Social media remains an engaging way to be entertained and educated and has many positives. We are increasingly living our lives online and, for some, it is all about forging real life friendships, building business contacts and sharing information (or pictures of their cats). But as with any community - whether online or in real life - there is a dark side.

This article has its genesis in a Soho Skeptics event 'They see me trolling: What can we do about online abuse' where Helen Lewis took a semi-serious look at the 'trolling' phenomenon. She wasn't to know that the summer months would see an explosion of online abuse, involving TV academics, politicians, journalists, campaigners and troubled teenagers. Given the nature of social media, everyone has had an opinion and the amount of material generated around this largely appalling abuse is staggering.

What is a 'troll'?

'Troll' is a contentious term because it is a media, and increasingly academic, construct. There are nearly as many types of troll as there are people interacting on the internet. These individuals have different motivations, online experiences and, most of the time, they don't know when to stop typing and walk away. Wikipedia has a usefully wide definition; 'a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community'. Or as Helen said, a troll is 'the lesser known of two people in a twitter argument'.

Types of troll

Helen outlined types of troll according to academic research, namely, 'abuse', 'sub cultural', 'grief' and 'professional' trolls. But any potentially controversial subject - politics, religion, sport, celebrities, academia - will attract trolls.

'Abuse trolls' are ones we have seen most of recently. Already these categories are problematic because there are many types of 'abuse - or harassing - troll'. Cases of 'low level' harassment have warranted proportional punishments such as formal warnings and restorative justice and/or apologies to victims. The recent arrest of John Nimmo for suspected harassment of Stella Creasy and Caroline Criado-Perez has been widely reported. If, however, he is convicted, the more extreme threats made against them and others will no doubt lead to stronger penalties. As of early September, he had been released on bail and will be interviewed by London's Metropolitan Police at a later date.

'Sub cultural trolls' are generally anonymous and make a career out of shock and controversy. One extreme example is Reddit troll, Violentacrez (Violent Acres) who was outed in Oct 2012 as Michael Brutsch. Reddit is a user generated content site that simply aggregates information - pictures, news, blog posts etc. - already published on the internet. Brutsch was collating images in subfolders or subreddits, variously called /jailbait, /picsofdeadbabies, /beatingwomen, amongst others. Reddit initially took a lenient view with outraged users complaining about loss of freedom of speech. However, news investigations lead to the demise of these tasteless collections.

'Grief trolls' are particularly repugnant. They are a problem on Facebook memorial pages set up by grieving friends and families. Hannah Smith tragically committed suicide due to severe bullying on social media site Ask.fm but the original Facebook tribute page that her family set up received so many abusive messages they closed it and opened another one. Her father is now campaigning to change the laws regarding online abuse. One so-called 'grief' troll, Sean Duffy, was found guilty under malicious communications legislation and jailed for 18 weeks. Magistrates also gave him an Asbo and banned him from using social networking sites for five years.

'Professional trolls' are usually journalists and they fit within the definition of troll given above because they write deliberately controversial pieces to provoke reader response. It drives outraged traffic to their newspapers' websites and the advertisers are kept happy. The inevitable result is bad journalism and cynical readers who would prefer not to be trolled in this way.

Why do people troll?

There is an online disinhibition effect which is 'a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet'. Essentially, people write things online that they wouldn't dream of saying to strangers, face to face.

People show off online; they use the internet to air views they know are socially unacceptable and revel in any attention, positive or negative, they get. There has been a suggestion recently that some people are just bored and winding up people online is an easy outlet.

Terry Pratchett once said 'the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters', so competing individuals in a group can be encouraged amongst their like-minded peers. So called 'Gamification' is the result. This summer has seen women being threatened with rape, then bombing, what is the next new offensive thing? In the aftermath of the Syria vote, is it images of dead people?

How do we deal with trolls?

Twitter recently introduced a report tweet button which was the result of an e-petition campaign over the summer. People can now report individual offensive or harassing tweets to twitter, potentially getting the offending user suspended. Whether this will work remains to be seen. One reported unintended consequence has led to complaints that harmless accounts have been suspended.

The problem remains unsolved where it is a sustained, targeted attack by many people on one person; for instance, the high profile women targeted recently complained that you could spend a lot of time blocking and reporting multiple, mostly anonymous accounts. The block button doesn't always work because of ongoing abuse across different social media - a huge problem if you are also being targeted on Facebook, Youtube, blogs and other sites.

People have called for an end to anonymity on the net but this isn't the only problem. It's lack of consequences; you do it once, get away with it and then carry on, for whatever reason. Ask.fm is currently under the spotlight for its "made for bullying" website design and the company is already responding to pressure by pledging to create a more prominent "report button" for abusive messages, to hire more staff to act as moderators and to urge users to become registered in order to limit anonymity.

What has emerged over the last few months is the number of misconceptions about online trolls. Some can be offensive, yet harmless, but do not give rise to any civil or criminal claims. But others are utterly repulsive and force victims to consider taking one of three actions; 1. Do nothing. 2. Report to the authorities and think about the legal remedies. 3. Do a Mary Beard.