Are internet trolls misunderstood? This PhD student says yes

Donald Trump has perpetuated a constant cycle of online trolling, according to Yimin Chen, who's writing his dissertation at Western University on the world of internet trolls.

Yimin Chen's thesis shows Trump has perpetuated a cycle of trolling that's not reprensentative

Yimin Chen is writing his dissertation on the world of internet trolls, and Donald Trump is a central figure in that world. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

Yimin Chen started researching internet trolls for his PhD dissertation at Western University just before Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign.

The then verbose real estate mogul turned even more expressive Republican candidate had an immense impact on the world of trolls, according to Chen.

"Trolling burst onto the mainstream," Chen told London Morning.

The urban dictionary defines trolling as "the art of deliberately, cleverly and secretly pissing people off."

Chen said this essentially summarizes Trump's Twitter persona and also provides the perfect fodder for trolls just waiting to pounce, perpetuating a never-ending cycle.

"This has sadly led to the rise of more negative aspects of trolling," said Chen.

From the moment Donald Trump declared his bid for the White House, Chen said Trump has made the act of trolling more acceptable.

"You perhaps may see much more bullying and much more hate speech," said Chen.

Trolls misunderstood

Chen has been fascinated with trolls ever since he was a kid in the 90s, browsing the pages of his dial-up internet.

At the time, his understanding of trolling was simply fooling around on the internet. He didn't associate it with cyberbullying and hate speech, realities of modern day social media.

As a PhD student in Western's Faculty of Media and Information Studies, Chen looked at worldwide media coverage of trolls from 2004 - 2014. He then did extensive interviews with 20 people who spend up to 10 hrs online each day. 

What he discovered is that media portrayals of trolls as dangerous provocateurs is different from the user's view that they're harmlessly pushing the boundaries. 

Chen said his dissertation, which looked at media accounts about internet trolls between 2014 and 2016 and peered into public perception around the act of trolling, ended up being of a retrospective of sorts on Trump's campaign. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
His dissertation comes to the conclusion that viewing trolls as miserable human beings is a misunderstood assessment.

"Fundamentally, I think trolling springs from the very natural human desire to poke at something and see what happens," said Chen.

He argues cyberbullying should be called exactly that, and trolling should be associated with its less harmless aspects — those who are looking to provoke some kind of response online without hurting people in the process.

Of course, now that Trump has "changed the game," Chen is considering pursuing his work beyond his PhD, focusing on trolling during the president's reign. 


Julianne Hazlewood is a multimedia journalist who's worked at CBC newsrooms across the country as a host, video journalist, reporter and producer. Have a story idea?