The Cloak of Anonymity: Trolls as Digital Aggressors

What does a “digital aggressor” look like? Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem: it’s often hard to tell. The internet, as an environment that accepts anonymity, often plays host to anonymous interactions. Anonymity cloaks the individuals who produce and post words and images; the seeming lack of consequence for anonymous actions can be emboldening. In certain repressive states, the potential for anonymity provided by the internet can embolden individuals in positive ways: to speak out against social ills, to report on systematic cruelty. But in other cases, anonymity provides the mask for cruelty itself.

In an article titled “Malwebolence,” published in the New York Times Magazine this past August, reporter Mattathias Schwartz attacked the question of anonymity. He focused his attention on one specific facet of anonymous activity online: the advent of trolling. Schwartz describes the origins of this pursuit in Usenet forums in the early days of the internet, but then continues on to say that

“As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.”

Digital aggression, in this genre, usually takes the form of words. In fact, since the internet remains a primarily textual medium, most digital aggression remains textual as well. When combined with anonymity, this type of aggression can look suspiciously like passive aggression: idle needling performed without any expectation of responsibility.

However, trolling takes a turn when it leverages the communicative power of the internet to transmit not insults, but plans. Anonymous organizing can occasionally lead to real-world action, as in the case of protests against Scientology described by Schwartz. Fittingly, though, these protesters do so wearing signature Guy Fawkes masks—carrying the cloak of anonymity offline.

It’s tempting to be alarmist. But only in exceptional cases does the digital realm actually produce new kinds of cruelty. It makes certain expressions of aggression easier—particularly verbal/textual ones—but it also makes those expressions more public. Schwartz’s article is a fascinating tour through a troubling world. But it’s not the online universe that most digital natives live in, nor is it one they need to live in. That there is a dedicated place on the internet for trolling, perhaps, helps to protect the rest of digital realm from some of its excesses.