Troll; a New Name For An Old Game

So, I was going to write a blog piece about how this week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, however, I recently made a flippant comment on social media, and all kinds of furore ensued. As I have said before, I won’t argue Politics, Religion or Music; changing people’s opinion is not my mission in life- supporting people to achieve their missions in life, however, is.

I am a fairly laid back person- I believe in the right to freedom of speech and I believe in the right for people to have their own opinions. What I don’t believe in, in any way shape or form, is bullying, and this folks, is what I became subject to- the infamous ‘Internet Troll’! Now, this got me thinking- we can all Pop Psychologise the schemas and mind-set’s of an Internet troll, but actually, what is going on for them and why do they do what they do?

In this day and age, I don’t think anyone under the age of 60 doesn’t communicate in some way via social media, email or text messaging (I have no statistics on this, so this is just a rough guess!) so this made me wonder- what are the studies out there? Has anyone studied Internet trolling? How many people have experienced Internet Trolling and if so, what is the usual outcome?

This might not seem like it would affect you or be something you would come to Therapy with, but, actually, cyber bullying is on the increase- in 2012-2013 Childline (a UK charity) saw an 87% increase in the contact they had with children complaining of cyber bullying. To put this in context, there were 4,507 children who actually had a counselling session from Childline, in a one-year period, specifically about cyber bullying. I couldn’t find any statistics for adults, but if the statistics for children have increased, I would imagine, so too, have the statistics for adults.

My experience of being ‘trolled’ was from someone I did not know, over a comment I made, expressing my own opinion. This person then took it upon themselves to bring me to task for being irrational and abusive- of which, I believe, I did no such thing. The troll decided that I had caused an affront to people and as such, it was their task to chide me. It was, to say the least, intimidating that someone so vehemently, aggressively and dogmatically was ‘baying for my blood’. This person wanted me to pay for what I had said- they felt the need to publicly vilify me, and would not give up until they did.

After a few comments, I politely declined to continue- ‘know when to pick your battles’ is something I have been taught by my parents over the years, and I can spot a troll fairly easily. To be fair, I shouldn’t have even replied to them once, but, I am only human, and so I did. Mistake number 1.

Mistake number 2 was not pushing it to the back of my mind and forgetting about it. It bugged me. Someone was being incredibly rude about me on a public forum, whether deserved or not, and it made me feel uncomfortable.

So, what could I do? Well, I could research- go to my books and look for a reason as to why people like this person feel the need to belittle people and ignore their opinions. What makes the Internet troll think they are right and that everyone else in the world, who doesn’t agree with them, is wrong?

So, firstly, what is an Internet Troll? What is the definition? Well, I found this online, from the good old Oxford Dictionary;

‘Make a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.’

Now, I have met a few of these in my time, both personally and professionally, but I have never had the displeasure to greet one online. And, linking in to one of my other blog posts (about how we behave and what we write when we are hidden behind a computer screen), I wondered whether Internet trolls are the same in real life, or was it just the safety of the computer that gave them the edge and bravado to behave however they wanted to?

Actually, I guess this does tie in with Mental Health Awareness week- after all, if someone is being/has been trolled for a period of time (or even just once could be enough), this could seriously upset and trouble them. Bullying is bullying, be it online or face to face and we know from statistics, that bullying does cause people to become depressed, suicidal and to even feel like they have no choice left but to take their own life.

So, what makes a troll? Well, according to a study in 2014, ‘trolls operate as agents of chaos on the Internet, exploiting ‘‘hot-button issues’’ to make users appear overly emotional or foolish in some manner’ (Buckelsa, Trapnellb and Paulhusc, 2014). So, an Internet Troll is a very specific type of person- they are actively seeking to make users appear overly emotion or foolish. I can certainly identify with that as being my experience. This study took place in Canada, and consisted of 1215 participants. They were recruited from an Amazon website and were given several, notable and rigorously tested personality scale questionnaires- the Short Sadistic Impulse Scale (SSIS), the Varieties of Sadistic Tendencies Scale (VAST) and a 27 item Short Dark Triad Scale (SD3). Short Dark what? The Dark Triad is effectively a Tetrad of Personality- people who experience and identify more with Sadism, Psychopathy and Machiavellianism. These scales, when filled in, give the researchers an idea of what types of personality make up an Internet Troll. After all, the people who took part in the study were, admittedly, Internet Trolls; so, who better to ask?

What the study found was that the participants, a mix of men and women, commented, on average, at least 1 hour per day. That is 1 hour per day that these Trolls give up to their ‘hobby’. If you had an hour free, per day, I wonder what you would want to fill it with? Perhaps being kind to yourself and allowing yourself some ‘me’ time to do something that makes you feel good? I guess, that is the point for Internet Trolls- trolling does make them feel good; albeit in an odd way. Younger people commented for longer and men spent a greater time commenting that women.

The troll persona would appear to be a combination of a malicious virtual avatar, which reflects their own personality and their ideal self. Of all the personality measures that were studied, sadism was associated most with trolling and was specific to the trolling behaviour. The personality measures also show that trolling had a positive correlation with Psychopathy and Machiavellianism- as the authors of the study describe, ‘cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism. Wow. I was not expecting to come across this information. Now, I am in no way saying that my troll had any of these issues that I have discovered evidence for- I cannot possibly know that, and I cannot ‘psychologize’ someone I have never met. For all I know, my troll didn’t understand what they were doing. So, please do not assume I am tarring every troll with the same brush- as with everything in life, there is no black or white, only shades of grey.

Another study claims that trolling is both ‘real and pretend, both playful and malicious’ (Phillips, 2011). So, does that mean that they are just playing with your emotions? Purely for ‘the game’ and ‘the lulz’? In the Phillips study, the troll lays the blame firmly at the recipient’s door- saying that they are free to leave the public forum/social media and just not look at it anymore. But what about the invasion of privacy for the victim of the troll? And why should they be forced out of their social media- don’t we all have a right to be online, how we want and when we want?

Another study describes trolls as ‘Trolls attempt to hijack a discussion through harassment or inflammatory content, hoping to provoke an emotional response. The troll ‘wins’ when discussions descend into virtual shouting matches’ (MacKinnon and Zuckerman, 2013). So, being at the end of a troll’s wrath is a no-win situation. Another study states that ‘the order of society is maintained by morality. Morality has definite rules and conducts, which every member of the society agrees upon and depends on. Morality is functional since it has authority and regularity. Therefore people know how to behave and what is right or wrong offline. In the Internet space, however, people do not perceive clear codes of conducts on the Internet, nor authority and regularity, according to the result of this study. Unlike offline morality reinforced by education, that online morality have not been shared and not even discussed so provides the existence of Troll.’ (Shin, 2008)

For some people, trolling is obviously a hobby- a mean one, but one that they enjoy. The victims, not so much. The effects of online bullying are far-reaching. People who troll online are not necessarily devoid of morals in real life, so, the question remains, why do it online?

Victims of cyber bullying are often told if you cant handle it, get offline. But why should you? So, how do you deal with something as serious as online bullying? Where do you go and what do you do, if you don’t want to go ‘offline’? There is support out there, but the convention seems to be, step away from the Internet! Sometimes, however, the damage is already done.

So what does all this mean, well a person will not necessarily consciously decide to find a deserving victim and become the Troll. But someone will rather come across a situation that fulfills their specific trigger requirements – say an offense to their pragmatic morality, and will punish that victim until they see the error of their ways. They may not see their behavior in same way as an external perspective, and without the feedback inherent in more involved forms of communication, continue without mercy. Cyber-bullying is a relatively new concept, but bullying is not. The same feelings can apply in real life, as well as the virtual.

In my practice, I have worked with clients that have been bullied- some for a short time and some for years and years. The damage that it does to them is intense, traumatic, and to some extent, irreversible. Being the victim of a bully changes you forever; it changes the person you were and creates a whole new person who has to learn to deal with the changes that have happened. Some of the changes can be good- the victim can find strength in standing up to a bully, but this can be rare. Most of the time, the changes are not positive; they wear on you as time goes on.

Coming to therapy can really help the victim; they can talk about what has happened to them and explore what the impact has been on them. However, sometimes, victims feel like they are all alone and have no one to turn to- this is when bullying can take a vicious turn. What the bully feels is just ‘a little bit of fun’ can lead to far reaching ramifications for the victim; ‘Beyond the immediate trauma of experiencing bullying, victims are at high risk of later physical and emotional disorders.’ (Vanderbilt and Augustyn, 2010). And here we are, full circle to Mental Health Awareness Week.

So, a warning for all you Internet savvy people; ‘Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!’ (Buckelsa, Trapnellb and Paulhusc, 2014), Perhaps it is time to be mindful of what we are saying to people, especially online. After all, you never know when it might be you who are the victim of bullying, and not the perpetrator. I know it has made me think twice about posting things online and has certainly made me more wary of how I interact online. I don’t find the Internet my playground, and I don’t want to be teased. Therefore, the only answer is to step away from the keyboard, and make a cup of tea!

Buckelsa, E.E., Trapnellb, P.D. and Paulhusc, D.L. (2014) ‘Trolls Just Want To Have Fun’, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 67, September, pp. 97-102.

MacKinnon, R. and Zuckerman, E. (2013) ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’, Digital Frontiers, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 14-24.

Phillips, W. (2011) ‘Meet The Trolls’, Index on Censorship, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 68-76.

Shin, J. (2008) ‘Morality and Internet Behavior: A study of the Internet Troll and its relation with morality on the Internet’, Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, Las Vegas, 2834-2840.

Vanderbilt, D. and Augustyn, M. (2010) ‘The Effects of Bullying’, Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 20, no. 7, July, pp. 315-320.