Who Is An Internet Troll, Actually?

Trolls are sadists and psychopaths, actually.

Internet trolls typically have positive links with sadism, narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

Of them all, sadism comes out as having the strongest links with trolling.

who is an internet troll

Who Is An Internet Troll?

Trolls on the internet are rabid agents of chaos. They provoke hate-filled debates mainly to discredit their target and draw attention to themselves. They leverage “hot-button” topics to make others appear too emotional or dumb, and harass unsuspecting victims who fall into the trap with more intense sadistic trolling.

Men are higher in antisocial behavior online, including trolling (Zweig, Dank, Yahner, & Lachman, 2013).

An internet troll will inject themselves into a discussion and start mildly disputing your online posts and comments. Pretty soon, they launch into a vicious criticism. But why? For no apparent reason.

They don’t aim to prove how illiterate or 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.

An internet troll posts unpleasant comments on a social media post to gain attention and provoke a negative reaction. Click To Tweet

Trolling is attention-seeking, disruptive behavior. However, a troll may not troll every time or everyone for fear of being called out for habitual bullying.

Even so, their trolling may become more frequent once they get a taste of blood. If you’re someone who is overly sensitive to criticism, then watch out for them when you venture online. After all, they are the Devil’s henchmen, all right.

The troll, especially if they are a gang from a troll farm, may even succeed in shaming and canceling you, their helpless victim.

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

Why Does A Troll Do Trolling?

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.


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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.

Origin of The Internet Troll

The internet trolls made their debut in the 1980s. In its earliest days, trolling was 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.

If you are someone who lives and breathes on social media, you must have come under the ax of a troll in one form or another. Most of them are residents of Facebook, though YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter harbor no less of them.

Freelance journalist Mattathias Schwartz informs,

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

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

The definition of a folklore troll, as Cambridge Dictionary says, is “an imaginary, either very large or very small creature in traditional Scandinavian stories, that has magical powers and lives in mountains or caves.”

Another name for them is an elf (plural: elves).

2. Internet Troll

Internet trolls are people who usually lurk in the comments section of social media posts, and make derogatory remarks. From their seemingly overbearing position, they intend to inflame people and instigate their negative emotions.

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. Click To Tweet

Psychology of Internet Trolls

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 and team, 2018).

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 persons 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.

But why do these simple people become villains when online? Two of the most common reasons people troll online are:

  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.

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.

Final Words

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

A Pew Research Center survey 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).

• • •

Here are 8 big ways to deal with internet trolls (without meltdown).

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, mindfulness, and philosophy of Stoicism.


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