Psychology of Internet Trolls: Why Are They So Toxic

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

An internet troll can be the Devil’s henchman.

These days, online trolling is a profitable business and many political parties hire offshore troll farms to insult, shame, and cancel their opponents.

These troll gangs constantly scour the internet for any post or comment against their paymasters. When they find something against their political leaders, they unleash a volley of vile insults. The goal is to upset the victims severely so they leave the discussion.

Why are the trolls so toxic? Because they are mostly callous and sadistic, they enjoy upsetting vulnerable people in front of an audience.

Trolling is the modern-day equivalent of a “town square flogging.”

— Ronson, 2015

So, if you’re overly sensitive to criticism, watch out for the first signs of trolling when you venture online.

psychology of internet trolls

Psychology of Internet Trolls: Toxic Nature of Trolling

Internet trolls are mostly sadists and narcissists. They are attention-seekers who enjoy drawing others into conflicts. Often, they are low on empathy and high on sadism, and like to upset others with disruptive and insulting behavior.

Trolls play a toxic psychological game on the internet. Their usual modus operandi is as follows:

  1. First, they bait an unsuspecting victim with harsh comments on their pet beliefs or “hot-button” topics.
  2. They keep at it, triggering the person to overreact, when the troll labels them as over-emotional or stupidly impractical.
  3. Then they harass the victim with intense insults, abuse, and bullying, pulling the focus of the audience to themselves.

Here are some observations on trolls and trolling based on psychological research:

  • A troll is a “computer-mediated communication user whose real intention(s) is to cause disruption and to trigger or exacerbate conflict for their amusement” and drew four critical characteristics of a troll—aggression, deception, disruption, and success (Hardaker, 2010).
  • Trolling victims are typically between the ages of 18 and 29. According to Pew Research’s first survey on internet harassment (2014), 40% of internet users have directly experienced online harassment, 73% have observed it happen to others, and 24% have witnessed someone being harassed for an extended period of time.
  • Men are higher in antisocial behavior online, including trolling (Zweig, Dank, Yahner, & Lachman, 2013).
  • Trolling is an online activity similar to fishing, where instigators hang some bait (say something nasty) and watch as the world bites into this bait online (Klakegg et al., 2016).
  • Trolls disrupt conversations by posting “divisive, sexist, racist, and xenophobic content” to hijack social media interaction (Shetty, 2016).
  • The troll lures internet users into engaging in conversation to trick, belittle, or embarrass the target (Jay, 2018).
  • Researchers have linked trolling behavior to sadism, narcissism, psychopathy (antisocial disorder), and Machiavellianism. Among those four dark personalities, sadists have the strongest links to trolling (Evita March, 2019).
  • Internet trolling is predicted by positive trait psychopathy and sadism scores (Buckels et al., 2014 ; Craker & March, 2016; Sest & March, 2017), negative social potency scores (Craker & March, 2016), and negative affective empathy scores (Sest & March, 2017).

A troll may not troll every time they go online for fear of being called out for habitual bullying. Even so, their trolling may become more frequent once they “taste blood” — when they realize that they can get away with it because of the anonymity granted by the internet.

Traits of a troll: the psychology of internet trolling
Psychology of Internet Trolls

A troller (i.e., troll) is a CMC (computer-mediated communication) user who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question, including professing, or conveying pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.

— Claire Hardaker, 2010

Internet trolls leave mean comments on your social media posts to trigger negative reactions and cast their victims in a bad light.

They don’t aim to prove how illogical you are because they know you’re not. They rather want to show how emotionally unstable and “trigger-prone” you are.

Once you get back at them, it gives them the limelight they wanted.

Trolls And The Dark Tetrad of Personality

Trolls are mostly sadists and psychopaths. According to a Canadian study, the majority of internet trolls have links with The Dark Tetrad of Personality.

The Dark Tetrad consists of four socially offensive personality types:

  1. Narcissists are grandiose self-promoters who constantly crave attention.
  2. Psychopaths cause serious harm in impulsive fits of callous thrill-seeking.
  3. Sadists search for opportunities to hurt others verbally or physically.
  4. Machiavellians are master manipulators who collect information to take advantage of people.

Surprisingly, internet trolls are often regular people in real life.

In many instances, on unmasking, some of the most vicious trolls have turned out to be ordinary people living simple lives outside the internet.

Psychological Reasons Behind Trolling Behavior

Shachaf and Hara (2010) interviewed Wikipedia trolls and discovered themes such as boredom, attention seeking, revenge, pleasure, and a desire to bring harm to the community among their stated motivations for trolling.

An internet troll doesn’t care how carefully you argue your ideas and points. They are more against you than the spirit of your argument.

If you ever, unfortunately, became their target, you’ll find they troll you even when you back up all your claims with solid facts. In fact, the more evidence-based your comments, the more hurtful their smears.

The two most common reasons why people troll online:

  1. personality disorder
  2. shield of anonymity

1. Personality Disorder

Most internet trolls have their origin story rooted in a personality disorder.

The starkly different online avatars often arise from a backstory of oppression, depression, lack of attention, anger, jealousy, envy, narcissism or some other emotion they might not be fully aware of that influences their trolling persona.

A personality disorder is not the foreign presence of demonic possession or a cancerous cluster of cells spreading among the internal organs. It is a pattern of cognition and reaction that impairs the capacity to be productive, happy, and generally at ease. ― Merri Lisa Johnson

However, if you ask them, they have some bizarre explanations for their behavior.

In an interview with NYT, some trolls claimed they wanted to teach people a lesson about the harshness of the online world, while others said their actions resulted from their grueling and troubled past lives.

“Trolls do not feel your pain, but they can sense what you are going through.”

This study found that trolls are high on cognitive empathy, that is, they can see another person’s position quite well but not feel the same thing.

The researchers wrote, “trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognizing the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions. Thus, trolls appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims’ emotions.”

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions (Mitsopoulou & Giovazolias, 2015).

Earlier studies have found there is a negative relationship between emotional or affective empathy and trolling, and trolls may not experience or internalize the emotional experience of their victims.

  • Emotional empathy is the ability to experience, internalize, and respond to the emotions of others (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004).

2. Shield of Anonymity

For most of them, it is not a one-off event. Trolls take their habit with them anywhere they roam online. Almost all trolls are repeat offenders. You can be pretty sure if they trolled once, they would do it again and again.

They do not change because they know they cannot get marked out in person. They feel safe after hurling an insult from behind their screens.

Furthermore, they are sure they live behind an impenetrable shield of anonymity. Their trolling comes from a conviction that if they disparage somebody in the virtual world, they will walk scot-free in the real world.

Psychology of Victims of Trolling

Cyberbullying victims have been found to have:

  • Higher levels of depression (Research by Bonanno and team, 2013)
  • More anxiety (Research by Campbell and team, 2012), and
  • Lower levels of well-being (Research by Heiman and team, 2018).
  • More headaches, stomach aches, and bed-wetting among students (Research by Rao & team, 2018).

Are there any differences between trolls and cyberbullies?

There are certain differences between trolling and other types of online antisocial behavior, such as cyberbullying:

1. Trolling is mostly “pointless” since the troll does not have any clear purpose to achieve something except to seek reactions and draw the target into a public “dirty fight.” The aim of a cyberbully is more personal and straightforward.

2. Trolling is mostly done in anonymity. Whereas cyberbullying is usually done by a heavy internet user whose identity is more obvious. Cyberbullies often know their victims, and their abuse is often targeted and repeated, and could be posted for others to see.

Further Reading:

  1. The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes (Book) by Mary Aiken, 2016
  2. Political Cyberbullying: Perpetrators and Targets of a New Digital Aggression (Book) by Sheri Bauman, 2019
  3. Cyberbullying and psychological well-being in young adolescence (Research paper) by Karin Hellfeldt, Laura López-Romero, and Henrik Andershed, 2019.

Origin of The Internet Troll

Trolling was first used in the early 1980s to refer to tricking, pranking, or fooling users under false pretenses to make fun of them.

In its earliest days, trolling was also synonymous with “flaming,” in which a forum user would start a scathing personal attack against another just because they did not agree with a post or a comment.

In the late 1980s, internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities.

— Mattathias Schwartz, Freelance journalist

If you are someone who spends time on social media, you must have seen the axe of a troll come down on some hapless user, even yourself.

Cyber-trolling was the internet manifestation of everyday sadism.

— Buckels et al., 2014

Today, most internet trolls are residents of Facebook, though YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter harbor no less of them.

In this 2014 paper, the journalist and troll researcher Jonathan Bishop wrote:

The term trolling has essentially gone from meaning provoking others for mutual enjoyment to meaning abusing others for only one’s own enjoyment.

Types of Trolls

Trolling is what trolls do, and trolls are of two kinds:

1. Folklore Troll

Another name for a folklore troll is an elf (plural: elves).

The Cambridge Dictionary defines them as “an imaginary, either very large or very small creature in traditional Scandinavian stories, that has magical powers and lives in mountains or caves.”

2. Internet Troll

Internet trolls typically lurk in the comments section of social media posts. They make derogatory remarks and personal attacks (ad hominem) to inflame or upset their targets. Their chutzpah comes from their anonymity, which gives them an overpowering position over their victim.

Many of us would like to attach the definition of a folklore troll to an internet troll as well. Sadly, these latter trolls live among us and often cause harm to our society.

They rattle your cage so loud that others take note and then arouse them to join in bringing you down.

According to James Hanson:

“Basically, a social media troll is someone who purposely says something controversial in order to get a rise out of other users. The trolls aim their guns to shoot the messenger, never the message. You are their target, not your argument.”

Further reading: Psychopathy, sadism, empathy, and the motivation to cause harm: New evidence confirms malevolent nature of the Internet Troll

Final Words

Anyone can troll on the internet, and many do so unconsciously.

Pew Research Center reveals that 92% of internet users find it more comfortable to be critical and straightforward while interacting with others online, as opposed to offline (Amanda Lenhart, 2013).

√ Also Read: 8 Ways To Defeat An Internet Troll (Including The Best One)

√ Please spread the word if you found this helpful.

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