When Data & Society released their report on online harassment, digital abuse and cyberstalking in America, the statistics confirmed what we all learned from the election: internet trolls are everywhere. The report, which compiled recorded instances of harassment over an 18th month period across the US, states that 47% of Americans have been victims of online harassment whereas over 72% of internet users witness such abuse from their own computer screens. These numbers are sure to rise over the next 18 months as internet trolls have become emboldened by our new president, arguably the biggest, nastiest troll of all time. But not all trolls can be as evil and sadistic as their online personas, can they?
Of course they can. In fact, researchers at the University of Manitoba found just that. In their paper Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun, psychologists Erin Buckels and Paul Trapnel profiled the personality characteristics of self-identified trolls. Most importantly, they wanted to determine whether the trolls’ personalities consisted of traits associated with the psychologically evil Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (self-obsession and inflated sense of ego), psychopathy (defined here as a lack of remorse and empathy) and sadism (a sense of pleasure in hurting others).
In order to identify the trolls wreaking havoc on the internet, the scientists simply asked a population of 1215 survey takers what they enjoyed most when commenting on web sites. Their options were: “debating issues that are important to you”, “chatting with others”, “making new friends”, “trolling”, and “other”. Yes, the researchers found the harassers by literally asking if they identified as trolls, and the trolls were proud enough of their behavior to admit to it. Sounds about right to me.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has a working internet connection: trolling was significantly associated with all the traits of the Dark Tetrad except for narcissism where there was a positive association, but not strong enough to reach significance. The trait of sadism was found to be the highest associated with trolling behavior, implying that the bullies enjoy the harm they bring to others. The amount of time spend commenting on the internet also was found to be associated with higher levels of these dark traits, their sadism growing with every new disturbing post.
Hundreds of people proudly identified as trolls. And Machiavellian, narcissistic, psychopathic, sadistic and as all-around horrible people.
If the words “Dark Tetrad” aren’t enough to scare you away from these insidious creatures, then perhaps a sub-study by the researchers will. Using survey samples from Amazon Mechanical Turk and college students, Buckels and Trapnel wanted to see if they could determine why trolling attracts these psychologically disturbing personality profiles. They even coined their own survey instrument, aptly titled the Global Assessment of Internet Trolling, or GAIT. Here are some of the actual terms from the assessment:
The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt
I like to troll people in forums or the comments sections of websites
I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz
I enjoy griefing other players in multiplayer games
People actually said yes to these questions. Researchers comment that endorsing such atrocious intentions further supports the assertion that sadism is highly associated with trolling. Not only do the sadists enjoy internet bullying and harassment, they are so proud of themselves that they actually admit to identifying as a troll and engaging in such vile behavior. Authors reveled in this information, stating that “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 how do we keep trolls away from their beloved swings and slides? The answer is complicated, and perhaps, unsolvable. News websites such as Recode, The Verge, Reuters, Mic, Popular Science, The Week, and USA Today’s FTW have discarded their comments section after the rise of the internet troll. On the other hand, websites such as 4chan are breeding grounds for trolls, where they can get together to plan attacks on other internet users and not face repercussions due to anonymity.
Study authors also comment on the troubles of fixing this potent problem. “Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users),” said Buckels. “Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner.”
The actual face of a troll when you respond to them calling you a racist against white people.
The rise of our
President presents another problem. Usually trolls live under the guise of anonymity, tied only to their IP address. This troll stands atop a podium, making his name known to the world one gilded Trump Tower and tweet at a time. His sadism not only feeds his own already gargantuan ego, but feeds the egos of those who copy his childish behavior online.
The best way to deal with trolls, in my opinion and based on the research, is to tackle their egos. We have seen time and time again with Trump becoming visibly irritated when presented with concrete facts that diminish his ego. When the numbers came in about his abysmal attendance at his inauguration, he sent a fury of tweets that millions attended (wrong!). When he lost the popular vote by close to three million ballots, Trump has signed an executive order saying that he lost due to massive voter fraud without any evidence (sad!). Trump even shut down the EPA for tweeting evidence for climate change, which he decrees as a “hoax” (too bad!). Trump only relies on emotions. We’ve seen in throughout the election debates. He could not, and still cannot, produce any concrete plans for tax cuts, healthcare replacement, or crime in inner cities, but instead focused all of his campaign on creating emotion in voters by painting Clinton as corrupt and bible belters as a forgotten population in America. Presenting Trump with facts that he cannot explain with his emotions is slowly causing him to become unhinged and will ultimately lead to his downfall if he continues on this path.
An actual article from Salon.com. It doesn’t matter that what he says makes no sense! He speaks for me and stands up for the little guy! He’s a rich New Yorker, of course he understands Middle America and the lower class!
Internet troll problems can be solved similarly. Trolls, like Trump, feed off of your negative emotions. As the study shows, they don’t post to begin debates, they post because they like seeing you suffer, that your suffering makes them happy. You can accomplish this either by ignoring trolling behavior, or eliciting a tactic known as the Gray Rock Method. Developed initially to help people deal with psychopaths and stalkers, the Gray Rock Method involves simply becoming uninteresting in the eyes of whoever is harassing you. Instead of calling a troll an asshole or stupid in response, try giving a boring response that is void of emotion. Remember, a troll wants you to get emotional, so if you do not give them that, they will eventually leave you to find another target.
One statistic gleaned from the study, however, gives hope to those desiring to reclaim the safe haven of the internet. Researchers found that only 5.6% of the 1215 surveyed identified as trolls, whereas 41.3% of internet users identified as “non-commenters”. The presence of trolls seems to be greater than it actually is as most trolls post multiple comments on multiple platforms searching for that high from upsetting people. The act of trolling is a manifestation of everyday sadism, meaning that trolls are in constant need of harassment for stimulation. How many hours a day do you watch TV? How many hours do you spend texting or talking on your phone? Imagine spending all of those hours on the internet, needing to leave nasty comments for entertainment and excitement. All of those comments would certainly rack up, just as your phone data bill does toward the end of the month.
The biggest thing to remember is that internet trolls are not psychologically normal. They combined the scariest words in psychology together to form the term “Dark Tetrad” for a reason. Next time you witness internet harassment remember, these are sadistic people and replying to them is only feeding into their sadism. Remember, these people have to look in the mirror every day, or at least their reflection in their laptop screens. That should be punishment enough.