If you spend even a tiny amount of time on the internet, you see trolling. And if you’re someone who works on the internet, it’s likely you’ve experienced the effects of trolling firsthand. You see colleagues attacked because they are women, gay, black, or because they have ideas that could be viewed as disagreeable by any number of groups. You see celebrities chased offline for being black and a woman in a movie reboot. You see it and you hate it and you wonder about it. Because of all the villains on this planet, trolls seem to be the hardest to pinpoint and the ones you’re most likely get you marked as weak for even worrying about — stick and stones, you know?
But who are they? Where are they? And why are they doing this?
Let’s agree on one fact: There are more ways to troll than there are bridges in the world to hide under. These methods include everything from “making people wildly uncomfortable on Facebook” or charging people five bucks for a box of shit, to calling schools affected by mass shootings to threaten more violence, sending SWAT teams to the homes of viral celebs, leaking nude images of celebrities or likening them, because of their race, to monkeys. The word “trolling” has evolved from the “art of cleverly and secretly pissing people off” as it’s defined on Urban Dictionary to “being a prick on the internet just because you can” (also Urban Dictionary). And while most people will reflexively say that trolling is bad, it’s better to view the behavior on a continuum, from “mostly harmless” to “f*cking criminal.”
According to a 2014 study published by Erin Buckles and her colleagues at the University of Manitoba* , trolls exhibit patterns of behavior related to the Dark Tetrad of personality — a group of traits that embody the “antisocial human core” and encompass narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and, more and more frequently, sadism.
“When we were thinking about sadism and how it might manifest in everyday behavior,” Buckels told us over the phone, “one thing that kept coming to mind was trolling online. We set out to examine the question of whether trolls are sadists. We found that frequent trollers scored high on sadistic personality traits. Not only that, but they seemed to endorse the view that they’re doing it for fun. That’s the definition of sadism: doing malevolent things, trying to hurt other people, just for pure pleasure.”
Is that it? Is it just pleasure driving people to shut down websites, threaten women who speak out against sexism in video games, or make death threats to anyone who’s pissed them off in 140 characters on Twitter? Not exactly.
“We wanted to delve a little deeper into the motivations and try and find some additional evidence of sadism,” Buckels says of some yet unpublished research. “One of the things we looked at was whether trolls and sadists have a basic bias in their perception of pain. We showed them pictures of people crying and having physical injuries. We found that sadists, and people with other dark personalities, but especially sadists, tended to rate the person’s pain as lower than others. This is just preliminary evidence, it suggests that sadists don’t think they’re causing any pain or very much pain to others.”
Unfortunately, that makes the issue of whether trolls are truly evil (in the everyday sense of the word) even more complicated. If trolls don’t perceive their targets as experiencing much pain, even when they’re clearly hurting, where’s the payoff for all the sadism they’re meant to be enjoying? “You’d think that sadists would want to magnify the amount of distress that they’re causing,” Buckels says. “But what we’re finding is actually the opposite, that they don’t perceive as much distress, so they’re actually missing some opportunity for sadistic pleasure, almost.”
This is preliminary research that’s yet to be fully vetted, but there’s something to be said about the fact that even the worst trolls might have a perception bias that makes them think that they’re just being playful. Humiliation as humor.
This is exemplified in the case of Violentacrez, a Reddit user who ran communities devoted to (among other things) photos of underage girls and women being beaten, but was still seen as the site’s “creepy uncle.” Even after being exposed, Michael Brutsch — the 49-year-old office worker behind one of the internet’s biggest trolls — stood by what he posted, saying that his only fear was not being able to keep his job.
“My wife is disabled. I got a home and a mortgage, and if this hits the fan, I believe this will affect negatively on my employment. I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time,” Brutsch told Gawker in 2012. When asked whether his teenage son would be affected by the reveal that his father was one of those monsters you read so often about in cautionary tales, he said “He won’t really care. He thinks I’m creepy as it is.”
Brutsch was fired less than 24 hours after the original story was published, but still stood by his actions, only complaining about the fact that he would now not be able to afford health insurance — something that he blamed on his outing rather than his behavior. That could be because Brutsch is a heartless maniac. But it could also be, as Buckels points out above, that Brutsch never actually thought he was hurting anyone. Hitting a woman? He probably (and we’re obviously speculating here) wouldn’t do it. Post a photo of a woman being raped? What’s the harm?