Inside the Mind of the Twitter Troll
What kind of people pursue and abuse others compulsively on the internet?
Posted Aug 19, 2015
By Dr Raj Persaud FRCPsych
Under headlines such as 'McCann 'Twitter troll' found dead in hotel', the media have widely reported that Police were called after the body of a woman was found in a Leicester hotel room.
The woman, now reported in the press as found 'likeable' by her neighbours and 'churchgoing', had been confronted by a reporter, who put to her she had posted many messages attacking the McCann family on Twitter.
A few days earlier, in response to the widespread internet abuse they have suffered from numerous 'trolls', and following reports that police were reviewing a dossier of abusive social media messages, Gerry McCann, gave an interview declaring, 'Clearly something needs to be done about the abuse on the internet'.
But new research suggests that if trolling arises out of deeply ingrained and very 'dark' personality dispositions, it may be more difficult for the law to be effective.
The press have tried to probe the background of the woman, only to find her behaviour largely mysterious and inexplicable, given her benign public persona in her home village.
The latest scientific study on internet trolls finds them to suffer from a unique constellation of manipulativeness (cunning, scheming, unscrupulous), sadism (pleasure from inflicting pain on others) and psychopathy (lacking empathy and remorse), which may only be properly illuminated by psychological testing.
Rather than subject this particular case to trolling, as speculation rages over the web and in the press over motivation, what has been revealed about the psyche of internet trolls from objective research?
The motivation which lies behind the apparently growing phenomenon of internet trolling has been recently explored by the ﬁrst psychological research to examine comprehensive personality proﬁles of trolls.
This study was titled 'Trolls just want to have fun', and was published by academics at the University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg and the University of British Columbia, Canada, involving 1215 respondents completing personality tests, and an investigation of their internet commenting styles.
The first finding of the study, published in the academic journal 'Personality and Individual Differences', is that trolls and trolling are a real and rather 'dark' psychological phenomenon of particular personalities, not just random behaviour from a group who might dabble in this a bit, and then move on to other more innocuous internet activities.
Strong positive associations emerged among frequency of online commenting, trolling enjoyment, and troll identity. The Daily Telegraph reports that the woman currently at the centre of press interest sometimes posted more than 50 tweets a day, beginning at 7 am and going on until midnight.
Trolling in this new study, published in September 2014, was found to be surprisingly strongly associated with what are widely considered by psychologists to be the 'darkest' aspects of personality - including sadism, psychopathy, and manipulativeness.
Of all personality measures, however, it was sadism which showed the most robust associations with trolling. And, importantly, the relationship was speciﬁc to trolling behaviour. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism.
The authors of the study, psychologists Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell and Delroy Paulhus conclude that cyber-trolling is an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.
If sadism is a feature of your personality psychologists describe you as disposed to enjoy hurting others. You would tend to respond in the affirmative to test questions such as ''Hurting people is exciting'' and ''I enjoy hurting people''. You are also likely to suffer from vicarious sadism (e.g., ''In video games, I like the realistic blood spurts'').
But trolls also scored high on manipulativeness or Machiavellianism (e.g., ''It's not wise to tell your secrets''), and subclinical psychopathy (e.g., ''Payback needs to be quick and nasty''). These two personality features may explain some aspects of trolling which have hit the headlines over the recent alleged case, including the use of internet names which disguise identity, and possibly the pursuit of revenge.
Some might be surprised that receiving national attention or notoriety would be linked with an adverse outcome, but in fact this study found that of all the 'darker' aspects of personality there was one on which trolls did not score highly, and this was narcissism.
Trolls tend not to be narcissists. Narcissists love attention and tend to answer affirmatively to questions such as ''I have been compared to famous people''. So trolls don't appear to be performing for the attention.
Because the associations between sadism and trolling were particularly strong, the investigators tested a theory that sadism leads to trolling, because those behaviours are pleasurable, and the data provided some support for this.
As sadists tend to troll because they enjoy it, this might explain why victims revealing their suffering might merely further encourage trolls.
The authors found that the association between sadism and trolling was so strong that they conclude it might be said that online trolls are 'prototypical everyday sadists'.
The authors suggest that their ﬁndings add to accumulating evidence that excessive technology use is linked to anti-social attitudes. The antisocial might deploy technology more than others because it facilitates their nefarious goals.
However, some psychologists go further to argue that use of internet technology actually pushes us in an anti-social direction. If this is the case then the internet could be said to be turning a significant proportion of recent generations into psychopaths.
This is because for the first time in human history a universally accessible anonymous environment has been created, where it is easy to seek out and explore one's niche, however idiosyncratic.
The authors of this study point out that the antisocial now have greater opportunities than they ever did to connect with similar others, and to pursue their personal brand of ''self expression''. The problem is both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others and this is now unfettered.
The web may also provide an opportunity to shape and develop an aspect of our personalities which might otherwise remain more hidden from our neighbours and friends. Online we can construct a new identity which may be more antisocial and may reflect parts of us we normally suppress from the outside world.
This 'double-life' idea might help us understand how extreme stress could follow exposure: the 'internet' persona may be compared with the 'real life' one, leading to the sort of tragedy which seems to have happened.
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