Credit: serra boten on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

And Now We Have

Paid Internet Shills

I'm just going to say it: not feeding the trolls isn't enough.

By the time people have read the comments - they are swayed. 

Oh not necessarily by what the troll says, but because most people try to avoid controversy and arguments.

We don't want to get involved, add fuel to the fire, or rock the boat.

In fact, trolls (or paid shills) have already done their job by silencing those who might have stepped up to comment.

Not surprising, an article by Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post confirmed:

"Multiple experiments have shown that perceptions of an article, its writer or its subject can be profoundly shaped by anonymous online commentary, especially if it is harsh."[1]

Flagging spammers is easy. I think it's time that online businesses and writing platforms start to consider banning trolls and paid shills. Perhaps search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo would be wise to look into making it easier to recognize, flag and ban these types too.

The Troll
Credit: Sarah German on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Trolls, Shills, and the Law

The simple definition of a troll is one who intentionally tries to cause upset or start arguments online. However, they don't stop there, as Dr. Judith Donath explains, "The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns..."[2]

A shill[3][4] is someone who pretends to be "just another user" online that promotes and is paid (or compensated in some way) to help a business. Shills deny they are hired, have a vested interest in, or close relationship with the companies that reward them.

Businesses who hire shills are using something known as crowd psychology.[5] The basic idea here is that individuals in a crowd lose their sense of self, confidence, and personal opinions. People tend to "unquestioningly follow the predominant ideas and emotions of the crowd."[6]

This is why most onlookers decide to remain quiet.

What people witness is a form of adult bullying that keeps them from participating. No one wants the troll or shill to start attacking them and these "influential bullies" often have another person or two to back them up. Who wants to be outnumbered?

Many people I've spoken to are surprised to learn that shilling is illegal in many places, including Canada and the United States.

Money Changes Everything

If people perceive they might be affected financially in some way by disagreeing with shills and trolls, they remain hush. In an online community, people are afraid to lose favour, their income, position, status, or reputation.

Even in the light of solid proof.

I've been dumbfounded by how many educated, intelligent people are willing to "look the other way" when someone starts to manipulate facts or even fabricate complete lies about an article or the person who wrote it.

See No Vader, Hear No Vader, Speak No Vader
Credit: JD Hancock on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

The Gist

As with most advice I've found online, we are told to "ignore" it. As stated in Jake Swearingen's article in The Atlantic:

The response to online harassment is often a combination of apathy and "Well, that's Internet for you." Victims are sometimes told they are making things up, that their harassment is an isolated incident, or that they are actively seeking the attention of online harassers.[7]

But is this the right approach?

The latest findings say no. It's simply not enough.

I agree with the comment by GTomato in the Entrepreneur article[8] by Jeffrey Hayzlett: 

This is interesting: I have had major problems with trolls and my first impulse was to confront them, but I was told the best way to deal with it was to ignore it because you can't win engaging with them and that sensible people will see that they are nuts. So I have ignored it, and the trolls did stop, but it annoys me that their lies are still floating out there uncontested.

The Law

In California (where HubPages happens to be located), under the newly created crime of “e-personation”, it is illegal to pass yourself off as someone else online in order to cause harm to another person. It actually carries a fine of $1000 or a year in jail.[9]

But What About Canada?

Yes, under the criminal code here, it's covered.

As Tim Richardson, a professor of e-commerce at the University of Toronto and Seneca College, stated in a Vancouver Sun article, "We already have laws about impersonating people. The tool you use doesn't matter."[11]

InfoBarrel's Terms of Service states:

20. Governing law. The provisions of this Agreement and any matters relating hereto shall be governed by, and construed in accordance with the laws of Canada. You hereby irrevocably agree that the competent courts in the Province of British Columbia shall have exclusive jurisdiction in relation to any claim, dispute or difference concerning this Agreement and any matter arising with respect thereto.

The Law in Canada

Identity Fraud Section 403[10] covers the following:

Anyone who fraudulently *impersonates another person, living or dead with intent to:

(a) gain advantage for themselves or another person
(b) obtain any property or an interest in any property
(c) cause disadvantage to the person being impersonated or another person or
(d) avoid arrest or prosecution or to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice.
*Additional clarification: impersonating a person includes pretending to be the person or using the person’s identity information (whether by itself or in combination with identity information pertaining to any person) as if it pertains to the person using it.
Author's note: I shortened and simplified the wording of the criminal code and I used the term "impersonate" for "personate."
The old Globe AZ jail
Credit: David Quigley (power_on on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Possible Solutions

Writing platforms could (should) exercise their right to permanently ban shills and trolls. However, targets should consider filing charges against such perpetrators. Shills and trolls may face a up to a $1000 fine (or spend time in jail).

As Anne Applebaum summed up in her article:

"Sooner or later, we may also be forced to end Internet anonymity or to at least ensure that every online persona is linked back to a real person..."

And I couldn't agree more with her last sentence:

"Human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, should belong to real human beings and not to anonymous trolls."