Why do people troll? The psychology of online trolling (originally published in the focus)

Why do people troll? What’s the psychology behind it? Trolling has been around since the Old Norse word ‘troll’, meaning giant or demon, migrated into the English language.

But trolling has since taken on a new meaning, that of the elusive, indiscriminate and potent internet bully – the internet troll – who preys on weakness and feeds on negative reactions.

Here is a deep-dive exploration into why people troll and what they get out of it, psychologically.

What is an online troll?

BBC Bitesize defines online trolls as “people who leave intentionally provocative or offensive messages on the internet in order to get attention, cause trouble or upset someone”. However, as noted by Coles and West in a paper on the subject: “Neither the category ‘troll’ nor the action of ‘trolling’ has a single, fixed meaning.”

Image by SplitShire from Pixabay 

Trolls may “lure the unwary into pointless debate”, “disrupt the avowed purpose of the group gathering” or perform “repetitive, harmful actions that violate a website’s terms of use”. It is a multifarious and nebulous role. Coles and West identify that anonymity as a catalyst for such “counter-normative behaviours”. 

Because of its potentialities for anonymity, the internet has opened the door to a proliferation of trolls. This, along with a feeling of invisibility and the minimisation of authority, gives individuals a sense they are impervious to social mores.

Vitally, provocative (and often quietly distressed) individuals can get away with it because they hide behind an avatar, internet user name or acronym. As a result, they can flit from forum to forum – Facebook comment section to Instagram comment section – stirring up displeasure, seemingly for kicks.

The first use of the term to denote something along those lines was in the early 1990s. On the urban/internet folklore news site alt.folklore.urban (AFU), seasoned members used ‘trolling’ as a way to identify ‘newbies’ to the site.

Trolls everywhere – why do people troll?

The righteous and the wicked
And the war and peace
The killing fist of the human beast

Kiedis (1991)

Activities such as ‘trolling’, ‘flaming’ and ‘lurking’ – performed for ‘lulz’ – are, in a sense, defensible. As one-off occurrences, one might argue a few words here and there are hardly enough to warrant a major reaction. Like playground bullying, trolling is dismissed by its apologists as banter.

Image by TheDigitalWay from Pixabay 

In the playground or at home, though, comeuppance poses a risk. An authority figure is never far away. Granted, some teenage tyrants seem to go unchecked for years – but there are other forces at play too.

Peer pressure, combined with a constantly evolving web of judgements, often causes one to think again when considering certain behaviours. Often insecure individuals, bullies require social validation. If bullying behaviour ceases to be ‘cool’, bullies fade to nothing.

Playground bullying versus trolling

But such checks and balances don’t pervade online social spaces in the same way. If one’s comeuppance comes in the form of exile, there are a million other online spaces to inhabit, and disrupt. If the result of one’s trollish behaviour is shutdown – for example, ‘comments are disabled’ – the troll triumphs.

Studies show trolls tend to be male. They also show higher levels of psychopathy traits. For example, trolls show a disconnect with guilt, empathy, remorse and responsibility. They also show higher levels of sadism traits.

Unregulated forums are perfect mating grounds for such individuals. They can exhibit their disconnects, stoke flames and cause anxiety, all from the comfort of their desk chair. The suffering they cause isn’t viscerally apparent to them because they aren’t face to face with their victims.

How to manage the trolls

If we understand them as they are – the flamers of fires – we can find ways to limit their influence. “Do not feed the trolls,” writes Amy Binns, adamantly, for Journalism Practice. Coles and West agree: “Deprived of oxygen, these flamers are expected to quickly die down.”

Another solution involves introducing video game elements into non-gaming contexts. They call this ‘gamification’. Essentially, this boils down to requiring users to sign-in to forums and, at least to an extent, verify their identity before interacting. 

Image by Pexels from Pixabay 

Tokens, such as likes (on YouTube) and Upvotes (Quora), also help to sort the wheat from the chaff. Downvoted or disliked comments fall to the bottom of the pile, rendering the troll invisible. 

Moderators can also be valuable tools in limiting the spread of trollish behaviour. Moderators mark the boundaries of civil behaviour, clearly and explicitly. However, this can quickly become labour intensive and grants powers based on subjective understanding. Artificially intelligent moderator bots can moderate according to algorithms – but these are far from perfect.

Should trolling be a criminal offence?

A final solution is to legislate against trollish behaviour. This relies on legislation as deterrent. Whether it works or not, it’s almost impossible to moderate objectively. In other words, it’s hard to prove a troll is a troll.

Without the benefit of delivery, tone of voice and facial expression, so-called online banter is notoriously difficult to differentiate from genuinely malicious behaviour. Even sarcasm is unworkable without being able to do the voice. Right?

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