to think. Is this a problem with the platform, education, or a cultural problem?

The trollers we chatted with had one goal — to get followers. They truly believed they were being funny, and that their content made people laugh, giving them some sort of purpose for being on the platform.

Which leads us to our next insight...

Re: The Real Reason People Troll

No one will admit it, but trolling seems to be a new “get-followers-quick scheme”. Specifically, within the celebrity trolling realm, trollers are posting, commenting, and picking arguments with other users. In most cases, the objective isn’t even to get the attention of the actual celebrity themselves. They’re banking on the fact that fans will see their content and get riled up.

The goal is to increase visits on their own profile. We believe that with every new post or comment, there’s a spike in the troller’s profile visits — either by users who approve or disapprove. Trollers attract trollers. But what’s bizarre is how users who disapprove of their content end up following them. There seems to be a fine line between content that’s funny and content that could be classified as bullying. As long as trollers remain on the right side, they can stand to gain more followers.

Recommendations - Can trolling be managed?

To be honest, we understand just one of the many reasons why trollers do what they do. But to stop them is a whole other issue. We don’t know how, yet, but we can think of a few recommendations.

If followers and likes are what Trollers seek — Instagram could change the validation and attention seeking aspect of their content. Majority of internet trolling happens in the comments section — an area that’s had little innovation till now. But it can a source of rich user engagement and provide an interesting window in user behavior online. To keep trollers at bay would mean somehow controlling online comments. Facebook already has content moderation teams to filter and remove content. But trolling falls within a grey area, meaning moderators may not always be able to detect it.

One solution may be to offer rising Instagram stars a way to control comments; limit either the number of comments or who can comment. That gives less incentive to create discord within this area of social media.

We do recognize the comment section as an important area of engagement in Social Media. Which means restricting comments will be a challenge for social media giants. A compromise would be to limit the quality and type of comment.

Taking lessons from Quora and similar platforms — a crowd-sourced approach might work. Peer-reviewing, or having editors/moderators for each genre is one possible solution. It remains to be seen how feasible this is. But we do believe it’s a step in the right direction.

Bonus- Proof trolling works as a popularity booster? Check out Wendy’s Vs McDonalds

Karan Naik

Written by

Indian Kid born and raised in Dubai. Grad student at Carnegie Mellon.