The Real Danger of Internet Trolls

Do you think that trolls are nothing more than disoriented children who vent their anger on the Internet? Do you think their actions are simply innocent pranks with no consequences? According to recent studies, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Real Danger of Internet Trolls
Cristina Roda Rivera

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristina Roda Rivera.

Last update: 15 December, 2022

Internet trolls might be more dangerous than you think. In fact, some of them have even become stalkers in real life. However, for now, we’re going to talk about trolling in the virtual space.

Trolling on the Internet involves acts of provocation and annoyance to other people online. It’s carried out for the troll’s own amusement, under cover of anonymity and the use of aliases. In folklore and fantasy literature, trolls have been around for centuries. But online trolling has only been around since the advent of the Internet.

The first known use of the term dates back to the 1990s, in some private forums. It was a way for users to confuse new members by repeatedly posting an inside joke that the rest of the forum knew about. This new user was ‘trolled’, as a kind of hazing. Unfortunately, these forums, which were originally safe havens for entertainment and enjoyment are now places where individuals often exhibit sociopathic behavior.

Hooded man at computer
Internet trolls feed on confusion and hatred to harm and generate discomfort in others.

Internet trolls could be more dangerous than they seem

We know that internet trolls are much more obnoxious than cartoon ones. At least, in the latter kind, we know who they are and what they look like. However, online trolls often hide behind their anonymity to harass and upset any user who exposes their personal details online.

In fact, cowardice has become the main form of intimidation and harassment in the 21st century. To get an idea of how far this lack of humanity can go, we only have to take a look at some of its most famous ‘feats’.

For example, in some rape cases, when the perpetrator has been found guilty, the users of certain forums have revealed photos and personal data of the victims. These individuals possess no kind of morality or awareness of the damage they can cause. Moreover, they don’t expose their own theories or opinions. Rather, they feed on evil, confusion, and hatred, the product of a sure failure in their personal lives.

Trolling behavior can appear in an organized or isolated way. Trolls are individuals or groups who are out to harass or bring others down, spread false news about them or ridicule them.

Investigations into internet trolls

To date, research suggests that it may be fruitful to examine trolling habits in association with the Big Five personality traits, gender differences, and global internet habits.

The dark tetrad personality type (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadistic personality) has also been investigated in studies on trolling. In fact, the data obtained links the dark tetrad with bullying in both adolescents and adults.

Research also suggests that narcissists and those suffering from antisocial personality disorder use Facebook more frequently than others. This indicates that dark personalities leave large digital footprints behind.

With regard to the dark tetrad, we expected that everyday sadism (Buckels et al., 2013) would prove to be the most relevant to trolling. After all, trolling culture embraces a concept virtually synonymous with sadistic pleasure. In troll parlance, it’s called lulz.

How do they behave?

The first serious study regarding this growing phenomenon on the Internet was conducted by Mark D. Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University (UK). He concluded that the impact of trolls can be devastating among some internet users who don’t understand or assimilate such gratuitous aggression.

Research has continued on the subject. A recently published article reported the first systematic review of the relationship between everyday sadism and aggression, including trolling behavior. The researchers analyzed 37 full-text articles comprising 50 studies on the subject of sadism and aggression. All the studies were completed between 2013 and 2020. Of these studies, 20 examined everyday sadism and aggression via an online platform. The total number of participants was 22,179. Four self-report measures were used to measure trait sadism. These were the SSIS, CAST, VAST, and the ASP. A number of measures were used to assess the outcome of aggression. They included self-report measures and lab-based aggression paradigms.

For aggressive behavior not perpetrated online, the studies examined trait aggression, reactive aggression, proactive aggression, anger toward others, aggressive humor, bullying behavior, hazing behavior, antisocial behavior, same-sex aggression, conflict within intimate relationships, radicalized behavior and violence, and criminal attitudes. In addition, they examined sexual aggression. This included intimate partner violence, sexual coercion, and completed rape.

For aggressive behavior perpetrated online, the studies examined online anti-social behavior, online trolling behavior, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, intimate partner cyberstalking, anti-social dating behavior, and predisposition to revenge porn.

man with computer
The trait of sadism is present in most of the trolls.

The presence of sadism on the internet

The results were surprising. The research teams from the universities of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and British Columbia found a high correlation between the behavior of users with sadistic, psychopathic, and Machiavellian profiles. In fact, they concluded that “Troll behavior on the Internet is nothing more than a manifestation of the most everyday sadism”.

Previous research has also demonstrated that high levels of sadism are associated with aggressive acts. These range from torturing insects and animals to violent bullying, cyberbullying, and hazing.

Subclinical sadism, which is more common, is less likely to lead to extremely aggressive behavior. However, the review concluded that even low levels of sadism are associated with violence. So, given the ‘right context’, many sadistic people behave aggressively.

In fact, an analysis of the data found that there was a “moderate association […] between subclinical sadism and aggressive behavior, defined by actions ranging from verbal to physical and sexual aggression and violence.” Additionally, this review highlighted an even stronger “quantitative relationship between sadism and trolling behavior”.

What motivates trolls?

The most important question is what motivates this kind of aggressive behavior. A recent study provides some answers. It suggests that sadistic trolls simply enjoy seeing people suffer. Some of us prefer to fight back until we bring down the trolls with our arguments. However, the most widespread and logical measure is to ignore their comments or, even better, their existence. In other words, we must never feed a troll.

These people are individuals who want to satisfy their impulses due to the immediacy and anonymity that the Internet provides. Ultimately, they’re fires that burn themselves out. Moreover, they’re extinguished far quicker when their victims ignore them.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.