Blog posts

05 Dec 2018

The Psychology of an online troll

December 05, 2018Health

Attack of the Keyboard Warrior.

You’re on your favourite social media platform and an idea springs to mind that you want to post, or you decide to share someone else’s post. To you, your post is tepid, inoffensive and polite. You wonder if anyone will like the post, or even bother to comment on it.

After logging off to complete your day, you settle down in the evening and decide to see if anyone noticed your post. You are pleasantly surprised that your post has received 7 likes and 15 comments. You click on the comments and your heart sinks. Amongst the jolly banter from friends are hidden a couple of nasty, even sinister messages about your post. What alarms you aside from the content of the messages is that you don’t know the people commenting. You shudder and feel as though you are being stalked.

Say hello to the Keyboard Warrior, often referred to as a troll or hater. Your mind wonders why they would type such poison, especially when they don’t know you and have never met you. Your evening is ruined. You toss and turn in bed, then awaken to a new day, put the kettle on and suddenly your mind tracks back to yesterday’s post’s reaction. Your mood darkens and you have a miserable start to the day.

Such ‘trolling’ has become commonplace in recent years. Social media has become a safe haven for haters. Being anonymous, or hiding safely behind the screen in their bedrooms offers protection for people to say whatever they want, be it constructive or abusive.

Arguably celebrities suffer more than most, because they are an easy target, their faces being plastered everywhere, their comments being potentially controversial, their wealth often seen by the haters as something to be envious of, as opposed to aspirational. They often suffer a virtual social flogging or stoning.

So what constitutes a troll? Who are they, how are they wired, what is their psychology, what drives their behaviour?

They do not all fit into one particular box. However, they all demonstrate similar tactics. Often, they can be people who have been abused or are suffering abuse themselves. Feeling helpless, they project their inner misery onto others in the form of written abuse. They may suffer from an identity issue, an insecurity about their own identity.

Their way of coping with this crisis or inner turmoil is to belittle others, which gives them a self-satisfied feeling of justification, that their lives mean something more than their own poor image of themselves. They feel they have no control over their own lives and seek to control others via their belittling behaviour. These types feel no remorse and rarely stop. This may be a pattern for their entire lives.

In a study conducted by Canadian researchers (1) involving 1215 people, they came to the conclusion that trolling can be clearly linked with the ‘Dark Tetrad’ (2) of personality traits, which are narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism. In fact, the results were so significant, they stated: “… the associations between sadism and GAIT (Global Assessment of Internet Trolling) scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.”

With such traits, trolls will likely exhibit such tactics away from their safe chair behind the screen. They may bully their own families and friends, exhibit aggressive or passive aggressive behaviour and be unpleasant to people in general. They may be the type to drive aggressively. They are unlikely to feel they have personality flaws and will look to blame negative feedback from others on those who object to their behaviour. Research indicates that bullies actually have excellent self-esteem, which ties in with the Dark Tetrad. “Bullies usually have a sense of entitlement and superiority over others, and lack compassion, impulse control and social skills”. (3)

However, not all trolls are psychopaths or bullies! Deindividuation, (temporary identity loss and anonymity) could bring out the worst in some people by lifting moral constraints and inhibitions. It has been seen in gaming, role-playing and hooliganism, ‘fuelling dissent and triggering abrasive reactions’. The reward for the hater is a perceived enhanced status, as they are likely to be less effective in attracting attention in the real world. (4)

Some may be motivated by negative social rewards, like creating mayhem, something that may keep them coming back for more. Due to the addictive nature of rewards, there may be an addictive element to trolling. (5) If the effects upon us of this continual barrage are left to fester, they could damage our own self-esteem.

We don’t need to tolerate or suffer at the hands of these Keyboard Warriors. There are plenty of self-protection methods we can apply, for example gaining resilience by building an internal Locus of Control (6). In essence, this means we own a sense of control over our lives, rather than externalising control, thus giving it to other people, other things such as fate, hope etc. By nurturing an internal Locus of Control, we are able to laugh at trolling comments, ignore them or indeed feel pity for the troll. Think that this behaviour is likely common to the rest of their lives, something that has damaged or destroyed most of their relationships.

Being unable to control Keyboard Warriors, we can control the way we feel about them: remember that they do not know us personally and therefore such hateful comments are not personal.