CHICAGO — As they prepared to bury their 15-year-old son, John and Kathleen Kocher received a call from a nephew warning them not to go on the Internet.
A Facebook memorial page dedicated to Matthew Kocher, who drowned July 27 in Lake Michigan, had attracted a group of Internet vandals that mocked the Tinley Park, Ill., couple’s only child, posting photos of people drowning with taunting comments superimposed over the images.
One photo showed a submerged person’s hand breaking through the water with text reading “LOL u drowned you fail at being a fish,” according to a screen grab of the page shared with the Chicago Tribune after the post was removed.
“I was very angry right away, and then I said, ‘Well, these are some dirtbags,’” John Kocher recalled. “How could they possibly want to do that? How could somebody want to be so evil, so vile?”
What the Kocher family experienced is known as RIP trolling, in which people, known as trolls, post offensive comments and images on Facebook pages or other social media outlets that are intended to memorialize the deceased. Posting an extreme viewpoint or rude comment simply to get a reaction is known online as trolling.
How common is it?
Experts who have studied the phenomenon point out three types of RIP trolling: people simply being mean, seeking attention in an outrageous manner or offering social media criticism in an offensive way.
The Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media published a study last fall of online memorial page postings. The researchers incorporated RIP trolling into their analysis “because it appeared so frequently” on memorial pages, said Alice Marwick, the study’s co-author and an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.
Many trolls claim to post on memorial pages as a response to what they call “grief tourism,” in which strangers extend their sympathy after a tragedy to people they don’t know, Marwick said. Such condolences can be viewed as hollow and self-serving, and RIP trolling is one unfortunate way some people choose to target it, experts said.
A lot of the hurtful posts are designed to wound, Marwick said.
“The trolling we witnessed was very cruel. It was very mean-spirited, and it was designed specifically to upset the friends and family of the loved ones,” Marwick said. “People would post horrible comments about the deceased, calling them names, saying ... things like they deserved to die.”
Troll comments often spark a war of words, as the comments violate many traditional social norms.
“Trolls are really violating every taboo we have around the way that we think of our loved ones when we pass,” Marwick said. “The taboos around speaking ill of the dead.”
One case of RIP trolling involved Chelsea King, a 17-year-old from Southern California who was raped and murdered in 2010 after she went for an afternoon run. It was spotlighted in an academic research paper titled “LOLing at Tragedy” by former New York University lecturer Whitney Phillips.
At first, a number of Facebook pages were created to call on users to “Help Find Chelsea King,” who was missing, according to the study. But then some people began making light of the tragedy online and posting rude comments, which escalated.
Eventually, the family’s volunteer spokeswoman, Sara Muller Fraunces, helped organize a support group with “virtually around the clock shifts of helpers” to monitor the family’s Facebook page and delete insensitive comments, Fraunces said. Given that the page grew to more than 100,000 followers, it was a “huge job,” Fraunces said.
“We were very aggressive about keeping the page dignified and protecting Chelsea’s family,” Fraunces said.
Brent King, Chelsea’s father, who has since moved with his family to Naperville, Ill., to escape the painful memories in San Diego, had a similar reaction to the RIP trolling as the Kochers.
“I can’t for the life of me understand why somebody would want to hurt somebody that’s so broken and so grieving,” King said. “I don’t understand why any human would want to do that.”
Any parent would take the comments personally, King said, as the parent would whenever his or her child is criticized.
“Now move to the extreme,” he said. “Now your child’s been murdered and these people come along and they push it and they bully. I think, in general, there’s something really wrong with the person that does that posting.”
Facebook provides links to report abusive content on nearly every page and tools for group and page administrators to manage forums themselves by deleting content or banning users, a company spokesman said in a statement.
“Sometimes, just like in the offline world, people can say or do things that are offensive and in extremely poor taste — even in the wake of a terrible tragedy,” the statement said. “When this happens, Facebook users are quick to report the offensive content, and we are quick to respond.”
Among the cruel and bizarre postings on the “In Loving Memory of Matt Kocher” Facebook page was a video featuring someone in a mask dancing and repeating “You’re dead” as random photos of various deaths appeared on screen, according to Kocher family friend Carolyn Stefanski Howell-Tasker.
Those comments and others like them offended even those who had never met the teenager, said Emily Berkheimer, who attends Kocher’s high school but did not know him.
“I thought he deserved a page about him where people don’t make fun of him,” Berkheimer said. “It just really disturbed me that someone would actually make fun of someone else dying.”
The memorial page was eventually removed, and a new Facebook group was created to honor “the life and legacy Matthew has left with us.”
Only approved users are allowed access to the new group.
There, Kocher is remembered as a bright kid with a gentle heart.
He was 6-foot-4 and played football, basketball and volleyball at Andrew High School, where he was also on the honor roll and would have been a sophomore in the fall, his parents said.
Kocher was humble and hard-working, his father said. He had been involved with Cub Scouts as a kid and won a leadership award at his church.
“If you had to order up a dream child, it was him,” Kathleen Kocher said.
The Kochers said the family dog, Mya, still goes to Matthew’s bed, faithfully waiting for him to return home.
Kocher was in Michigan for a Christian service camp and drowned after being caught in a Lake Michigan riptide, the family said. The Kochers plan to raise public awareness in the future about riptides, they said.