Ah, Trolls. They love disrupting conversations and throwing everyone the proverbial curveball. But, who are these trolls? Why do they love trolling? And what do they want from us?

The information age is a fantastic era to live in. With the internet, we have access to unlimited information at the end of our fingertips.

Although for the vast majority, the advent of the internet has been nothing short of an extremely useful new tool, it has not come without its’ problems. Recent studies have shown that cyber-bullying is on the rise. And, sadly, for every fascinating and engaging article or post we come across, there’s always one of them: The Internet Troll.

Let’s take a look at the science.

What is trolling?

Trolling: Who, What, When and Where?

When we talk about trolling, we aren’t discussing the finer intricacies of fishing practices. We’re talking about those keyboard warriors who love riling people up in the comments section.

Everyone has their own definition of a troll, but here’s a more academic one. According to Indiana University, a troll is someone on the internet who starts arguments or angers people by posting derogatory and off-topic messages, provokes an emotional response with their comments, or derails a conversation away from its original topic.

These trolls can occupy a wide range of habitats. From various online public forums to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and, infamously, Youtube.

Trolling can take many forms. Ranging from almost harmless, off-hand comments to violent threats. In the interest of protecting freedom of speech, it can be difficult to punish those who take part in the activity. Although in more extreme cases it is considered a criminal offense.

A 2014 study carried out at the University of Manitoba, the first of its’ kind, attempted to create a troll ‘personality profile’. It found that internet trolls may actually be the terrible people we assert them to be.

The researchers had study participants fill out two questionnaires. One was on personality inventory survey. The other survey based on their internet commenting habits. The results, frankly, are startling.

5.6% of the hundreds surveyed admitted that they enjoyed trolling. This reflected in their personality profile.

The researchers found a strong correlation between those with “trolling” tendencies and the “Dark Triad of Personality” characteristics. These include sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

Are trolls really sado-masochists?

Sadism is the term for when someone gains pleasure from humiliating and hurting others. It was the personality characteristic most strongly correlated with internet trolls.

The 2014 study found that the correlation was so strong between internet trolls and sadism that these people are essentially “prototypical everyday sadists”.

However, to some extent, most people may be “prototypical, everyday sadists”. For example, some sports fans may get excited when a fight breaks out mid-game. Or action movie enthusiasts may enjoy violent scenes in the movie.

Unfortunately, trolls can also appear out of nowhere. A 2013 study, carried out at George Mason University, found that the action of trolls can influence an innocent bystanders’ perception of information. The team found that readers exposed to aggressive and ruder comments were more likely to become entrenched in their stance on the topic.

In addition to this, one can see countless examples of ‘harmless’ trolling in the news every day. A recent example could be Stephen King’s trolling of Donald Trump and the wire-tapping scandal. Whilst some people may consider this type of trolling as harmless or even deserved (depending on your own opinion on the matter), some forms of trolling can be detrimental to a person’s life.

So, I guess the real question is, what is driving these trolls to be so persistent. And how is it affecting everyday lives?

What’s driving the keyboard warrior?

Anonymity as a Driving Force

So why do trolls engage in such inflammatory behaviour? As is the case in the information age, we’ve all heard the sayings: keyboard warrior or someone who is “hiding behind a keyboard”.

Turns out this may be the exact reason why trolls do what they do. By using a computer and the comments section of online forums, trolls can ensure their anonymity. This phenomenon is known in the psychological world as deindividuation.

Deindividuation stipulates that although we may not be sadists by nature, this temporary loss of identity and anonymity drives us to engage in harmful social behaviour.

Perhaps most importantly, this sense of anonymity can drive groups of individuals with a similar disposition towards sadism and anti-social behaviour to connect with each other. This may be helping them to distance themselves from a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to their behaviour online.

Trolling makes trolls feel important

Another reason that trolls throw gasoline onto the comment fire, is to enhance their perceived status amongst other users.

By stoking the inferno and sparking heated debates, trolls attract significant attention to their comments. And some people even agree with them. This gives them a false and inflated sense of self-worth typical of narcissistic individuals.

Broken Window Theory

Broken Window Theory suggests that areas with rampant vandalism (i.e.: broken windows) will lead to more vandalism, as opposed to areas within a more civil environment.

Social psychologists agree this may be occurring in online environments. If we see everyone else tossing out racial and homophobic slurs, we may be more likely to engage in similar behaviour.

Trolls may not always be trying to troll

Although most trolls do exhibit harmful personality traits, sometimes those behind the computer screen don’t actually mean to troll.

When socializing in the real world we base our actions with others on eye contact, body language, and other physical cues. In the online world, we can’t actually perceive these physical cues. This results in misinterpretations and misunderstandings of that other person’s comments. And this, in turn, can lead to trolling.

Why and how should we regulate this behaviour?

On A Serious Note

Missouri, 2006: 13-year-old Megan Meier kills herself after being bullied online. This is just one of many tragic incidents since the dawn of the internet and cyber-bullying. And the kicker?

The bully responsible, Lori Drew, was acquitted of her charges over concerns that a conviction would criminalise false identities online.

Also, there have been cases of people trolling tribute pages to lost family members on Facebook. It was reported that one woman moved house three times after her and her daughter, afflicted with Downs Syndrome, had been harassed online.

On the other side of the coin, though, trolling has become a global political tactic. Especially through Twitter. Liberals and conservatives alike troll each other on a near-constant basis.

The mocking of high-profile individuals such as Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins has even become a daily standard.

So, it’s easy to see how certain aspects of trolling can be considered unhealthy social behaviour. But how, and to what extent should it be regulated?

The Good News

This is where the fine balance between free speech and effective moderation needs to be established. People should be allowed to engage in thought-provoking conversation. But should also be able to do so in a safe atmosphere.

In October 2016, UK made new legal guidelines. These helped fight cyber-bullying, whilst protecting the notion of free speech. ‘Virtual mobbing’ is now a prosecutable offense. And they also made a ruling on ‘sexting’.

Also, Twitter has adopted new adaptations to its software to help users report harassment. It is ‘winning the war on trolls’ and one charity has even started using trolls to raise money for refugees15.

So far, that’s all we have on the science behind this strange, new phenomenon. The link between trolling and a sadistic personality appears well-founded.

But it’s important to remember that cases are rarely that black and white. And minor ‘everyday sadism’ may be more common than we thought.

Researchers are still in the early stages of investigating this behaviour. But they are hopeful that future studies may be able to provide valuable information. For example, when considering policies on domestic abuse and bullying.

Where do we go from here?

It’s easy to see how trolling behaviour is an unhealthy social phenomenon, but what can we do about it?

This is where the fine balance between free speech and effective moderation needs to be established. People should be allowed to engage in thought-provoking conversation. But should also be able to do so in a safe atmosphere

As we have seen, in some cases trolling can be fairly harmless. But as always, there will always be those who are willing to take it way too far. To the point of potentially damaging the mental health of others. Especially teenagers and young adults.

Nothing fuels a troll’s ego like a 1500 word article focused around them. So let’s hear what you’ve got! Let us know what you think in the comments.

If you need help dealing with trolls yourself, check out Forbes 10 Tips to Dealing with Trolls.

Stay safe and happy internet-ing!

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