Online Trolling Can Lead to Financial Rewards, Study Finds

A study published in the Journal of Marketing Management has shined a light on the murky world of online trolling—the deliberate, deceptive and mischievous attempt to provoke reactions from other internet users—finding, among other things, that it can lead to financial reward.

For the research, lead author Maja Golf-Papez, a postgraduate student from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, wanted to investigate the phenomenon of online trolling from a marketing perspective.

First, Golf-Papez attempted to track down trolls to interview. In the process, she found that they had often been removed or banned from pages before she was able to reach out to them, while also being trolled many times herself.

"Good trolls are elusive and, I find, highly intelligent characters," she said in a statement. "They know how to look after themselves and operate within but on the fringes of the law."

Eventually, she was able to find a number of trolls, many of whom had gained celebrity status within their community. Some of these individuals had nearly half a million followers on social media.

In addition, she conducted more than 300 hours of online observations of trolling across different platforms, including gaming platforms, forums, social media channels and news platforms. Furthermore, she interacted with targets of the trolls, bystanders and moderators.

She found that, a number of trolls are receiving financial rewards from their activities.

"Some more risky brands are paying trolls to pose as customer service reps to respond to complaints and questions in a way the brand couldn't or wouldn't usually," she said.

Golf-Papez also found that a distinction could be made between trolling and cyberbullying.

Trolling is the deliberate, deceptive and mischievous attempt to provoke reactions from other internet users—and it can lead to financial gain, according to a new study. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"Trolling is when someone is deceptive and mischievous," she said. "A troll typically has no intent to cause harm but is trying to provoke a reaction. Whereas cyberbullying is targeted with the purpose of causing harm to an individual person."

In the study, she goes on to consider whether trolling has simply become another form of entertainment, while acknowledging that it can cause problems for targets, companies and online moderators.

Golf-Papez hopes that the research will help to inform how people react to online trolls and how policymakers create laws surrounding online behavior.