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RIP Trolling

  • AuthorNora Dunne
  • Published Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013
  • Comments8

There are good reasons for turning on the comment feature of a website: It’s a place for users to engage with content. It promotes discussion and feedback. The comments are sometimes good for a laugh. And they indicate that people are actually visiting a website. But the merits are overshadowed when trolls enter these modern-day public spheres.

Stories on news sites, blog entries by novice writers and public pages on Facebook all succumb to this form of cyberbullying. Trolls are people who purposefully post provocative messages and images in the comment sections of websites to fuel arguments and provoke mayhem.

Sometimes these nasty notes cause little more than mildly hurt feelings and embarrassment. But a special class of Internet troll called a “RIP troll” elicits emotions much stronger.

This troll targets a type of website most would deem sacred — not a place for joking, let alone crude tormenting. It’s a type of website increasingly common in the digital age: one that memorializes the deceased.

Like the Westboro Baptist Church members who picket military funerals, or thieves who study obituaries for funeral information so they can rob families who are away from home, RIP trolls target people who are mourning their loved ones.

The media has reported several cases of RIP trolling. In August, The Chicago Tribune spoke to the angry family of a 15-year-old boy who drowned. His memorial page was vandalized with photos of people drowning.

A 2011 article in the British newspaper Daily Mail detailed the abuse of a 14-year-old girl’s Facebook tribute page. Her mother saw “an image of a horse and cart pulling her daughter’s coffin with the words ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’” Later, a photo appeared of her daughter with a caption that read, “Help me, Mummy. It’s hot in hell.”

Researchers have investigated trolling communities to try to understand the motivations of RIP trolls. But to do that, one should examine the relatively recent phenomenon of online memorial pages. In the digital era, these websites are becoming natural destinations for people grieving the loss of loved ones.

Google “memorial page” and countless options pop up., and are just a few of the providers that provide a venue for the bereaved to share their feelings, memories and condolences.

“For many individuals it’s about connecting with other people who are experiencing loss,” explains Jed Brubaker, a digital identity researcher who focuses on death, social media and post-mortem identity.

Facebook, of course, is also a popular destination for commiseration. After receiving proof of death, the social media site will turn a user’s profile into a memorial page. Brubaker studied interactions on these pages in a paper called “Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a site for the expansion of death and mourning.”

“There’s a type of exposure that a Facebook profile creates that is quite new to the bereaved,” he says. “There used to be a specific time and a place where we came together to grieve. It did a nice job of consolidating those interactions and also gave us norms for what was appropriate and not appropriate in this setting.”

At a funeral, a deceased person’s family and friends mourn together, in person. On Facebook, where a person often has thousands of “friends,” perhaps many of them superficial acquaintances, the grieving process becomes less intimate.

“A broader network, people who don’t even know the deceased, sometimes learn about the deceased and get involved. It’s actually a way of being supportive to their friends who are grieving,” Brubaker says.

But devastated family members and friends might not welcome comments posted by people from this broader network — people they don’t know or like. Privacy settings can control who sees and posts comments on memorial pages. But not everyone knows how to delete insensitive posts or restrict strangers from the sites.

And then RIP trolls enter the scene, posting offensive messages and photos to highly emotional audiences. Throughout his research, Brubaker has never encountered a RIP troll who actually knew the deceased person. Instead, the trolls are taking advantage of pages open to the public.

“Their motivations have actually far less to do with the fact that someone has died and far more to do with their ability to provoke and upset and frustrate a community in a particularly vulnerable position,” Brubaker says.

Whitney Phillips, author of academic paper “LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online,” studied RIP trolls’ behavior and talked to some of the perpetrators. In the paper, Phillips points out that many trolls draw the line at memorial pages — like most people, they deem it “downright distasteful.”

Some RIP trolls she talked to claim they don’t target family members.  Instead, they aim their efforts at “grief tourists” — people who don’t know the deceased but participate on the memorial sites because they’re bored and want attention. Other RIP trolls say their actions are a critique of the mainstream media’s racial and socioeconomic bias — their tendency to “theatricalize” the death of a pretty white girl above others.

In summary, there are a multitude of reasons RIP trolls do what they do: Some get a rise out of provoking — they want to unnerve people. Others are making an indirect, convoluted social commentary. And some are just being mean. But dissecting the motivations behind RIP trolling won’t comfort the genuinely shattered parents and best friends of the deceased.

Stopping them might. Punishing them might. But under American law, RIP trolls aren’t usually considered criminals.

“The victim is dead. We can’t say ‘they’re harassing the family.’ There has to be a specific victim in order for us to serve a subpoena to the online service,” explains Detective Rich Wistocki, an Internet crimes investigator. With a subpoena, detectives could get the IP address needed to identify people behind anonymous posts.

According to Wistocki, RIP trolls don’t have complicated motives. “In my experiences, these are usually kids with nothing to do. Their parents are not monitoring their computers and what they’re saying,” he says. “It’s kids who get a charge out of thinking they’re anonymous. They know they won’t get caught for attacking the deceased.”

So how can RIP trolls be stopped? Memorial pages could go the route of some online publications and disable the comment sections altogether. But that defeats the main purpose of these sites. Instead, users should learn how to customize privacy settings. Make the page invite-only. Or require that visitors enter a password to view and post comments and pictures.

Another option: monitor comments. A website administrator should approve each one before it appears on the page for everyone to see. Of course, that administrator will still have to encounter trolls’ messages and the emotional ramifications that come with them.

“The person who should be stewarding these spaces probably should not be the [deceased person’s] mom,” Brubaker advises. “This steward is going to have to act at very volatile moments. It should be someone who’s close to the family, but not too close. Someone who is perhaps just enough removed that they won’t be overwhelmed with grieving.”

Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based freelance writer and full-time editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Metro newspapers and Kirkus Reviews. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.

8 Responses to “RIP Trolling”

  1. […] Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University has published an article on RIP Trolling with help from LUCI Lab Ph.D. student Jed Brubaker. “This troll targets a type of website […]

  2. […] was interviewed by Center for Digital Ethics & Policy in an article called “RIP Trolling“. “For many individuals it’s about connecting with other people who are experiencing […]

  3. […] was interviewed by Center for Digital Ethics & Policy in an article called “RIP Trolling“. “For many individuals it’s about connecting with other people who are experiencing […]

  4. Nabeel Hasan says:

    was stunned to hear about what RIP trolls do.
    I think it’s ridiculous that they post rude and inappropriate comments
    on memorial pages. What kind of person
    does that? I think the RIP trolls must
    have a mental problem or must be seriously bored out their minds. They don’t care about other family’s feelings
    or the negative impact their comments can have.
    The RIP trolls’ comments can cause serious emotional harm to the families
    related to the memorial pages. I think
    that it’s an incredibly cruel action to do when families are in a state of
    grief. Also, it’s terrible that RIP
    trolls usually cannot be punished for their actions. Laws should be changed to fine anyone who
    writes those types of statements on pages like memorial tributes. I understand we have freedom of press, but
    that’s such a touchy subject to write bad comments on. I agree with Nora Dunne, the author of this
    article, on getting rid of the comments sections completely on memorial pages
    or making privacy settings stricter. In
    addition, I also agree with the author on monitoring the comments and approving
    only appropriate ones. Blatant
    statements and any comment that can cause harm to the family should be deleted. It’s just sad that people actually spend
    their time bashing the deceased on memorial pages.

  5. Hope S says:

    This is one of the most horrible things I have every read about. I have a few friends who involve themselves with trolling by posting funny puns or satiric remarks on one another social media platforms. To my knowledge trolling is a fun way to goof around with friends. I would have never imaged that people would partake in such a horrible type of “troll.” When I first read the title of the article I thought it was referring to the death of trolling and the fact that it is a dying activity. Who in their right mind would ever post an image or statement to further ones grief of a lost one! These people need learn the meaning of a joke and find better use of their time. I do not think that memorial pages should have to disable the comment section or customize privacy settings. This is unfair because what if a kind stranger wants to pay respects or write an uplifting message. Death is a very difficult and horrible thing for anyone to death with and no one should have to deal with these posts to thicken the pain. I think that the administrator should monitor the comments and then some type of consequence should follow an RIP TROLL or any other insensitive comment. We are entitle to our Freedom of Speech as long as it does not infringe on someone else’s freedom. Once one disrespects or emotionally harms someone then commenting privileges and rights should be taken away. It pretty sad what people chose to do with free time on their hands. Why don’t you try doing something useful and positive with your life?

  6. Olivia Mavec says:

    I have never heard of RIP trolls or of these sort of memorial websites. I don’t think it a wise decision to put up pictures and a memorial of a deceased loved one online. Why is it necessary to share this information with the world? I understand it is nice to hear comforting words from a wide variety of people but, I think the sanctity and gravity of the death of a loved one is lost completely when it is shared so openly. Maybe these RIP trolls are making a point of that too. I agree that people (who did not know the deceased when he/she was alive) visit these sites to gain attention by commenting. Would these people ever make an effort to drop by the family’s house for a wake to give their condolences in person? No. I do not understand why these families give people that they don’t even know the opportunity to troll. The internet is not the place to grieve. Grieving is a very deep and psychological experience that an individual or a family must experience on their own. That being said, I believe what these RIP trolls are doing is extremely unethical and downright disturbing. But, it is the internet and whatever you post on the internet can be made a victim of such depravity.

  7. Nick Fatigato says:

    I’ve experienced a few deaths in my family, and I have
    endured the pain a family goes through when they lose a beloved member of their
    life. I can’t imagine going through that process while also dealing with these
    supposed “RIP Trolls”.

    This situation of RIP Trolls reminds me of the Westboro
    Baptist Church and their destructive practices. On multiple occasions, members
    of the Westboro Baptist Church have picketed or protested funerals. Often,
    these funerals are services dedicated to fallen military personnel, or members
    of the homosexual community.

    In either of instance, whether it’s the Westboro Baptist
    Church or RIP Trolls, there is a clear ethical line that is crossed when a
    group of individuals intentionally seeks to cause emotional harm. Death in
    itself is a touchy subject involving a plethora of emotional responses. As
    family or friends grieve over the loss of a loved one, they should not also
    have to be subjects of scrutiny simply because of varying belief systems.

    The internet, in many ways, provides a space for educated
    conversation and reactions to content. However, in this case of the RIP Trolls,
    there should be a standard of zero-tolerance. RIP Trolls offer no value to a
    discussion, and often invade the privacy of people they have no association
    with. The solution might rest in the hands of a website’s publisher. Internets
    sites where memorial obituaries are published must employ a higher level of security
    by implementing stricter privacy settings. Hopefully in the future, RIP Trolls
    will not be a term anyone has to use.

  8. Darby Ellis says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard of an “RIP troll”. I’m
    going to admit it; I’m guilty in the past of trolling sites like gamer forums
    or live comment sections of political articles. There is nothing funny about
    trolling sites of the deceased though.

    What I do hate to admit is that while it’s mean, I think it’s
    within someone’s right to troll these sites. The author of the article makes a
    great point. If you don’t want this to happen, don’t have a completely open
    site where it invites people do it. This is just common sense. There are so
    many ways to privatize things like memorial sites on the internet and
    negligence of maintaining comments on these sites is inexcusable. There’s
    always someone around you that you could ask to help maintain the comment section.

    It’s unethical to post harsh things about the dead, but it’s
    within someone’s right. As I said before, I don’t agree with their behavior,
    but I’m not going to get upset at someone who does it because they can. Trolling
    on the internet is akin to tagging in the real world. It’s unethical to deface
    something, but it happens and you deal with it as it comes because it’s never
    going to stop. While I don’t have a memorial site, my YouTube channel has had
    some comments on my videos that were mean, but I expected it because I knew it
    could happen. I either made it so comments had to be approved or I shut down
    the comment section. I wasn’t going to let someone else get away with angering
    me when I have the power.

    That’s the beauty of the internet, you have the power to
    control your stuff a lot of the time so trolls really should be a non-factor,
    no matter how unethical or annoying they are.

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