Hunting Down China’s Internet Trolls
For six months after my story went to press, I didn’t dare open QQ.
This April, I used the popular messaging platform to make contact with a group of trolls active on Chinese social media as part of a reporting project for the Chinese magazine Sanlian Lifeweek. The past few years have witnessed a number of tragedies caused by cyberbullying and coordinated harassment campaigns. Given the mounting toll, my editors and I were curious: Who was running these campaigns, and why?
We were hardly the only ones posing this question. In 2016, beauty blogger Em Ford made a short documentary, “Troll Hunters,” in which she attempted to confront her attackers face to face. After hiring a detective to track them down, Ford finally arranged a meet with her bully in the parking lot below the bully’s home. “Why do you send abuse to people?” she asked, her voice quivering with rage.
“For fun,” the bully responded without a hint of remorse.
I didn’t go quite as far as Ford. From the start, I knew that it would be tough, if not impossible, to persuade anyone to meet in person with me. Searching for their addresses wouldn’t work either. Even the police fail to identify the culprit in many cyberbullying cases.
I decided to focus my outreach online. First, I looked back at high-profile online bullying incidents from the past few years and scrolled through pages and pages of hateful messages for a representative sample — those who were particularly cruel, repeat offenders, and those who eventually apologized. In total, my team and I sent nearly 150 private messages to internet trolls asking for interviews. Just eight responded.
Most people have certain stereotypes about cyberbullies; that is, they might lack jobs or social interaction, they rely on the internet to vent their anger, and they are part of the dark underbelly of society. But a 2017 study conducted by researchers at Stanford and Cornell found that cyberbullying was not limited to the anti-social. In fact, most cyberbullies are what we might call hobbyists, rather than full-timers.
My interviews backed this up. One particularly cooperative interviewee had a good job, a wife, and children. But every night he would post aggressive messages on social media platforms. He targeted women users, calling them “sluts” and “dating scammers” with no self-respect.
He showed me these messages casually, as if it were no big deal. When I pressed him for details about his background, about his relationship with his parents and the women in his life, he refused to answer. “Don’t psychoanalyze me,” he said.
Some of my interviewees were quite young, including four teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18. They tended to be most active on Bilibili, a video sharing platform dominated by teenagers — a more nerd culture-friendly YouTube.
Tracking their QQ activity, I found they tended to troll on weekends when they had no homework or after study sessions, when they were free to scroll on their phones casually. Having been immersed in digital spaces since childhood, they were often indifferent to relationships in the physical world.
Young bullies are not unique to China. As Australian journalist Ginger Gorman notes in her 2019 book “Troll Hunting,” online trolls are usually children between 11 and 16 years old who use the internet excessively and have little parental supervision.
Some researchers believe that cyberbullying may be because of an “empathy deficit,” that the human brain is designed for face-to-face interactions, not online communication. In a world where people use text and emojis to convey information, it is difficult to imagine your target as a real human being with blood, flesh, emotions and joys. A 2014 study at the University of Manitoba found that cyberbullying was often associated with the “dark tetrad” of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathology, and sadism.
But some of my interviewees seemed to defy easy categorization. One of the most forthcoming, a 27-year-old man who gave his name only as “Full Stop,” said he was a cost engineer preparing for the postgraduate entrance examination. A longtime cyberbully, he was open about his motives, some of which could be perplexing to outsiders. For example, he once spent half a year bullying his favorite e-sports player with the aim of increasing the player’s popularity.
His comments were often vicious; just reading them was overwhelming. But as we talked, Full Stop seemed to gradually let down his guard. He told me about his family and relationships, and even complained about his job like we were friends.
This was not an uncommon response to my reporting. After learning my age, some of the teenagers began calling me “older sister,” a term of respect or endearment, and offered me pointers about how to protect myself from doxxing. When I tracked down a cyberbully who doxxed a friend of mine, I received a polite, almost gentle reply: “My apologies, because I am busy with my English thesis deadline, I won’t have time to give you much of a response. I’m really sorry, and hope everything works out!”
By the end of the project, I had begun to believe there may be no such thing as “cyberbullies,” only needy, anxious, lonely, and confused human beings, just like myself. I even began to feel sorry for Full Stop. If he had truly begun to regard me as a friend, how would he react when the story came out? Would he feel betrayed?
As if to alleviate my concerns, one day Full Stop asked me about my work. Then he began to ask about what I wore during interviews, and whether I wore skirts. What about stockings? Do you have any photos? It was the first time I experienced what life must be like for female vloggers. I wrote down every word.
Still, I was worried what would happen when the article was published. As soon as I was finished, I logged out of QQ and refused to log back in for half a year. Unplugging also happens to be the recommendation of many psychologists: Cutting off platform use is the best way for victims of cyberbullying to protect themselves.
But I couldn’t avoid the issue forever, in part because tragedies linked to cyberbullying continue to happen. Just this month, a teacher in the central province of Henan died of a sudden heart attack after a malicious “hacking” incident during an online class. When I saw the news, I thought of the bullies on the other side of the screen. Were they middle school students, too? What were their lives like?
I finally worked up the courage to open QQ. Only one of my interviewees had messaged me. “How are you? Have you published your article yet? I miss you very much,” Full Stop wrote in July, two months after it went to press. And he called me “sis.”
All this week, Sixth Tone is taking a closer look at online harrassment, digital trolls, and cyberbullying on the Chinese internet. Part two, on the gaps in content moderation, can be found here.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao for Sixth Tone)