There is a phenomenon online called “trolling.” It’s where a person, whose true identity is usually protected by a ridiculous avatar like this,
inserts themselves and begins arguing/insulting others over the internet. It’s prevalent in social media forums like Facebook, Twitter, etc. This “troll” will usually begin by “innocently” commenting on a post, or beginning a “discussion” with other commenters. This quickly devolves into a hate-filled rant against either the original poster or the commenters…and was meant to be that way from the beginning. Trolls are, as they have oft-described themselves, “shit stirrers.” They like to get everyone going to the point of an online frenzy of yelling in all caps, or to tear down the poster to such a point that they block or delete the troll’s words. It’s a virtual power-play that is meant to make the poster/commenters feel angry and the troll, victorious. To be blunt, it is the battlefield of small men.
And, before anyone decry that sexist observation, let me cite the statistics: A full 30% of men have admitted to “arguing maliciously,” as opposed to less than 15% of women. On top of that, men are much more likely to threaten actual physical violence, like rape or murder.
When it comes to those being harassed, nearly 25% of adolescents state that they have been “relentlessly trolled” online, some to the point of suicide (which I’ve discussed here before). And the most popular group to troll (specifically with violent threats)? Women.
The clip by John Oliver (above) is a brilliant all-encapsulating look at what it means to be female in the online community. I, myself, have been trolled and harassed online just for having an opinion. I’ve been insulted about my hair color, my “credentials” (I like how trolls always put that in quotations as though they aren’t real!), my age, and just about anything else one could name. I’ve been sent unsolicited photos of men’s genitals and SCREAMED at. This abuse has come from men 100% of time (from the ages of 29-62). Of course most of them have avatars of animals or cartoons, but it doesn’t take much effort to track them down. Thus, I can say with certainty that my haters are all male, and some of them are quite vicious.
While I have a thick skin, and it doesn’t really bother me, it isn’t about that. It isn’t about anyone’s ability to tolerate it – because no one should have to tolerate it. And, given my profession, I intimately understand what unchecked anger in a person can do: it can lead to actual, real-world, violence.
But, before I get too far ahead of myself, I’d like to pose the real question here, which is:
“What is the psychological make-up of an Internet Troll?”
Rather than rely on my own thoughts, I decided to go straight to the source – a very large study done by Buckles, Trapnell, and Paulhus (“Trolls Just Want to Have Fun,” published in the journal, Personality and Individual Differences, 2014). The researchers conducted two online studies with over 1,200 people, giving personality tests to each subject along with a survey about their Internet commenting behavior. They found that Dark Tetrad scores were highest among people who said trolling was their favorite Internet activity.
What is the “Dark Tetrad?” It consists of these four traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, Psychopathy, and Sadism.
In fact, the relationship between trolling and the Dark Tetrad is so significant that the authors write:
“… the associations between sadism and GAIT (Global Assessment of Internet Trolling) scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.”
Do you know what other type of person scores very high on sadism? Rapists and batterers. That’s right: real-life abusers of (mostly) women.
So, the next time you take for granted that your little troll is “harmless,” keep in mind what type of person he really is. When his favorite form of amusement consists of making others suffer, there’s no telling when he may cross the boundary from virtual reality to the genuine thing.