The Trouble with Trolls
Written by: John Suler
Psychology of the Digital Age
Cambridge author John Suler explores ‘trolls’ in his new book Psychology of the Digital Age.
They relentlessly accuse, demean, shame, and harass their victims, as if it’s a game, as if they don’t care about the emotional damage they are inflicting, as if they actually enjoy hurting others. In fact they do enjoy it and it is a game for them. They are even proud of their sadistic accomplishments. They compete with other likeminded deplorables to see who’s the best at not just creating pain for people, but also destroying their reputation and integrity as human beings.
There’s trouble, right here in social media, and they are it. They are the trolls of cyberspace, with the term itself suggesting their beastly impulse to lure chosen prey into emotional turmoil, just as fishermen lure their catch. And the trouble is more complex than we might at first realize.
A difficulty in identifying and controlling trolls is that they come in many shapes and sizes, with a variety of explanations for their antisocial behavior. The version I just described is the classic sociopathic type. They lack empathy for others, have no desire to change, and enjoy being trolls. Even though there is a great deal of research into the origin of the sociopath or psychopath (the terms are generally interchangeable), the explanation for their personality disorder is unclear. It might be a genetic or biological problem, the byproduct of their psychological history, particularly damaging childhood experiences such as abuse and neglect – or a toxic mixture of nature and nurture.
Because trolls infected cyberspace even before the word “troll” was introduced to describe them, we’ve had plenty of time to recognize their many manifestations. Over twenty years ago in my research at the avatar community known as The Palace, the moderators who overlooked the community invented a number of different terms for these predators. I describe this range of mild to severe trolls in Psychology of the Digital Age. For example, there were the “revolutionaries” who doggedly berated anyone who challenged their political tirades; the “freedom fighters” who proclaimed freedom of speech as justification for saying anything they wanted to anyone they wanted; the “bible thumpers” who forced their religious sermons and apocalyptic visions on others; the “breathers” who specifically targeted women with a constant barrage of lewd remarks; and the “stalkers” who followed their victims around the site as a way to antagonize them.
From the perspective of a clinical psychologist, I might explain these various types of trolls in terms of traditional diagnostic categories. Narcissistic personalities always have to prove that they are right and will assault anyone who challenges their pride. Seeing conspiracies and threats everywhere, paranoid personalities will viciously attack their perceived enemies. The perfectionistic obsessive-compulsive personalities want everything done their way, otherwise they retaliate with criticism and disdain. The passive-aggressive personalities will disagree with everything you say, even when you try to take their point of view. Then, of course, there are those sociopathic personalities.
Over time at the Palace, we realized that a significant number of trolls were what the moderators called “SNERTS” – snot-nosed, eros-ridden teenagers with too much free time on their hands, a not yet matured frontal lobe, and the typical teenage angst, frustration, and feelings of alienation that they channeled into the abuse of others. Nowadays we have to wonder how much of the trolling we see in social media comes from adults, and how much comes from kids pushing the envelope of rebellious behavior. After interviewing me about trolls, a journalist asked his teenage son about them. “Oh, they’re just kids,” his son told him. “It’s what they do online. It’s a game to them.”
Although his son and other teens might naively overlook the serious forms of online sociopathic trolling, we must lend some serious consideration to the idea that social media indeed is, for some kids as well as adults, just a contest flavored with antagonistic hostility.
We live in a highly competitive culture. Our movies, books, and news media have made it painfully clear how many of us idealize the hostile, tenacious, insulting, hurtful, loud-mouthed rebel. Even hardcore sociopaths are sometimes portrayed with sympathy. When these cultural attitudes combine with the fact that the internet has always been like the wild, wild west – due to its intrinsic design that encourages the so-called online disinhibition effect – it should come as no surprise that social media has evolved into a territory for all sorts of antisocial behaviors among frustrated teenagers as well as adults who succumb to a hefty dose of regression. It should come as no surprise that cyberspace has become the playground for serious psychopaths.
Some push for tighter controls over these kinds of deviant behavior, although attempts to do so have been marginally effective. Others, recognizing the intrinsic design of the internet, say that if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. As the Internet pioneer Paul Vixie stated, “The internet is not for sissies.”
Whether people take one side of that debate or the other, they must all recognize that cyberspace is a mirror that reflects and sometimes magnifies what is inside our human nature. And what’s in there, as Freud pointed out a century ago, is not always pleasant.