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The Psychology of Internet Trolls

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Why do folks bully others on the web?

Why do folks bully others on the web?

The Internet is a wonderful place. It is a storehouse of the world’s wisdom and knowledge at the fingertips of everyone with a device connected to it. And, in the estimation of some, it is being ruined by a few people with disordered minds.

Joel Stein, writing for Time Magazine in June 2016, noted that the Internet used to be a place where geeky people with noble motives pushed for the free flow of information. “Now, if you need help improving your upload speeds the web is eager to help with technical details,” he reports, “but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself.”

A troll is ‘A computer user who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question . . . but whose real intention is to cause disruption and/or trigger conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.’

— Dr. Claire Hardaker, academic researcher

Who Are the Trolls?

Psychiatrists have looked into the thinking of people who post cruel and vicious comments. What they have found is disturbing.

Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and colleagues examined the character of trolls in 2014. Their study appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Disorders. After contacting more than 1,200 people, they concluded that trolls possess a toxic stew of three personality defects known as the "dark triad." The Canadian researchers later added a fourth behavioural issue, so the triad is actually more of a quartet.

What Traits the Dark Triad (Quartet)?

  1. Narcissism: They “are manipulative and easily angered, especially when they don’t receive the attention they consider their birthright” (Psychology Today).
  2. Machiavellianism: They are so “focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals” (Harley Therapy).
  3. Psychopathy: “. . . those with psychopathy typically demonstrate impulsive behaviour, a . . . self-centered perspective, chronic violations of legal or social rules, and a lack of empathy and guilt” (Good Therapy).
  4. Sadism: They enjoy inflicting pain, humiliation, and suffering on others.

The authors sum up the mindset of these disrupters: “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun . . . and the internet is their playground.” Among themselves, trolls say their activity is for “lulz” (laughs). Here’s Joel Stein again: “What trolls do for the lulz ranges from clever pranks to harassment to violent threats.”

Trolls get enjoyment from harassing folks anonymously online.

Trolls get enjoyment from harassing folks anonymously online.

The Empathy Factor

In 2017, Australian researchers studied the trolling behaviour of more than 400 people through questionnaires. They found that trolls display low levels of “affective” or “emotional” empathy. This is the ability feel the emotions of another person as if they were, in some way, contagious.

On the other hand, trolls score higher for cognitive empathy than is typical among the general population. Psychologist Daniel Goleman writes that this means having a clear understanding of another’s emotions “while having no sympathy whatever for their victims.”

The Australian researchers comment that “Results indicate that when high on trait psychopathy, trolls employ an empathetic strategy of predicting and recognising the emotional suffering of their victims, while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions. Thus, trolls appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims’ emotions.”

The Gender Gap

A 2017 study by two university teams in the United Kingdom “revealed that men reported more antisocial motives for using” social media. Women tend to use platforms such as Facebook to build relationships. This is a reflection of the increased level of narcissism among males (7.7%) versus females (4.8%).

A 2014 report in Salon noted that “People between the ages of 18 and 29 were the most likely to say they’d been harassed . . . Men are more likely to be ‘called names’ or be targeted by people who set out to embarrass them.” For men, the trolling tends to take place in gaming situations.

“Women, on the other hand, report higher rates of more extreme abuses and related impacts . . . There is clearly a difference between being ‘called a name’ and being stalked or sexually harassed, sometimes for weeks, months, or years.”

Any woman in the public eye―journalist, athlete, actor, politician, etc.―receives frequent hate messages. Most try to avoid Facebook, Twitter, and the like to preserve their sanity.

The words “trolling” or “harassment” don’t do justice to the problem. They don’t convey the devastating impact these activities can have on victims. The tormenting can and does drive some people to take their own lives.

The Disinhibition Effect

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, says trolls show what’s called the “disinhibition effect―people lower their emotional guard and behave in ways they would never do face-to-face. They feel they can say anything they like to somebody.”

People exhibit different behaviours when they alone than when they are in public. Here’s how Academic Earth colourfully puts it: “. . . most people refrain from picking their nose in public, but dig with abandon when alone.”

For some people, the anonymity of the internet confers license to behave in an antisocial manner. The fear of being judged that prompts most of us to control negative impulses is absent in chat rooms, comment areas, and social media.

How to Deal With Trolls

The best advice is to never—ever—engage with trolls. Keep silent. Say nothing. Trolls want people to respond to them; that’s how they get their jollies. They crave confirmation that they have caused distress to someone.

It’s understandable to want to hit back at the vile creature, but doing so puts you in a conflict you cannot win. Most websites have a “report abuse” function. So, document the attack, report it, and delete it. If ignored, most trolls lose interest and move on to some other target.

Keep it civil! No trolls allowed.

Keep it civil! No trolls allowed.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to Freedom House (Freedom of the Net 2017), 22 of the 60 countries it investigated used outside agencies to influence online discussions. Instead of being open about involvement in conversations, these governments hide behind third parties often referred to as “troll farms.” Offenders include Bahrain, China, and Russia—especially Russia.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of web users surveyed in 2014 reported experiencing online harassment, such as name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, sexual harassment, physical threats, and sustained harassment.
  • A 2014 poll carried out by YouGov revealed that “Although only 45% of adults have heard of the term troll, 28% of Americans admitted malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know.”
In Scandinavian mythology, trolls are believed to pose a danger to humans.

In Scandinavian mythology, trolls are believed to pose a danger to humans.


  • “How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet.” Joel Stein, Time, August 18, 2016.
  • “Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists.” Jennifer Goldbeck, Psychology Today, September 18, 2014.
  • “Why Women Get Attacked by Trolls.” Soraya Chemaly, Salon, October 23, 2014.
  • “Peering into the Psychology of Online Trolls.” Shanika Gunaratna, CBS News, July 5, 2017.
  • “Constructing the Cyber-Troll: Psychopathy, Sadism, and Empathy.” Natalie Sesta and Evita March, Personality and Individual Differences, December 2017.
  • “Over a Quarter of Americans Have Made Malicious Online Comments.” Jake Gammon, YouGov, October 20, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 17, 2020:

Hi Paul. The trolling blisters are everywhere. We have one who keeps turning up our HubPages community forum. Very annoying, but they have to be ignored.

Paul Beenis on July 16, 2020:

Wow! Fantastic article Rupert, very interesting. After some research I've discovered a websites where these "trolls" congregate. The website I found was named "Reddit" it seems to be some kind of forum website where users post malicious content to make other laugh. Make sure your steer clear from this website ladies and gentlemen!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 23, 2019:

Alfred. Thanks for your informative additions to my article.

Alfred from Vancouver, BC V6B 3K9 on May 23, 2019:


I wanted to learn more and strengthen my writing. So I ordered an essay in an online writing service on the link, and the result exceeded all my expectations. I first learned that “The most successful trolls can create tension in several communities, pushing them together and using public projections in the media to attract the attention of the general public. I was judging by the latest scenarios of the revolution "computer" or "Facebook". Trolling has already become a demanded specialization of representatives of many professions, for example, such as journalism, world politics, international economics, and some others. ” So I had to redo my written work, it’s good that it turned out before the deadline.

"The phenomenon of trolling is associated with anonymity and is impossible in conditions other than anonymity in the implementation of network communication.

Although the Internet has a simplified wording “Trolling is rudeness on the Internet ”, and“ according to this, a troll is a cad on the Internet. ” This does not at all reflect the depth of the problem, which will increasingly grow with time.

It's a peaty some states have succeeded in trolling, as in cyber aggression against other countries. "

Alfred from Vancouver, BC V6B 3K9 on May 23, 2019:

There are as many trolls on the Canadian Internet as on the United States. To better understand the peculiarities of the distribution of trolls around the world, as a social phenomenon, I asked my professor to assign me a written assignment “Causes of trolls on the Internet and their future.” Seniors students looked on my efforts with pity, but my essay was recognized as the best in the group.

Here is a very brief summary of my essay.

On the Internet, “trolls” refer to people who provoke emotional turmoil (most often with personnel changes), harassing other users or (less commonly) posing as other people. This word initially comes not from the name of the mythological trolls, but from the fishing term "trilling" (Eng. trolling - trolling). This consonance has taken root so that the identification of Internet hooligans with mythological trolls has become a commonplace and even a topic for jokes and cartoons. On the other hand, this word has gained popularity because of its different meaning - “trolls” as creatures mentioned in Scandinavian mythology. Mythological creatures trolls, especially in children's stories, are portrayed as ugly, unpleasant creatures designed to cause harm and create evil.

Trolling as a form of social aggression has its characteristics.

One of them is the possibility of the existence of trolling exclusively in virtual communities.

The second feature is that trolling has specific mechanisms for the rapid release of avalanche-like aggression, which instantly spreads to most members of the virtual community.

The third feature of trolling is the impossibility of a potential victim of a conflict to enter into physical or visual contact with the initiator of the conflict situation itself (the troll).

Recently, trolling is increasingly being used as a PR technology in the commercial and political sphere. Experts argue that the use of this technology gives PR managers such advantages as creating false effects of mass character and public opinion, an opportunity to increase confidence in the source of information, as well as an increase in the coverage of the audience of information recipients. At the same time, trolling is among the “dirty” technologies.

According to the first trolling researcher Judith Donat, trolling is “a game of fake personality, but without the consent of the majority of players who are not aware of participation in this game” Judith S. Donath. Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. - London, 2010..

deborah84 on May 23, 2019:

Great article. Today it is particularly relevant in connection with the trolling trials: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other European countries.

Eric Farmer from Rockford Illinois on December 08, 2017:

An interesting article on trolls. I also wonder why some people post the things they do online.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 22, 2017:

Nice breakdown of trolls. I do not understand this behavior. But, I'm not a sadistic individual.