The psychology of internet trolls

Trolling is a form of cyberbullying. It involves posting malicious or harassing comments on social media platforms to hurt or humiliate the target. This behavior not only has negative consequences but can also contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression among the victims. What’s more – it’s an epidemic.

The year was 2007, and my hacker group and I were locked in a cyber war against a rival hacking group led by a notorious hacker who was also an apex cyberbully and internet troll. As someone who experienced bullying growing up in high school, whenever I witness things like this, it provokes me to respond in kind.

That’s because I remember what it felt like to be consumed with powerlessness growing up. But as I got older, I obtained the skills, knowledge, and confidence to leverage cyberbullies and put an end to their reign of abuse.

Driven by the predatorial instinct I developed while navigating this landscape, I ultimately found it exciting to devise and execute new ways to weaken my opponent and give victory to every person this man had ever bullied. Eventually, mirroring his tactics became easier and easier.

Initially, I was possessed by a sense of purpose, which translated into a need to exact justice and provide closure to the victims. But as time went on, although I was convinced that my plight was selfless, the way I carried it out arguably spoke otherwise. Because while the goal of justice is to find an honest and balanced verdict to conflicts, revenge is motivated to find an opportunity to cause harm in return.

It’s important to point out that when fighting cyberbullying and harassing trolls becomes exciting, it changes the reason why you’ve taken a stand against them in the first place. When this happens, the focus shifts over to reliving that excitement over and over again. That is when the vigilantism ends and the pleasure of causing harm to others begins.

That is when you become the very enemy you were fighting against, and when that happens, it's time to unplug.

The mentality

The goal of online trolling is simple. Its aim is to bait people by posting provoking and inflammatory comments aimed at disrupting conversations. By diverting attention away from what is being discussed, as soon as you engage or reciprocate with the troll, you’ve fallen for the trap. That is why the popular saying exists, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

In the grand scheme of things, a troll’s goal is to make themselves feel less inferior to their victims. It’s to make victims feel worthless and distressed and to turn them into an empty shell of their former selves. Trolls experience a high from destroying another person's inner light or crushing their spirit, which is something I will broach more in-depth shortly.

Once the overall rush of excitement starts to wane, they oftentimes will explore new ways to capture that rush and execute it by doing bigger, harder, and more vulgar things to see how far they can push their victims. Think of it like a heroin addict, chasing that first hit, forever trying to capture that first rush through bigger doses.

Trolls like the easy instant gratification. Additionally, they do not like to be challenged. Moreover, they do not like being confronted about their behavior. Ultimately, the goal is to dehumanize their victims. In all, it is a form of psychological warfare where the end game is to fully conquer their opponent in every sense of the word. This means that the trolls typically do not feel remorse for their actions or empathy for their victims.

One might draw a parallel between the way cyber trolls view their targets and the treatment of non-playable characters (NPCs) in a video game, where players can approach them, subject them to abuse, or eliminate them without any hesitation. In like manner, trolls basically psychologically torture their victims for that proverbial XP/Cash reward, i.e., the high mentioned above.

And if they bully their victim to commit suicide, it’s a win.

The psychology of a troll

According to a study about internet trolls by Psychology Today, internet trolling is linked to what is defined as the “Dark Tetrad” of interrelated negative personality traits, which include the following: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.

Narcissism is the conviction of being unique, exceptionally talented, excessively self-focused, and holding the belief of superiority over others. This has become a common trait exhibited not only by cyber trolls but also by members of the global hacktivism community who are driven by a need to boast openly about their exploits.

Machiavellianism refers to a personality trait that’s characterized by cunning, manipulative behavior and a strategic approach to accomplishing personal goals, usually by exploiting other people through deceit.

Psychopathy has long been recognized as a mental disorder characterized by antisocial, impulsive, manipulative, and indifference to the suffering of others.

Sadism or more specifically, everyday sadism, concerns individuals who find enjoyment in the suffering or humiliation felt by others. They derive pleasure from inflicting and observing both physical and mental pain and humiliation. According to one academic paper published by the National Library of Medicine, research confirms that online trolling and sadistic personality traits are connected. The research provided evidence “that the reward and rationalization process at work in sadism is likewise manifest in online trolling.”

The Psychology Today study involved 1,200 participants who were given personality tests. This included a survey concerning the nature of their internet comments. The focus was to look for evidence linking cyber trolling with the Dark Tetrad.

The researchers discovered that Dark Tetrad scores were high among participants who claimed that trolling was among choice activities online. Everyone in the study scored low Dark Tetrad scores, except for the cyber trolls. The four traits embodied in the Dark Tetrad were so commonplace among trolls that their scores skyrocketed, which demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the relationship between cyber trolls and the Dark Tetrad is in fact, inseparable.

These findings were so significant that the researchers wrote in their paper the following comments regarding the relationship between trolling and the Dark Tetrad:

"... 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."

To drive the point home, the authors explained the similarities between trolls and sadists, saying that both feel glee at causing distress to others. “Sadists just want to have fun ... and the internet is their playground!"

The issue with cyberbullying and trolling, in general, is that it can be difficult to find a legal remedy to help stop the attacks from happening. Every country has its own laws in dealing with this form of cyberstalking and harassment. While there is a wealth of information on the web that could help victims explore these remedies, the foremost policy every internet user should adopt will always be thus:

Don’t feed the trolls. This means don’t acknowledge them, or pay attention to them. The second you engage them, you’ve empowered them. Block them and move on.