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The Psychology of a Troll

Ever wonder what leads someone to attack others on social media? Why do some people hurt others? How does the Internet become the perfect platform for negative and malicious people?

“Just don’t look at the comments” - how many times have we heard this phrase while posting our opinion on Social Media? What is that which resides in the world of the comment section which we are told to avoid? Therein often lies the internet's dark side - the one that reeks of venomously upbrought entitlements we refer to as ‘trolls’.

Trolling can be explained as the act of posting disruptive or inflammatory comments online in order to provoke fellow readers undertaken by individuals (trolls) who typically hide behind anonymous personas on the internet.

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. They are those who know that their comments are aggressive and potentially offensive, but they write them anyway because they find it enjoyable.

As children, we’ve been told on several occasions that bullies are cowards. Childhood bullies typically pick on weaker or somehow defenceless peers. They may also select victims they feel jealous of or perceive as different from them. Most bullies outgrow these behaviours as they develop character and compassion. However, some clearly do not and the internet provides the perfect outlet for them in the form of trolling. A topic which is much often discussed is whether there are certain psychological traits and explanations which can help us to better understand the psychology of trolls.

Research has shown that trolls display a ‘Dark Triad’ traits, which include ‘Psychopathy’ (callousness, remorseless behaviour); ‘Machiavellianism’ (good at manipulating others for personal gain); and ‘Narcissism’ (grandiosity and preoccupation with their own self-advancement). An indepth analysis of these can help us to understand their behaviour better. Their psychopathic tendencies tended to outweigh every iota of empathy. Trolls usually have poor social skills and also take pleasure from causing pain. Their ability to upset or harm gives them a feeling of power. They lack the positive personality traits needed to feel compassion or guilt; and thus they have no qualms about spending their time and energy posting nasty messages.

First, trolls are more likely to display noxious personality characteristics, that is, traits that impair one’s ability to build relations and function in a civilised or pro-social way. Trolls enjoy harming and intimidating others, so much so that often they are referred to as “prototypical everyday sadists”, and that trolling should be regarded as online sadism. If asked, a troll will openly admit to receiving pleasure from trolling - it is almost as if engaging with them gives them a reward and ‘kick’. This also shows that there is often a element of everyday sadism in their behaviour. In other words, people who enjoy trolling online tend to also enjoy hurting others in everyday life. Trolls glorify in their own worldview and often their behaviour is to bait others of different bends on social media in order to mock and abuse them. They're motivated by a need for attention, by boredom, by a flash of excitement due to causing others pain, or by exacting revenge. Very often their poor educational and intellectual level is evident from the mistakes in the language they use and this natural antipathy to logic, knowledge and education is perceived to be a result of their inferiority complex. It is often said that the behaviour of trolls is addictive for them. This kick which they get makes it hard to break out of the habit. This compulsion to troll might be an "impulse control disorder"- a group that includes kleptomania, pyromania, and gambling where individuals have an impulse and can't stop themselves, even when it can have harmful consequences.

Next, through online trolling most trolls hide behind anonymous personas and this unleashes their hidden impulses by providing anonymity and temporary identity loss. This phenomenon, called deindividuation. Thus trolling may bring out the worst side in individuals who may not necessarily be sadistic in real life as the anonymity provided lifts the moral constrains and social etiquette that regulates their behaviour in normal situations, and by fueling dissent and triggering abrasive reactions. People post comments as anonymous as it allows them to be carefree of retaliation. The electronic screen demolishes identity and lets the mind of the troll move freely to the extent of cursing and death threats. It is known that individuals behave differently when alone and a sense of online anonymity further gives them a freedom to from the perceived obligation to act in accordance with certain social norms which they would have to otherwise. Additionally, trolls show complete disregard for others and it is often believed that they are ranting our their frustrations and displacing their anger onto others on the internet who they may not have any personal angst against.

Lastly, trolling is a status-enhancing activity often resorted to by those with poor self-esteem. By attracting attention, upsetting people, sparking heated debates and even gaining approval from others, trolls feel as sense of being important (particularly when those they troll and other like minded individuals engage with them) perhaps much more than they are in their real lives. This anonymous identity fuels narcissistic motives given that they might be incapable of attracting people’s attention in the offline world. This explains why trolls throw gasoline onto the comment fire. This toking the inferno and sparking heated debates gets them the attention and the feeling of self-worth they are typically after.

While they often suggest that the only known antidote to trolling is to ignore and not engage a troll, but trolls won’t suffer a public humiliation because nobody knows who they are unlike those who they are actually trolling. This is what makes trolling so ubiquitous – trolling requires no skills other than the ability to be obnoxious. There is too much of hatred out there on the internet to be wished away, but recognising the personality traits of trolls, their psychological insecurities and the techniques used by them, that is, generally understanding the functioning of their minds, would help their targets cope with their depredations better.


Written by: Vedica Podar

August, 2020


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