But even those in the alt-right who claim they are “unf-ckwithable” aren’t really. At some point, everyone, no matter how desensitized by their online experience, is liable to get freaked out by a big enough or cruel enough threat. Still, people have vastly different levels of sensitivity. A white male journalist who covers the Middle East might blow off death threats, but a teenage blogger might not be prepared to be told to kill herself because of her “disgusting acne.”
Which are exactly the kinds of messages Em Ford, 27, was receiving en masse last year on her YouTube tutorials on how to cover pimples with makeup. Men claimed to be furious about her physical “trickery,” forcing her to block hundreds of users each week. This year, Ford made a documentary for the BBC called Troll Hunters in which she interviewed online abusers and victims, including a soccer referee who had rape threats posted next to photos of his young daughter on her way home from school. What Ford learned was that the trolls didn’t really hate their victims. “It’s not about the target. If they get blocked, they say, ‘That’s cool,’ and move on to the next person,” she says. Trolls don’t hate people as much as they love the game of hating people.
Troll culture might be affecting the way nontrolls treat one another. A yet-to-be-published study by University of California, Irvine, professor Zeev Kain showed that when people were exposed to reports of good deeds on Facebook, they were 10% more likely to report doing good deeds that day. But the opposite is likely occurring as well. “One can see discourse norms shifting online, and they’re probably linked to behavior norms,” says Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project and faculty associate at Harvard’s Internet and Society center. “When people think it’s increasingly O.K. to describe a group of people as subhuman or vermin, those same people are likely to think that it’s O.K. to hurt those people.”