Trolling has become the ultimate 21st century crime – from an anonymous IP address, anyone in the world can send abusive messages to anyone with an email address or social media account.
Trolling has become a topic of public discussion following several high-profile cases reached the media of people being hounded, abused, sent explicit material of beheadings and sexual assaults, and sent death and/or rape threats. Victims have included the late Charlotte Dawson, UK actor Stephen Fry and singer Sinead O’Connor. A recent Australian Psychological Society survey found almost a third of teens have been bullied or trolled online.
Why people do this has been a question asked over the years. Psychologists are at the forefront of providing this answer and also finding ways to prevent trolling behaviour in the future.
Evita Marsh, from Federation University, is the leading expert on trolling in Australia and has dedicated much of her recent research to this growing problem. She has created a substantial but disturbing picture of the typical troll, which includes their motivations for deliberately seeking to upset strangers.
“My research has concentrated on the dark personality traits, which include three socially aversive traits – narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy,” she says. “I also looked at everyday sadism, which is people who might enjoy causing other people psychological and physical pain.”
“We found that psychopathy and sadism were incredibly predictive of trolling behaviours; trolls are usually lacking empathy and they do enjoy hurting others.”
It is this motivation – feeling rewarded by causing chaos and harm – is what sets trolls apart from other people. Dr Marsh says while most people gain reward by helping other people or doing something good, trolls gain this same sense of pleasure and reward when they hurt people.
According to Marsh’s own research, a staggering one in three Australians has trolled someone online and research from the United Kingdom in 2016 revealed that one if four teenagers have been abused online. Many troll victims target because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability or transgender identity.
Knowing a troll’s psychology make-up is necessary to figure out how to prevent the behaviour, and prevent the distress and harm it causes victims, Dr Marsh says.
For victims, they are often advised to either ‘fight back’, by responding to trolls or sharing their messages as a means of publicly shaming them, or to not ‘feed the trolls’, which is not to respond to them at all. Dr Marsh recommends the latter, saying that responding to trolls further motivates them and activates that ‘negative reward’ they seek.
“If they are feeling good in causing trouble for people and they get called out for it, they know that they’ve done a good job in disrupting social proceedings someway. In reinforces the behaviour, rather than teaching them a lesson. It really does seem that not feeding the trolls is really good advice.”
Dr Marsh acknowledges that by not ‘feeding the trolls’, it can also motivate trolls to ramp up their attacks, in an effort to get a reaction and gain that pleasure reward.
Dr Marsh’s current research is on differentiating different types of trolls, such as those who target politicians and activists, and those who target online memorial sites and tributes. She is pragmatic about whether trolling can ever be abolished, given how the internet’s ability to provide and protect anonymity has allowed the practise to flourish. But she believes that by continuing work to understand their motivations and rewards is key to minimising the harm it creates.
“If we know what they’re doing and why, then we can use that information to manage that behaviour,” she says. “And once we understand why, then that informs us how we can manage it. There isn’t an easy answer for it, because there’s different levels of complexity engaged in this behaviour. Trolling is really complex and there’s all different types of trolls.”
“The more I study this area, the more complicated I realise it is.”