Inside the Troll: The Science of Being an Awful Person


Trolls are everywhere these days, and some people, like J.K. Rowling, Amy Schumer and many others, are confronting them head on, rather than being driven off social media by their vicious comments. Peter Dazeley/Twitter/Reddit
Trolls are everywhere these days, and some people, like J.K. Rowling, Amy Schumer and many others, are confronting them head on, rather than being driven off social media by their vicious comments. Peter Dazeley/Twitter/Reddit

For some people, “the more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt." In the context of online communities, those people are probably trolls.

That antisocial sentiment originated with the "hacktivist" subculture "Anonymous," and it appears to underlie the behavior of Internet trolls, who use a variety of techniques to disturb the online peace. There's a tendency to see trolls as regular people whose underlying negative traits are just triggered and amplified by the unique environment of the Internet. But the study "Trolls just want to have fun," published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2014, suggests that may not be the whole story.

The True Troll

The term "trolling" is widely misused, or maybe has simply been usurped. Media invoke it to describe all kinds of digital harassment, from students posting insults about their professors to some sick individuals tweeting rape and death threats to supporters of England's Jane Austen-bearing currency. The former is a better example of "flaming," essentially an online tantrum directed at an individual. The latter is cyberharrassment, the adult version of cyberbullying.

As a self-described "old guard troll" told Vice.com's Jamie Bartlett in 2014, "Threatening to rape someone on Twitter isn't trolling. That's just threatening to rape someone. On Twitter."

Trolls can be cruel and malicious, but their aim isn't terror. It's disruption.

Trolls' deliberately inflammatory comments, intended to provoke discord and take serious discussion off course, led Popular Science to disable commenting on articles in 2013.

In 2012, it seems a troll came across a Facebook post about car troubles and convinced the poster to deflate her car tires in order to reset the flux capacitor — and then tell a mechanic her flux capacitor needed more gigawatts.

In 2011, the worst kind of troll posted, "Help me mummy, it's hot in hell," on the Facebook memorial page for a 14-year-old girl, on Mother's Day.

Trolls are basically mean-spirited jokesters prowling the Internet for ways to make trouble. It's entertainment. The behavior is profoundly antisocial, and scientists have been studying it for years — not the easiest pursuit, considering the subculture is based on messing with people. Media-studies scholar Whitney Phillips interviewed self-described trolls about their motivations for her book on the subject, and told the L.A. Times' Patt Morrison, "If they agreed to answer the question, there was a high likelihood they were trolling me."

In some ways, trolls are the kids blowing spitballs at the back of their classmates' heads. Most experts agree they crave attention, admiration and a sense of importance, which they probably don't get in real life. 

Feeding the Trolls

In "Antisocial Behavior in Online Discussion Communities," a 2015 study aiming to identify trolls' posting styles so moderators can spot them earlier, Drs. Justin Cheng, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and Jure Leskovec found that trolls' commenting behaviors in a given community evolve over time, guided by negative attention.

"When users get their posts negatively evaluated (via down-votes) ... they contribute more," writes Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil in an email interview. And as they spend more time in a community, adds Cheng, trolls "start behaving worse and worse until a moderator decides to outright ban them."

Which is unlikely to result in a change of behavior. Dr. Delroy Paulhus, co-author of "Trolls just want to have fun," writes in an email that trolls "tend to have a self-righteous attitude" about their activities.

Paulhus' co-author, Dr. Paul Trapnell, explains this aspect of the subculture. "A substantial number of dedicated trollers likely construe what they do as acts of moral purification, for example, puncturing hubris, unmasking dishonesty and hypocrisy, or punishing salient online violators of values especially important to the trolling community. It's not all nasty for nasty sake," Trapnell says.

There's no doubt that anonymity enables all this nastiness. It triggers a kind of temporary identity loss called deindividuation, which releases trolls from social norms, kind of like what happens in a mob. Some have attributed the trolling phenomenon almost entirely to anonymity's disinhibiting effect.

Yet many find this hard to swallow. The average person doesn't enjoy upsetting people, no matter how anonymous he is.

The "Trolls just want to have fun" study backed up the suspicion that trolls are not, in fact, the average person. Trolls, the study found, have specific personality traits that set them apart from the general population.

A Dark Mind

 Authors Paulhus, Trapnell and Dr. Erin Buckels surveyed more than 1,200 Internet users, identifying trolls by how much they agreed with statements such as "I like to troll people in forums or the comments section of websites" and "The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt," as well as by whether they chose "trolling other users" as their favorite activity on comment-based sites.

The rest of the surveys assessed personality traits, testing specifically for signs of the "Dark Tetrad" personality, which scientists have linked with bullying behaviors. The Dark Tetrad consists of four traits: narcissism (pathological self-absorption), psychopathy (lack of conscience and empathy), Machiavellianism (a willingness to harm others in the pursuit of self-interest) and sadism (taking pleasure in others' pain). The results, while not necessarily surprising in content, were strikingly unambiguous.

With the exception of narcissism, subjects identified as trolls scored consistently and significantly higher than non-trolls on the Dark Tetrad traits. The link between trolling and sadism was the strongest — "so strong," the authors wrote, "that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists."

This in no way questions the role of anonymity in trolling. When asked what would happen to trolling if anonymity were impossible, Paulhus responded, "I believe it would drop by 90 percent."

The results do, however, cast doubt on the idea that trolls are simply regular people under the influence of anonymity.

Most of trolling, says Trapnell, is "just plain pleasure in others' suffering."