Why some ordinary people become internet trolls

Trolling is a problem for many internet users

As a comedian quits a Canterbury Facebook group after becoming the target of trolling, University of Kent psychology student Adam Harding looks into the aspects of the mind that trigger it: 

As someone who spends a lot of time on the internet discussing the ins and outs of human behaviour with random people, I often experience online trolls.

This tends to involve someone writing incendiary comments looking to rile me up and get a reaction.

It can be as basic as telling me I’m wrong and have no idea what I’m talking about to the extreme of wishing harm upon me and my loved ones.

As a white, heterosexual, male, much of the trolling I experience is impersonal and tame.

But I’ve heard horror stories from friends who have been threatened just for being a woman, or a Muslim, or black.

But what leads people to behave this way? As someone who studies psychology the discussion of genes versus environment crops up all the time.

Are some of us genetically predisposed to behave this way to others or has the internet created a social phenomenon?

Most research into trolling has looked at the different personality traits of trolls and two recurring traits appeared.

These were sadism – that is, getting pleasure from causing pain and humiliation towards others – and psychopathy, the inability to recognise others’ emotions.

In tests, people who admitted gaining pleasure from harming others were much more likely to go on to troll others on the internet.

Interestingly, with those who scored high in psychopathy appeared to be connected to a higher level of cognitive empathy (the ability to recognise others’ emotions) and lower levels of affective empathy (the ability to experience another’s emotions).

So individuals who engage in trolling are better at understanding how their actions will impact on someone else but are less able to imagine, and experience, the negative emotion that the other person will feel.

Eureka! Science has solved it. Trolls are sadistic psychopaths who are just born that way.

But something didn’t feel quite right about this conclusion.

If this was the case, then why do we experience these sadistic psychopaths online much more than in the real world?

And why do people suddenly start engaging in trolling behaviours?

Well, fortunately, researchers have begun to ask the same questions. It’s been known for a long time within academia that people, especially young adults, can “learn to be bad”. 

People who are exposed to criminal behaviours are more likely to engage in those behaviours themselves.

Last year a group of researchers decided to test the exposure effect. They analysed 16 million comments made on an American news site and found that exposure to trolling increased the likelihood that a person would then go on to troll in the future.

To test this idea further, they ran an experiment exposing some participants to trolling behaviour.

People exposed to a troll were significantly more likely to go on and troll themselves. It’s also been observed that negative mood also increases the likelihood of someone to engage in trolling.

So it would appear that anyone can be a troll in the right situation. That’s not to say that there are not certain types of personalities more likely to do it.

Clearly, there are those who gain pleasure out of causing harm to others. But the exposure to trolling that we all experience creates a toxic environment that only leads to increasing the likelihood that trolling will occur.

So how do we deal with them? The current advice is not to rise to the bait.

Trolls – especially those who gain pleasure from their activities – are looking for a response. Ignoring them often causes them to go away.

However, it’s also important to remember that this sort of behaviour is not allowed and not acceptable.

Don’t just ignore them but report them for abuse on whatever platform you’re on. Otherwise they will continue to go on and troll others, potentially causing great pain to someone.

Adam Harding has lived in Canterbury since 2010. As well as studying at the University of Kent, he works at Saffron Cafe in Castle Street.



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