A psychologist’s perspective on how someone becomes an internet troll — and how to respond.
Have you ever faced off against an internet troll? What did it look like? Some of you may vaguely recall a fairy tale involving a bridge (and some oddly named goats) where a troll was the hungry antagonist. It’s more likely, however, that many of you imagined a gigantic brute: an ugly, angry, dim-witted creature intent on ruining everyone’s day. Authors J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling popularized this iconic version of a troll in their fantasy genre classics, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series. In both tales, the troll is an enemy the heroes must defeat through righteous valor, as in The Fellowship of the Ring, or through sheer cleverness, like that of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
If we took our lessons from these books or films, we would learn that when you encounter an internet troll, the best course of action is to defeat it in similar fashion.
However, real-life trolls are very different from those in stories. They are not one-dimensional obstacles for the heroes to overcome. Rather, they are human beings with thoughts, feelings and motivations as complex as our own.
The definition of “internet troll” varies, but the common understanding is that it applies to someone who disrupts an online discussion, a forum thread, a game or other form of online social interaction. Of course, by this definition anyone who has ever sarcastically commented on their uncle’s Facebook rant about economics or “camped” in an online multiplayer game is an internet troll.
At this level, trolling tends not to be malicious in nature. Many people simply don’t know when they troll and would be surprised if they were accused of doing it. They might, reasonably, say they were stating their opinion or didn’t know the social guidelines for whatever group they participated in.
And then there are those who intentionally cause disruption, typically for their own amusement and/or the amusement of others in the group. This kind of trolling, while annoying, is relatively harmless as long as the trolling doesn’t push the boundaries of patience and acceptable topics too far.
Of course, all topics can potentially create conflict. However, trouble can start when the internet troll brings up subjects that are naturally divisive, such as politics or religion. While it’s certainly possible to have a constructive, civil discussion about politics or religion, it’s all too easy to spiral into a shouting match where emotional outbursts have more power than logic, nothing is ever solved and the only winners are instigators who wanted that chaos in the first place.
Instances like this lead many a forum moderator to state, “Please don’t feed the trolls.” Unfortunately, some internet trolls are capable of much worse than inciting heated arguments. These are the people who send death threats to writers and artists because they created something they didn’t like, or bully and shame a fellow student or coworker, or otherwise maliciously attack others. For a large number of examples, look at any political YouTube video’s comments section.
Let me be clear. Any form of bullying or harassment with the intention of causing harm to others is wrong. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with their beliefs or dislike their work or [insert any of the many things that differentiate people here]. They are still human beings with thoughts and feelings of their own.
Let me be clear. Any form of bullying or harassment with the intention of causing harm to others is wrong.
Strangely, though, this truth seems much more difficult for people to remember while online. Personality theorists agree and have been studying why some people are prone to the darker side. One promising theory is the so-called “Dark Triad.” The Dark Triad is itself a dramatically named metaphor coined by investigators attempting to understand what motivates those who enjoy hurting people for their own pleasure. The three character traits in this personality noir are psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism.
The psychopath is objectively incapable of empathy. They simply don’t feel the pain of others, meaning they can potentially hurt people without personal shame, guilt or remorse. Trolling, or more accurately cyberbullying, is a perfect outlet for the budding psychopath since the internet is full of easy targets. When confronted for their hurtful actions, some claim they “did it for the lulz.”
Pictured: Not a role model. Also pictured: Shameless segue to my article about coulrophobia (fear of clowns).
The Machiavellian is best reflected in the extreme actions of a person who employs aggressive and manipulative moves for personal gain. This idea was originally studied to understand the need-to-get-ahead behaviors of greedy corporate executives. However, it can reasonably be associated with people in other high-powered careers.
Narcissists have grandiose and inflated opinions of self, going far beyond the normal notion of pride. They will do whatever it takes to preserve their image, including deception and violence. Even if proven wrong, a narcissist will not back down.
Now, the Dark Triad is not an exhaustive explanation of trolling behaviors. Nobody — not one person or one group — can be fully and accurately identified in a few phrases or paragraphs. It’s important to remember that Dark Triad characters are much more uncommon in real life than you may believe. It’s far more common that people simply don’t think before they speak (or in this case, post) because the person or group they’re attacking is not in front of them (out of sight, out of mind). Basically, it’s the same concept that nobody thinks about adopting a pet from a shelter until it’s 3 a.m. and Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” starts playing on the TV.
Personally, I strongly encourage you to avoid facing off against an internet troll at all. It may be frustrating at times, but don’t assume you can overpower or outwit them or that the effort would be worth it if you did. Your time is too valuable to waste battling with someone over things you can’t control, and in the extremely rare cases where you encounter a Dark Triad character, you have already lost no matter the outcome.
The Dark Triad theory may illuminate some of the emotional drivers that lead someone from playful banter to harmful engagements, but ultimately it’s your choice, dear reader, whether to engage the internet troll or not.
The internet is a miracle of our evolution. We have the collective knowledge and ingenuity of all humanity at your fingertips. There is always an alternative to fighting. So please…don’t feed the internet troll.