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“Group chats really aren’t private at all”; Leading cyber-psychologist warns against growing “soft trolling” trend

Dr Julie Prescott, Head of Psychology at The University of Law, explains why so many of us may be guilty of soft trolling.

While it’s commonplace to believe online trolling is reserved for bullies behind their computer screens, the perceived privacy of online chats means more of us are engaging in this behaviour than we might like to think.

Amid the growing trend of so-called “soft trolling” – a term used to describe speaking negatively of others in seemingly private channels – a leading cyber-psychologist has issued a stark warning.

Dr. Julie Prescott is Head of Psychology at The University of Law and specialises in cyber-psychology. Commenting on soft trolling, she says: “Trolling is something that has always existed unfortunately.

“Long before the Internet, it wouldn’t be uncommon for groups to band together and speak ill of others in private. The difference now is that everything lives online, which means endless groups and conversations that one might not usually join in ‘real life’ are so readily available. Offline, these groups most likely wouldn’t be acceptable, but behind a screen they almost become the norm.”

According to Julie, it isn’t just the stereotypical online trolls who may be guilty of this either, it’s something we may all find ourselves doing at some point.

Why do we do it?

Anonymity is the driving force behind online trolling. This extends further into the world of soft trolling, where people feel they have an added layer of privacy if their comments aren’t in the public domain i.e. in a “private” group chat with friends.

Julie explains: “Often, trolling behaviour can be a case of wanting to join in with the group. The leaders of the group tend to set the norms, then once you’re involved you begin to understand what is and isn’t acceptable.

“One key theory to understand is John Suller’s Online Disinhibition Effect (2006). This research explains how some will speak more openly or act out more intensely when online than they might in the real-world, due to a variety of factors. 

“Crucially, engaging in this behaviour online gives a feeling of anonymity. The perpetrator not only feels like their identity is safe and protected, but they also don’t see the real impact of their actions. There’s an added layer of the lack of authority in online spaces, so if someone feels they can say what they want without repercussion, it’s likely they will.”


Nothing online is private

Thanks to various laws being introduced in recent years, online trolling is now considered a serious crime and can lead to prosecution.

While it may be easy to feel you are protected in seemingly private chats, Julie issues a stark warning when it comes to soft trolling. She says: “No matter how secure you think your group chat is, the reality is that nothing posted online – in any format or forum – is truly private. We’ve seen this time and time again with high profile cases of WhatsApp messages being leaked or used as evidence in a court case.

“All it takes is for someone to screenshot or record your interactions and suddenly there is a very permanent record of everything you have said. It’s so easy to assume that because the victim will never see it, there’s no harm in a quick exchange in a group chat among friends. However, I would warn that there is a very real danger in putting anything like this out into an online forum – both for the perpetrator and the victim.”