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?
Brutsch’s story brought forth articles on the culture of trolling, some even accusing the writer who exposed Violentacrez as a troll himself, due to the attention he brought to his target. Whitney Phillips, a researcher who wrote her dissertation, and later a book, on trolling, published a piece in The Atlantic that suggested that trolls were “products of their culture.” It’s not that trolls aren’t responsible for their actions, Phillips argued, it’s that they conform to the community they’re involved in and adapt, providing “positive community contribution” as it is seen by their in-group rather than the world at large.
But even Phillips agrees with the notion that trolls, for all their cruelty, may see themselves as imps rather than things that bump in the night. She describes “lulz” — the objective and reward of trolling — as “acute amusement in the face of someone else’s distress, embarrassment, or rage.” And, as noted by Phillips, other humans become objects that exist only to be mined for lulz. When you “don’t see the anguish of the person on the receiving end of the abuse or harassment,” everything becomes “teasing” or a joke, regardless of the stakes.
“Through the magic of trolling,” Phillips writes, “all that remains are the absurd, exploitable details; trolls do not, and in many cases cannot, connect their object of ridicule to the emotional content out of which is arises, resulting in highly dissociative and often rabidly antagonistic laughter.”
While it’s hard to find demographics on who trolls, Erin Buckels says that the overwhelming majority of respondents to her research were males. Is that surprising? Not to her.
“Part of the theory of where the dark personality traits came from,” she says, “is the idea that these traits were beneficial for warriors and hunters. Traditionally, warriors and hunters were men, so it makes sense that men are engaging in these behaviors. It’s what they were made to do.” Trolling, then, may just be an evolutionary holdover of maleness. No mammoths to spear? Go online and start posting leaked nudes the you’ve stolen from the iCloud accounts of strangers.
Buckels doesn’t view trolling as moral or immoral, but she does agree that being trolled has lasting effects on the victim. And it’s easy to see how some groups — particularly women and minorities — are especially sensitive to being trolled. As Whitney Phillips points out, intention isn’t what matters, action is; so while many trolls see their escapades as amusing, it’s easy to understand why people get their hackles up.
While trolls may see the defensiveness of their victims as just another sign that the joke has landed, the targets are often terrified. For those of us who don’t troll, is it such a giant a leap to think that if someone on the internet is willing to both hunt down our address and then taunt us with that information they might also one day show up on our doorsteps IRL? That fear is magnified by the fact that there’s no way to truly police trolls. Unfortunately, they are not monolith. Troll communities are spread out all over the internet, in big groups and small, sometimes at odds with the general public, sometimes with each other. And sometimes they even do good, which makes it hard to hate them (even when they turn around and do something truly terrible the next day).
So what can you do to face these potential sadists who really don’t seem to fathom their own awful behavior? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t very satisfying. The best thing to do is not engage and not get “riled up,” Buckels says, no matter how tempting it is to do so.
“By being scared,” she says. “You’re giving into their antics.” And that, sadly, could just make it worse.
*Buckels is now at The University of British Columbia.