Trolls: A Product of the Internet, Society, or a Psychological Disorder?

Let’s get straight to the point. Real trolls have serious psychological problems. That’s not just my opinion. It’s the opinion of experts who have researched the subject. People with psychological disorders have been around long before the internet was ever conceived of. The internet simply gives such people a way to satisfy the compulsions associated with their disorders in a way that is much safer than it would have been in the past. In the past, they would have had to face those they insulted, and that comes with some risks.

I mention ‘real trolls’ to differentiate them from people who simply exhibit temporary anger while on internet sites. According to a YouGov poll, 28% of Americans admitted to “trolling-like” behavior. This behavior included “malicious arguing with a stranger”. True, the anonymity of the internet may allow a person to express their anger more than they would in person, but this is different from troll behavior. Trolls do what they do to achieve a very different outcome. A person who argues with a stranger may really be angry at that person and somehow want to prove a point. A troll really doesn’t care if he or she proves a point or not.

So what is the actual percentage of Americans who are real trolls? The YouGov poll found that 12% of those taking the poll admitted to saying something so controversial that they were banned by moderators. This percentage seems closer to the true troll population. If we combine this finding with medical statistics on psychological disorders, we may begin to get some focus on an actual percentage of online trolls. One study found that “15% of the population — have at least one serious personality disorder”. But not all personality disorders are created equal. In other words, what personality disorders are most associated with trolls?

In an in-depth study of troll behavior published in 2014, it was found that troll behavior correlated positively with four psychological disorders: sadism, narcissism, psychopathology, and Machiavellianism. The study found that about 6% of internet users openly admitted that trolling gave them the most satisfaction. The authors of the study believed that the 6% figure probably under-represented the true number of trolls. However, the following graph shows which psychological problems were associated with that group.

troll psychology

The researchers found a particularly high correlation between trolling and sadism, in its many varieties. They state that this correlation is “so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.” They went on to observe that “we found clear evidence that sadists tend to troll because they enjoy it”…Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun . . . and the Internet is their playground!”

So what percentage of Americans fit this particular demographic? According to one study sadistic personality traits and disorders (SPD) are prevalent in 8.1% of the population. Combine this with narcissists and other people with antisocial psychological disorders and you get a figure between 10 and 15%. This is the percentage of online Americans who take pleasure in causing others misery or who find that the internet gives them a way to feed their psychological disorders.

Not all of these sick individuals take pleasure in hurting people. Narcissists and psychopaths, for example, don’t take pleasure in hurting others because they simply cannot sympathize with them. However, narcissists may enjoy the attention they are getting on the internet. Narcissists will become angry if they encounter others who disagree with their opinions because their opinion represents the inflated image they have of themselves. These are the people who will argue ceaselessly with others on forum and social media sites.

Psychopaths cannot relate to the feelings of others any more than narcissists do, but they don’t care whether they are liked or not. They don’t need the attention that motivates narcissists. They are predatory. They seek certain goals at all costs. The frustration of not getting what they want will cause them to overstep any social norm in order to get it.

Different psychological disorders will drive those with them towards different internet sites. Narcissists prefer sites like Facebook. One study found that the “narcissists’ use of Facebook for attention-seeking and validation explained their greater likelihood of updating about their accomplishments and their diet and exercise routine.”

Psychopaths are groomers and charmers. Though they understand, logically, how emotions can be used to control people, they feel no emotions themselves. Psychologists refer to online psychopaths as, ‘ipredopaths’. According to them, “iPredopathy is an advanced stage characterological disorder describing any adolescent to adult male or female who skillfully uses Information and Communications Technology [ICT] to troll, identify, control and manipulate their human targets.”  They “experience no remorse or shame for the harm they cause others.” They target those who are “unsuspecting, vulnerable, (and) submissive”. These targets often include “internet-safety-ignorant children, older adults, unprepared businesses, and psychologically distressed adults.” Depending on their individual perversions, psychopaths can be found looking for victims on dating sites, gaming chat rooms, or forums. They are charming and, although they feel no emotions themselves, learn how to fake the emotions that can influence the actions and gain the trust of normal people. However, most of us don’t consider these people as trolls, in the regular use of the word. Trolls are those nasty individuals who are seeking to hurt or inflame the emotions of others. They are certainly not the charmers that psychopaths are.

So, what does a troll look like? First of all, they are predominantly male. One writer categorizes the average troll as “young, male and troubled”. That said, some of the most infamous trolls have been female. Lori Drew, posing as a young male called, Josh, pushed Megan Meier to commit suicide. The bad news is that nothing could have pleased this troll more. That’s just how it is. Other trolls have been convicted of attacking the parents of children who have tragically died, taking great delight in causing them even more misery. One researcher concluded that “It’s hard to get demographics on who trolls are, but you note that their targets are usually women, people of color and LGBT people, and sometimes Christians and Republicans.” Oddly, the people that the trolls attack may hold views that are similar to the troll’s own. It’s not the views that matter. It’s the pain that their comments can cause that gives their lives meaning.

Although trolls will attack any vulnerable individual, they “seem to find women – particularly feminists – more fun to harass.” The internet has added a new dimension to these attacks. Sadistic trolls will form groups and then concentrate on one woman for a sustained attack. The reason for this is that a massive troll attack is more difficult to moderate, meaning that the malevolent messages are more likely to get posted and stay on the site longer.

The internet also gives trolls anonymity and security. Most realize they will never get caught and, even if they are, they will never have to pay any serious penalties. The fact that they don’t confront their victims in person means it is easier to disassociate themselves from the victims. The victims don’t seem to be real people. Then, there’s desensitization. The average internet user is simply beginning to get used to trolls. Trolls have begun to think of their behavior as normal. That’s where the true problems begin.

The open dehumanizing of victims on the internet can result in a back propagation into society at large. The level of tolerance of hate speech on the internet can give some the impression that it is now allowable in non-cyber contexts. There are those who may get the impression that they can say whatever they want to whomever they want and expect no opposition. In fact, any opposition may startle or even outrage them.

In a climate where trolling behavior is grudgingly tolerated, more people may begin to participate in it. Troll behavior could extend beyond the usual base of people with psychological disorders to include those with borderline psychological disorders, or even people considered more or less normal. This increase in troll-like behavior among the general public could augment the number of trolls on the internet in a sort of ever-growing, self-reinforcing upward spiral. In other words, I would expect trolling to become, at least in a sense, more mainstream. More people will think it is an acceptable and entertaining endeavor.

For anyone who becomes a victim of a troll attack, the advice is to never respond to them. If you are trolled on a social media site, report the person to the site’s administrators. Good luck with this on Facebook. You will get a standard digital form to fill out with limited questions. I’ve reported fake Facebook sites of dating predators and have had no success in closing them down. Don’t even read the comments that trolls may post. Delete them instantly.

And for any trolls reading this, get yourself professional help…really.

 

 

About Steve Mierzejewski

Marketing consultant for InZero Systems, developer of the next generation in hardware-separated security, WorkPlay Technology. I've worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China, and Afghanistan. I'm a writer, technical editor, and an educator. I also do some work as a test developer for Michigan State University.
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