Every new invention has its downside, and the Internet is no exception. As webpages, social media, search engines, support forums, and so on became part of everyday life, a new phenomenon appeared – the troll. The troll is an individual who posts nasty, provocative comments in order to attract attention, cause offence, or simply upset people. In many cases, they target the most undeserving, and there have been numerous rape victims, or parents of murdered children, who've suffered at their hands. Internet trolling shines a light on the darkest corners of human nature, corners most of us wish did not exist.
First a distinction needs to be made between a troll and someone who expresses a controversial opinion or attacks another user. Just because other posters call you names, bitterly disagree with you, or express opinions you find offensive, that does not mean they are trolls. For example, imagine someone opposes abortion. A tweet supporting abortion then infuriates them and they launch into a foul-mouthed rant, calling the individual who posted the tweet horrible names and even threatening violence. Ugly and unpleasant though such comments may be (and possibly even illegal), it does not, strictly speaking, make the person a troll.
Sincerity is key. Trolls tend not to believe the things they say. They don't ridicule someone because they are angry and want to hit back. Neither do they attack a religion, nation or race because they sincerely dislike them. The point is always to hurt and provoke, often just for the sake of it. For example, some visit discussion sites or support forums and start threads with silly or inflammatory titles. Or they leave comments under videos and pictures that they know will disgust and upset.
They also tend to be relentless and obsessive, sometimes waging campaigns for months or even years. Again, this may be motiveless. Someone who was cheated by their local car dealer, on the other hand, may start an online campaign against him, but that isn't trolling. Rightly or wrongly, the person feels ill-used and wants justice. The troll, on the other hand, often has no reason for what he does. And if there is a reason, their response is usually way out of proportion. People enraged by some online comment may enter into a bitter and vicious exchange, but they soon forget it and return to the stress of work, bills, and mortgage re-payments. The troll isn't satisfied until he or she breaks the other person; they are in this to inflict pain.
Examples of trolling are as numerous as they are depressing. Often, trolls will focus on someone's appearance, honing in on a particular flaw and encouraging others to join them. Few celebrities escape, and almost everyone in the public eye has been on the receiving end. And it seems that nothing is off limits. For example, in October 2012 a five-year-old girl from Wales, named April Jones, was abducted and murdered. A support forum was established to help the family. Unbelievably, someone sent jokes about the child's death to the group (he was later caught and sentenced to 12 weeks in prison).
Anonymity is perhaps the most obvious difference between a troll and a regular bully. Civilized life is made possible by a sort of collective shaming. When someone commits an offence, they are punished through fines or imprisonment; but they are also punished with the contempt, disgust, and rejection of their friends and neighbors. Like all primates, we are very conscious of our standing in the group, how we are perceived, and above all whether or not we are accepted. This is hardwired. After all, in our pre-agricultural, nomadic days, being cast out often meant starvation and death. Were it not for the fear of judgement and disapproval, people would almost certainly behave far worse than they do.
Hidden behind a computer screen and a fake name, however, people are freed from this, relieved of the obligation to behave in accordance with rules. Indeed, they are even free of their normal identity. Known as "deindividuation," this also explains the terrible acts often committed when people take on a new, collective, or group identity. And it partly explains why soldiers shave their heads and put on uniforms: they cease to be John or Peter or Steve and are now defined by rank or unit instead – thus they are symbolically free of society's laws against killing. It is also worth noting that soldiers are trained to remove their battle helmet and camouflage jacket when taken prisoner. If they do, the enemy is less likely to shoot them, since in the enemy's eyes old rules and obligations have been symbolically re-established, and the prisoner is human once more.
Not only is the troll hidden, so is his victim. If you were to call someone fat or ugly or stupid to their face, you'd see the hurt you were causing. In some cases, of course, seeing this spurs people on, but in general it calms them down, maybe even shames them. And it also lets people know when they have gone too far. The gaze is a powerful, primal thing, and it is no coincidence that many of the greatest paintings feature individuals gazing into one another's eyes, or even gazing out at the viewer.
Sadism is more common than we like to believe. Most assume that sadists are a minority, confined to prisons and mental institutions. In fact, lots of ordinary, decent individuals have sadistic traits. It could even be argued that the majority do (after all, what is "gossip" but taking sadistic pleasure in the misfortune of others?). In 1981, for example, a study was published on the phenomenon of "suicide baiting," in which crowds encourage someone threatening to leap from a tall building or jump under a train. The man who conducted the study, Leon Mann, found that in around half the cases of public suicide attempts he studied, the crowd jeered and baited the victim. Interestingly, such behavior was more common when the crowd was large, hidden by darkness, or distant from the victim. In other words, when there was depersonalization and anonymity.
Closely related to this is the desire to establish power and control. Someone who feels weak and insignificant in daily life becomes godlike when sat behind a screen. Like a depraved Roman aristocrat with his slaves, the internet troll has the power either to inflict pain or show mercy. For someone usually ignored or ridiculed by neighbors and work colleagues, this can be thrilling. Stirring up controversy, or provoking anger and hatred, also gives people a sense of influence and power. Again, in the real world, perhaps because of shyness, physical ugliness, or difficulty expressing themselves, they find that no one pays attention – online, they do.
People who feel both ignored and superior to others can be very dangerous – the sort of person whose ego is out of control, who displays narcissistic traits, but who also feels despised and ignored, maybe due to family background, poverty, poor education, or physical appearance. In other words, society does not give them the respect and admiration they feel they deserve. The internet is a great place for such people to unleash pent-up rage and win the attention to which they feel entitled.
Finally, there is revenge. Life is unfair in countless ways, and there is always someone richer, happier, more popular, more attractive, or more successful. While one person goes from success to success, others endure nothing but misery and pain. According to the novelist Somerset Maugham, "It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive."
And this vindictiveness should not be underestimated. When people feel hard done by, they often lash out at the world around them. In part, this is revenge. They feel outraged that others are happy when they are not. Trolling is thus a way of redressing the balance, of making others feel the way they do (how often have you heard someone say, with barely concealed joy, that a rich or beautiful neighbor has been "taken down a peg or two," or "brought back to earth" by bankruptcy, divorce, or some other misfortune?). In a perverse way, it can even make the troller feel less alone. Being unhappy is bad enough, but being unhappy while others appear secure, loved, and successful adds on a sense of loneliness.
A good example of this sort of revenge trolling can be seen early in the career of the soccer star David Beckham. He was once sent off in a crucial match after kicking out at another player. The reaction of some fans, which included death threats and threats to harm his family, were so extreme that commentators, though they expressed disgust, took it as proof of how much the game means to people. No doubt that explained some reactions, but many fans simply used the sending off as an excuse to hit back at someone who had everything they did not: youth, talent, money, looks, and fame.
If the internet is here to stay, then so is the troll. And since this nasty little pest is going nowhere, we need to understand him, or her. In the process, we may also learn something about human psychology, whether we want to or not.