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RIP Trolling

October 2, 2013
tags: , ,

Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

There are good reasons for turning on the comment feature of a website: It’s a place for users to engage with content. It promotes discussion and feedback. The comments are sometimes good for a laugh. And they indicate that people are actually visiting a website. But the merits are overshadowed when trolls enter these modern-day public spheres.

Stories on news sites, blog entries by novice writers and public pages on Facebook all succumb to this form of cyberbullying. Trolls are people who purposefully post provocative messages and images in the comment sections of websites to fuel arguments and provoke mayhem.

Sometimes these nasty notes cause little more than mildly hurt feelings and embarrassment. But a special class of Internet troll called a “RIP troll” elicits emotions much stronger.

This troll targets a type of website most would deem sacred — not a place for joking, let alone crude tormenting. It’s a type of website increasingly common in the digital age: one that memorializes the deceased.

Like the Westboro Baptist Church members who picket military funerals, or thieves who study obituaries for funeral information so they can rob families who are away from home, RIP trolls target people who are mourning their loved ones.

The media has reported several cases of RIP trolling. In August, The Chicago Tribune spoke to the angry family of a 15-year-old boy who drowned. His memorial page was vandalized with photos of people drowning.

2011 article in the British newspaper Daily Mail detailed the abuse of a 14-year-old girl’s Facebook tribute page. Her mother saw “an image of a horse and cart pulling her daughter’s coffin with the words ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’” Later, a photo appeared of her daughter with a caption that read, “Help me, Mummy. It’s hot in hell.”

Researchers have investigated trolling communities to try to understand the motivations of RIP trolls. But to do that, one should examine the relatively recent phenomenon of online memorial pages. In the digital era, these websites are becoming natural destinations for people grieving the loss of loved ones.

Google “memorial page” and countless options pop up. ForeverMissed.com, Legacy.com and MuchLoved.com are just a few of the providers that provide a venue for the bereaved to share their feelings, memories and condolences.

“For many individuals it’s about connecting with other people who are experiencing loss,” explains Jed Brubaker, a digital identity researcher who focuses on death, social media and post-mortem identity.

Facebook, of course, is also a popular destination for commiseration. After receiving proof of death, the social media site will turn a user’s profile into a memorial page. Brubaker studied interactions on these pages in a paper called “Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a site for the expansion of death and mourning.”

“There’s a type of exposure that a Facebook profile creates that is quite new to the bereaved,” he says. “There used to be a specific time and a place where we came together to grieve. It did a nice job of consolidating those interactions and also gave us norms for what was appropriate and not appropriate in this setting.”

At a funeral, a deceased person’s family and friends mourn together, in person. On Facebook, where a person often has thousands of “friends,” perhaps many of them superficial acquaintances, the grieving process becomes less intimate.

“A broader network, people who don’t even know the deceased, sometimes learn about the deceased and get involved. It’s actually a way of being supportive to their friends who are grieving,” Brubaker says.

But devastated family members and friends might not welcome comments posted by people from this broader network — people they don’t know or like. Privacy settings can control who sees and posts comments on memorial pages. But not everyone knows how to delete insensitive posts or restrict strangers from the sites.

And then RIP trolls enter the scene, posting offensive messages and photos to highly emotional audiences. Throughout his research, Brubaker has never encountered a RIP troll who actually knew the deceased person. Instead, the trolls are taking advantage of pages open to the public.

“Their motivations have actually far less to do with the fact that someone has died and far more to do with their ability to provoke and upset and frustrate a community in a particularly vulnerable position,” Brubaker says.

Whitney Phillips, author of academic paper “LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online,” studied RIP trolls’ behavior and talked to some of the perpetrators. In the paper, Phillips points out that many trolls draw the line at memorial pages — like most people, they deem it “downright distasteful.”

Some RIP trolls she talked to claim they don’t target family members.  Instead, they aim their efforts at “grief tourists” — people who don’t know the deceased but participate on the memorial sites because they’re bored and want attention. Other RIP trolls say their actions are a critique of the mainstream media’s racial and socioeconomic bias — their tendency to “theatricalize” the death of a pretty white girl above others.

In summary, there are a multitude of reasons RIP trolls do what they do: Some get a rise out of provoking — they want to unnerve people. Others are making an indirect, convoluted social commentary. And some are just being mean. But dissecting the motivations behind RIP trolling won’t comfort the genuinely shattered parents and best friends of the deceased.

Stopping them might. Punishing them might. But under American law, RIP trolls aren’t usually considered criminals.

“The victim is dead. We can’t say ‘they’re harassing the family.’ There has to be a specific victim in order for us to serve a subpoena to the online service,” explains Detective Rich Wistocki, an Internet crimes investigator. With a subpoena, detectives could get the IP address needed to identify people behind anonymous posts.

According to Wistocki, RIP trolls don’t have complicated motives. “In my experiences, these are usually kids with nothing to do. Their parents are not monitoring their computers and what they’re saying,” he says. “It’s kids who get a charge out of thinking they’re anonymous. They know they won’t get caught for attacking the deceased.”

So how can RIP trolls be stopped? Memorial pages could go the route of some online publications and disable the comment sections altogether. But that defeats the main purpose of these sites. Instead, users should learn how to customize privacy settings. Make the page invite-only. Or require that visitors enter a password to view and post comments and pictures.

Another option: monitor comments. A website administrator should approve each one before it appears on the page for everyone to see. Of course, that administrator will still have to encounter trolls’ messages and the emotional ramifications that come with them.

“The person who should be stewarding these spaces probably should not be the [deceased person’s] mom,” Brubaker advises. “This steward is going to have to act at very volatile moments. It should be someone who’s close to the family, but not too close. Someone who is perhaps just enough removed that they won’t be overwhelmed with grieving.”

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