The science of internet trolls

Surprisingly it doesn't involve the theory of devolution

As a female-oriented tech site, we get our fair share of trolling. I know, you’re probably really shocked by this. Some of the comments we’ve seen and received are honestly hard to believe, and can in no way pretend to be constructive criticism or healthy debate; there’s a reason we don’t have comments. So, what makes trolls tick? Why would you go online just to say awful things to strangers? Well, YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE has attempted to answer that question in a recent video.

In their video, AsapSCIENCE attempt to break down the science behind trolling behaviour, primarily using figures from a 2014 study titled “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun.” The study found that of the 1215 respondents to their survey, 5.6% self-identified as trolls. The study discusses the traits that link those who enjoy trolling, finding high levels of psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism to be common, resulting in anti-social behaviour online as well as off. You can check the video out below:

The video goes on to discuss how trolls feed off of negative feedback and unhappiness and it appears that AsapSCIENCE’s solution to trolls is that already often heard and irritating piece of advice: “don’t feed them.” The problem with that is that AsapSCIENCE neglect to mention that there are a few different kinds of trolls out there. I promise this isn’t going to turn into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Internet Edition.

So long as you possess some degree of anonymity yourself in the form of unlinked social media accounts or an unidentifiable screen name, ignoring a troll probably is the best method of shutting them down quickly, because in this instance their aim is probably to cause general upset rather than to upset one particular person for any personal reason. I grew up in an environment where teasing was often either a form of familiar affection or the act of an irritant who had no truly malicious intent other than getting a cheap laugh at the expense of someone else. But that was trolling on epistemically even ground and a roll of the eyes or a sharp reply usually sufficed.

However, when there’s an imbalance in personal knowledge and you’ve attracted the attention of a particularly dedicated troll whose actions online effect your offline life either physically or emotionally, that’s a very different story and I’m not inclined to advocate staying silent as a solution.

The ideal thing here would be for legislation to more adequately differentiate a troll who can be easily ignored from a harasser who won’t be, rather than lumping anyone who causes any kind of distress online under one easily dismissible header that, to anyone who hasn’t experienced or witnessed severe trolling, really doesn’t sound like anything to be taken seriously. Internet trolls aren’t a singular dumb creature, they’re a species and it might be time for some taxonomic classification.

Advocating silence in the face of trolling simply stops any real discussion over what acceptable online behaviour is and it just allows obnoxious voices to speak louder. Knowledge of my unhappiness may indeed feed trolls, but my staying quiet about this unhappiness doesn’t mean it’s something I’m not feeling and for those who lack an offline friend to confide in, this lack of space to express unhappiness is incredibly unhealthy.

In more serious situations instead of remaining silent a more effective tactic would be to create a strong community that doesn’t accept, and is prepared to call out, behaviour of malicious intent in any form to make it abundantly clear that online actions are not consequence free and that anonymity is not synonymous with immunity.