What’s the Deal with Internet Trolls?

An internet troll is a person who deliberately tries to disrupt, attack, offend or cause trouble in an online social community. They may post offensive or hateful comments, display upsetting photos or videos, or subtly attempt to sway opinion with falsehoods. They may start quarrels or upset people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages. The intent is to provoke readers into an emotional response of disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement. These are not people who have bad manners. They are purposefully disruptive.

The effects of trolls can be simply annoying or can be fatal. Some victims have killed themselves. It can be damaging to an entire nation as may be the case of Russian interference in swaying US public opinion toward a particular outcome.

Trolls flourish within anonymity. They are not likely to behave this way in face to face encounters due to social barriers. Eye contact is shown to inhibit negative behavior by increasing empathy. Trolls can express themselves online without regard for a moral code where there are no repercussions for bad behavior. They may hide their identity through fake profiles.

Internet trolls are horrible people as found by a Canadian study. They compared people who said that trolling was their favorite internet activity with people who don’t troll. The trolls score high on personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism (sneaky, cunning, and lacking a moral code), psychopathy and sadism. The authors of the study are quoted as saying “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun . . . and the internet is their playground.” It is your suffering that brings them pleasure. They may also be motivated to troll by boredom, craving attention or revenge.

How do you stop them? They can be banned or blocked from individual user accounts or they can be reported to authorities. The most effective way to discourage a troll is to ignore it. Engaging in the dialog invites further disruptive posts. Their intention is to humiliate anyone who attempts to strike back. Unfortunately, personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism cannot be cured. They can alter their behavior if it serves them in some way, but they cannot be cured. There is insufficient research on the number of trolls, but statistics indicate that only one to 3 percent of the general population has these personality traits.

The lesson for the general population is to be aware of your online behavior and seek to be courteous toward others. I’ll end with a quote attributed to Ian MacLaren “Sir–A thought to help us through these difficult times: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Don’t be a troll.


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