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More than 1 in 4 Americans -- 28 percent, to be exact -- admit to Internet "trolling," according to an online survey conducted by research firm YouGov. Trolling is defined as "malicious online activity" directed at a stranger. Trolls like to argue, harass, or sow discord just because they like the reaction it provokes.
Trolls aren't well regarded in the online community, and in fact, contribute to an overall decline in the quality of online discussion and debate. It got so bad on the website for the magazine Popular Science that the editors decided to turn off the ability to comment on articles last year. In so doing, Popular Science referred to a study showing that "uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself" -- meaning that trolls debating an article in bad faith actually caused readers to disbelieve something that was true.
OK, so trolling is bad for debate. But can it carry legal consequences?
Trolling Is as Trolling Does
In the United States, "trolling" by itself doesn't explicitly carry criminal sanctions under federal law. (In other countries, however, it's a different story: Australia prohibits using an online service to "menace, harass or cause an offence to the reasonable person." And in England and Wales, Parliament is discussing an amendment to the criminal justice bill that would make it a crime to verbally or sexually harass people online.)
"Trolling" itself isn't a discrete crime. When trolling is little more than disagreeing with your YouTube comments (leave Britney alone!), there's not much you'd ever be able to do about it.
But when trolling turns into harassment, stalking, or bullying, then the police can get involved. These are all state crimes, but because the communications have to travel over an interstate wire, the federal government could potentially get involved too.
Possible Civil Penalties
Depending on the type of comments an Internet troll posts, he or she could also be sued for money damages by the person being trolled. Defamation, invasion of privacy, and portrayal in a false light are just some of the civil actions that can be levied against a troll, whether the trolling occurs on the Internet or out in "meatspace."
But part of the problem with online harassment or defamation is that, first, you've got to find the person who harmed you. That can be difficult -- especially when, as journalist Amanda Hess found out after being viciously threatened online, you have to rely on local police officers who don't know what Twitter is and don't think online harassment is a big problem.
Of course, with Internet trolling on the rise, some lawmakers are trying to take action. In 2012, Arizona passed a law outlawing harassment over an electronic device -- although UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh pointed out that the law was probably unconstitutional because the language was so broad.