Why do people troll? What’s the psychology behind it? Trolling has been around since the Old Norse word ‘troll’, meaning giant or demon, migrated into the English language.

But trolling has since taken on a new meaning, that of the elusive, indiscriminate and potent internet bully – the internet troll – who preys on weakness and feeds on negative reactions.

Here is a deep-dive exploration into why people troll and what they get out of it, psychologically.

What is an online troll?

BBC Bitesize defines online trolls as “people who leave intentionally provocative or offensive messages on the internet in order to get attention, cause trouble or upset someone”. However, as noted by Coles and West in a paper on the subject: “Neither the category ‘troll’ nor the action of ‘trolling’ has a single, fixed meaning.”

Image by first use of the term to denote something along those lines was in the early 1990s. On the urban/internet folklore news site alt.folklore.urban (AFU), seasoned members used ‘trolling’ as a way to identify ‘newbies’ to the site.

Trolls everywhere – why do people troll?

The righteous and the wicked
And the war and peace
The killing fist of the human beast

Kiedis (1991)

Activities such as ‘trolling’, ‘flaming’ and ‘lurking’ – performed for ‘lulz’ – are, in a sense, defensible. As one-off occurrences, one might argue a few words here and there are hardly enough to warrant a major reaction. Like playground bullying, trolling is dismissed by its apologists as banter.

Image by Playground bullying versus trolling

But such checks and balances don’t pervade online social spaces in the same way. If one’s comeuppance comes in the form of exile, there are a million other online spaces to inhabit, and disrupt. If the result of one’s trollish behaviour is shutdown – for example, ‘comments are disabled’ – the troll triumphs.

Studies show trolls tend to be male. They also show higher levels of psychopathy traits. For example, trolls show a disconnect with guilt, empathy, remorse and responsibility. They also show higher levels of sadism traits.

Unregulated forums are perfect mating grounds for such individuals. They can exhibit their disconnects, stoke flames and cause anxiety, all from the comfort of their desk chair. The suffering they cause isn’t viscerally apparent to them because they aren’t face to face with their victims.

How to manage the trolls

If we understand them as they are – the flamers of fires – we can find ways to limit their influence. “Do not feed the trolls,” writes Amy Binns, adamantly, for Journalism Practice. Coles and West agree: “Deprived of oxygen, these flamers are expected to quickly die down.”

Another solution involves introducing video game elements into non-gaming contexts. They call this ‘gamification’. Essentially, this boils down to requiring users to sign-in to forums and, at least to an extent, verify their identity before interacting.

Image by Should trolling be a criminal offence?

A final solution is to legislate against trollish behaviour. This relies on legislation as deterrent. Whether it works or not, it’s almost impossible to moderate objectively. In other words, it’s hard to prove a troll is a troll.

Without the benefit of delivery, tone of voice and facial expression, so-called online banter is notoriously difficult to differentiate from genuinely malicious behaviour. Even sarcasm is unworkable without being able to do the voice. Right?

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