We’ve all seen them – those online pranksters who post outrageous and incendiary comments just to create discord and dissent. Their observations can range from the deliberately snarky to the intentionally cruel, and their intention is to destroy thoughtful discussion and provoke conflict on the internet. They often speak in a morally or intellectually superior tone to further irritate on-line posters and achieve their childish objectives.
Origins of the Troll
The term “trolling” has, until recently, been a fishing reference, meaning “to draw (a baited line, etc.) through the water, often from a boat.” However, modern-day usage defines the term as posting “deliberately inflammatory articles on an internet discussion board.” (World English Dictionary) In the fishing definition, the inference is that bait is dragged along through the water and the angler waits for something to bite. This is essentially the same technique employed by trolls in the cyber world; they post inflammatory comments, then wait for someone to “bite” and launch their verbal attack, hopefully humiliating their victim in the process. It’s like an on-line hit-and-run; and very often there’s no reason or rhyme to it.
You Can’t Have a Picnic Without Ants
Trolls have been a necessary evil on the Internet, even from its earliest days (the term is thought to have originated sometime in the late ’80s). But more recently, trolling has evolved (or more appropriately devolved) into a lethal weapon wielded by sadistic bullies whose intent is not merely to provoke or humiliate, but to cause psychological pain and worse. This form of bullying is, more and more, being characterized by an organized, sadistic pursuit of victims, often to the point of perpetually hounding specific targets and using illegal means to destroy their on-line credibility, and sometimes their livelihood. Most people deal with trolls by ignoring them, considering them a casualty of on-line discourse.
Links to Sadistic Behavior
The primary objective of trolling that is the most perplexing to legitimate Internet posters and other users is that there is no discernible objective to the procedure, other than personal gratification. In her study on trolling, Erin E. Buckels noted, “Trolling is the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.” (Buckels) The sadistic behavior of trolls is characterized by traits which fall into the following categories (The Dark Tetrad):
- Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate ad deceive others)
- Narcissism (egotism and self-obsession)
- Psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy)
- Sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others)
Trolls don’t pursue their online activities for monetary gain (for the most part) or to secure any specific objective; it’s principally a means of gratifying some sadistic urge to dominate or to prove they can intellectually overshadow others in an argument. “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.” (Mooney, citing Buckels)
The Lure of Anonymity
True trolls are primarily anonymous. This differs from the Facebook member who antagonizes or bullies a friend, acquaintance or other Facebook user. Though Facebook cyber-bullies have been known in extreme instances to drive their victims to suicide, they generally use their own names or their identities are commonly known to those in their on-line community. The true Internet troll, however, uses a pseudonym, often one with a clever (to the troll) hook or connection to some obscure reference that the troll or his friends and fellow trolls will recognize. The urge to provoke people anonymously is like catnip to trolls. “The deceptive and pointless disruptive aspects may distinguish trolling from other forms of on-line antisociality, such as cyber-bullying where perpetrator identities are usually clear and the intent is more straightforward.” (Buckels) It is the lure of being able to bully others from the unassailable pulpit of anonymity that draws the troll.
Don’t Feed the Trolls
Many websites and blogs advise users to avoid “feeding the trolls,” or declining to engage in conversation with them, no matter how disruptive or eccentric their comments. “When you try to reason with a troll, he wins. When you insult a troll, he wins. When you scream at a troll, he wins. The only thing that trolls can’t handle is being ignored.” (Campbell) The trouble with trolls is that they are generally proceeding under pseudonyms, sometimes several of them. It’s not always possible to discredit them on-line by “outing” them to other media users, but it can be done. A little investigation into the troll’s name, Facebook page, favorite sites, affiliations, or other accessible information can often provide enough clues to unmask the troll. For the average internet user, there is always the alternative of reporting on-line abuse to web hosts. For Facebook users and other social media users, blocking the troll is also an option. And if a victim hosts a website or blog, they have the ultimate control over trolls; abusive comments can be deleted or censored. The troll may complain that it is a violation of free speech, but the bottom line is: It’s your blog, your site, your rules. Don’t let the trolls get you down and don’t hesitate to exercise executive privilege if necessary.
Buckels, Erin, et al., “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun,” Personality and Individual Differences, 2014, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.016
Campbell, Timothy, “Internet Trolls,” July 13, 2001, http://web.archive.org/web/20011026130853/http://members.aol.com/intwg/trolls.htm
Mooney, Chris, “Internet Trolls Really Are Horrible People,” Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/climate_desk/2014/02/internet_troll_personality_study_machiavellianism_narcissism_psychopathy.html
World English Dictionary, “Trolling” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/trolling