Inside the minds of internet trolls

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Troll. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Canadian researchers have found that online trolls - those sowers of discord; those who start flame wars by arguing or upsetting people; those who post inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in communities - just want to have fun.

In fact, that's the title of a paper published recently by three researchers from the Universities of Manitoba, Winnipeg and British Columbia.

Unsurprisingly, trolls also reek of what scientists call the Dark Tetrad of noxious personality variables: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

The researchers set out to determine whether "everyday sadism" would be the most germane trait to trolling, they said. After all, it's pretty intrinsic to troll culture:

Trolling culture embraces a concept virtually synonymous with sadistic pleasure: in troll-speak, 'lulz'.

The researchers conducted two online surveys using Amazon's Mechanical Turk site, restricting participation to US respondents.

The surveys embedded questions about trolling and other online behaviors into a larger battery of personality questionnaires.

Some of the responses to questions that participants chose, along with the tendencies they point to:

  • I enjoy hurting people. [Direct sadism]
  • In video games, I like the realistic blood spurts. [Vicarious sadism]
  • Payback needs to be quick and nasty. [Subclinical psychopath]
  • It's not wise to tell your secrets. [Machiavellian]
  • I have been compared to famous people. [Narcissist]

Taken together, the two studies showed that, for one thing, Dark Tetrad traits are extremely highly correlated with people who spend a lot of time commenting online.

And out of those traits - Machiavellianism, Narcissism, psychopathy, direct sadism and vicarious sadism - it was sadism that had the strongest association with trolling.

In fact, the researchers wrote, associations between sadism and respondents' trolling scores were so strong, "it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists."

Other online activities, including chatting and debating, were unrelated to sadism.

In fact, the internet is like heaven for sadists. It can be anonymous, and it enables sadists to easily connect with other sadists.

From the paper:

Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun... and the Internet is their playground!

We're told not to feed the trolls, and that's probably the best approach to take, although some victims have said that starvation doesn't make them shrivel up and go away.

In fact, getting rid of sadists' playgrounds might be a more effective way to protect people from getting tortured by trolls.

As Slate's Chris Mooney reports, that's exactly what Popular Science did in September 2013, choosing to do away with its comments sections entirely.

Google, for its part, tried to clean up the inflamed boil that is YouTube commentary - sweetly, a little pathetically, and ultimately futilely - by begging users to use their real names.

Twitter has also pledged to protect its beleaguered users with a Report Abuse button.

Starving the trolls isn't the only way to make them shrivel up. Posting playground patrols or closing the playground entirely are other ways to fight back.

Which method for troll eradication do you think is the most effective?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of troll courtesy of Shutterstock.

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35 Responses to Inside the minds of internet trolls

  1. George Manuscript · 591 days ago

    Seriously? I've met people who are what you call "internet trolls" several friends of mine actually spend enough time in the internet daily but you can't say that someone that acts in such a way in a virtual reality will be the same in real life. It's like saying that video games that are violent will make you a killer. PLAIN STUPID.

    As people who deal with the internet daily I wonder how someone of you authorised this article to be publicised.

    • LonerVamp · 591 days ago

      I always fall back on an old study (of which I can never find to cite, unfortunately) where a group of strangers are placed into a lit room and are observed as they interact. Then other groups of strangers are placed in a similar room, but with the lights off. The lights-off group got far more touchy-feely and interacted far differently than the lights-on group. One way of looking at the data is that people may act differently when they are more anonymous.

      Some people act worse online, some people probably act better and actually let their inner soul shine a bit more; especially us introverts. :)

    • Cardell · 591 days ago

      You obviously missed the point. This is about hackers and people who hide on the Internet and flame others.

    • Blake · 591 days ago

      If you put your five year old in front of a violent videogame and let the child play it. They become accustomed to the violent behavior becoming a norm. So when they see violence in everyday life they are not shocked by it. This is why we have ratings on games, movies, music etc.
      As the article states trolls like to be anonymous. "In fact, the internet is like heaven for sadists. It can be anonymous, and it enables sadists to easily connect with other sadists."
      Trolls are just bullies, cowards, and have something mentally wrong with them. They have just moved from the school playground to the forums. I find it odd that you are defending the practice and that someone needs to explain these things to you.
      The real answer to solving this problem isn't eliminating the forum playground it is getting these people the mental counseling they need before they take their actions from the forum to the street. These forums are a perfect way to identify these individuals. Every forum needs a report abuse button and proper enforcement.

    • Aladar · 590 days ago

      Surprise, surprise, some people are different than others, and don't fit into a psychological profile. Wow. I would never have guessed.

      Just because some people aren't like what is described here, doesn't mean the majority isn't. I'm not exactly a complete troll per-say, but I like to poke fun out of people ocassionally, and I would say those psychological traits are at least partialy true to me.

    • You'd be well advised to avoid these people and if your friends really behave like this in internet forums for the sake of ridiculing other users find yourself some new friends.

    • Anonymous · 590 days ago

      I help people in daily life and I'm a humanitarian, I donate to charities when I can.
      The only time I enjoy trolling or have sadistic thoughts is when I want revenge on someone, I think and fantasize about revenge, but if someone didn't do anything to me, I'm humane to them. It's like, if someone does something that I cannot forgive, it's like, they're not human to me anymore. And I fantasize allot about revenge on such people.

      • Mary · 590 days ago

        real humanitarians don't nurture thoughts of revenge

      • LindaSView · 587 days ago

        Have you ever thought of getting some therapeutic help? I find it interesting you say you are a humanitarian, but when it comes to people your ego perceives have done you wrong, you sit and ponder ways to exact revenge! That is far from being humane, let a lone a human being! So, not everyone is going to agree with you, you may feel slighted by a person's remark, ect,. but if you believe in what you had to say, communication is a better route to go, Hiding behing "anonymous" doesn't say too much about your true character either. I really would like to believe you are intelligent enough to know that dialogue and being open-even agreeing to disagree-is a far better outcome than sitting with your "Voodoo Dolls" and sticking pins in them!

      • HoosierDaddy · 584 days ago

        Holding anger against someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

    • Anonymous · 583 days ago

      I would like to comment on this to you.
      There is a significant difference between playing videogames and becoming a real killer because of it in real life and treating people badly in the social media, while in real life not. The difference is that whether you behave like it in physical life or social media it is always real people that are attacked - and that is not proper adult behavior.

      We are all different persons and not all have to be liked or be friends with, but we should be able to treat each other with respect regardless of that.

      So I think you are right in some way but remember that you can not separare social media and physical life to be different from each other when it comes to bullying and deliberate harassment, regardless of whether it is done behind an anonyoumus id or not. Since it is always real people behind every id. And that it is why it should be thought over how to deal with such. Harassment or groupattacks on others should never be accepted in social media group-discussions (in my opinion). A healthy debate, even a hot-tempered one, is just interesting, but not when the purpose is to harm others.

      I would be interested to hear your point in this remark, if you may? What did you think was wrong? I think it is a quite good article.

      Best regards

  2. Anonymous · 591 days ago

    Eliminate the comment section. Only way.

    • Anonymous · 590 days ago

      LMFAO! This comment section is like a giant troll-trap XD

  3. Anyone used to managing a group or a presentation audience, once it gets large enough, will be familiar with both the personality traits and the solutions proposed. What is rather more bizarre is that the great and the good at Google et al believed (or chose to believe) that self regulation would work. The lack of foresight in respect of these systems shows a lack of understanding of human nature - signs that the designers need a lesson or two in that department perhaps. As far as management is concerned the solutions are no different to playground management the world over - surveillance, proactive exclusion, penalties and penance.

  4. Anonymous · 591 days ago

    1.) Have strict enough policies for the site. But although u would have: We can't avoid conflicts, it is normal, but attacks towards individuals should be prevented. One is to take the responsibility of being the elder in a group and act according to it - have the courage to take the stance in a wise way.

  5. You would think that Wikipedia would be a fertile habitat for trolls, but it seems that the rules and monitors in that environment have kept them under control, even though Wikipedia posting use pseudonyms.

    • Hearth · 590 days ago

      Why do you think it's so hard for anyone not already in the "in crowd" to get anything published on wikipedia. They have learned over the years that the only way to maintain a relatively stable environment is to keep people out. Even so, do you not recall the "great edit wars" ??

  6. Anonymous · 591 days ago

    I think someone trolled the survey.

  7. 1. Have strict enough policies for your site. But without human interaction it just become again one more among many that create a false so called "BigBrother-watch-world". Not a world one can be proud of.

    2. We can't avoid conflicts, but attacks towards individuals should be prevented. Take responsibility as the elder in a group and act according to it - have the courage to take the stance in a wise way. There is nothing worse than a group of people silently following apathetically when some other person is crudely attacked by one or multiple people in some social media group. It should never be accepted. Counter-attacks though is nothing else than throwing more water in the watermill.

    Thank you for an interesting article.

    • Just to add an additional comment. To be the elder does not necessarily always mean that you are the oldest by age. If you have maturity, courage and wisdom enough you probably also have the knowledge on how to take through a situation like it - without becoming the target yourself.

  8. i've found that when you tell them that you are very grateful and honoured that they trusted me enough to share their words and opinions with me, no matter how nasty they've been, they tend to not want to speak/type to me again .... don't feed them ... great idea because that is what they are looking for ... people to argue back or to feel anger, hurt ...

  9. In person I would doubt that most trolls would be confrontational. They thrive on being anonymous. And as long as they can keep their identities secret you will have them. A prime example is when caller ID became available. , the number of anonymous (crank) phone calls abruptly dropped.

  10. JHG · 590 days ago

    Good research in social psychology is very, very difficult. To summarize a study informally, as done here, is also difficult. You can only deal in vague generalities, really. But it makes for fun conversation over drinks. Right now, all we have ready access to is an abstract! Newsy, anyway!

    Gosh! I suppose that's a flame! I had better retreat to my hidey place! Poof!

  11. Donald Wachenschwanz · 590 days ago

    Recognizing the irony that I am commenting, which I rarely do, I would do away with comments unless someone has the resources to check them first before they become posted.

  12. Jacques · 590 days ago

    Forcing people to use their real names in comment sections only makes trolling and the possibility of troll attacks worse. 1) use an alias, 2) don't feed the trolls, 3) ignore responses from obvious trolls (take a deep breath, and ignore it). Respond at the peril of your own mental health.

  13. My personal choice for managing internet trolls is to name and shame. We need to start boycotting companies that allows this behaviour to continue unchallenged.

  14. redblade1530 · 590 days ago

    Popular Science did a very smart thing. The comments section never has any feedback of worthy substance.
    Trolls are abusive and mean on the internet because they don't have to worry about the recompense they deserve. They act that way on the internet and might not act that way in "real life" except when they think they can get away with it. It seems to me that this article has nailed down exactly what is taking place psychologically. To take it a step further, people who are cruel anonymously will be cruel in public if they think they can get away with it and when shown their ways will object that it is true and that they are just having fun with thin skinned people. A bully, when caught in the act of hurting others, would insist the same thing -- the two are no different and act under the same moral alignments.

  15. I'd hate to see the comments sections go away. Often, they are the best part of an article. A report/hide button would suit me best. If I can't see the comment, I'm not tempted to respond to it. I think the Facebook 'block' button is wonderful.

  16. I wouldn't want to get rid of comments, either. It's an essential part of what makes the internet what it is.

    But if you allow comments, you have to moderate the discussion. It takes time, and you need enough moderators to do it well. (It also helps to allow users to edit their remarks, as they often are the best ones to decide they shouldn't have hit "submit" yet.)

    Google wants to do it on the cheap by imposing a "real names" policy and then not devoting any resources to moderation. As mentioned above, it just puts innocent people at risk when they reveal their IRL identities, but it doesn't do anything to force sadistic trolls to actually use their real names.

  17. Stuart · 590 days ago

    There are bullies in the school playground - Do you propose to remove the playground for all the children? If you start to force people to show their real image on the internet then you will be causing people problems. Lots of people with low self esteem end up turning to things like online games because they can hide their real image and become popular by being the best at something virtual, which builds their self esteem online - where exactly do you draw the line? Remove facebook? Remove Twitter? or simply have those services spend some of their billions on creating teams that track down trolls and then remove their access from the internet! Its not overly difficult to track someone down on the internet - most trolls arent smart enough to actually hide themselves - you just need to own the site they are on to be able to get the detail.. A Global ISP wide Troll ban list would do the trick - although that would mean team work between rivals which I'm sure will never happen.

    • A short comment/addition to this. I'm just a layman in this, not a pro in the subject and I certainly don't have deeper knowledge on how the technology is changing the next five to ten years.

      Quote: " ...or simply have those services spend some of their billions on creating teams that track down trolls and then remove their access from the internet! Its not overly difficult to track someone down on the internet - most trolls arent smart enough to actually hide themselves - you just need to own the site they are on to be able to get the detail.. A Global ISP wide Troll ban list would do the trick - although that would mean team work between rivals which I'm sure will never happen. "

      Or is that already happening somewhere to some extent? Problem with that is - what happens when someones id is stolen and misused , or even worst case worst used virtually over that persons own pc giving the end-result that false person is blacklisted and banned from heaven knows what all places. And as a worst case scenario - blocked from even informing that is having serious trouble - ending up in a situation where no-one would even believe this person anymore because that ban-list would probably have circulated to quite very important instances. Do you think the international community would allow a large scale surveillance all around the world by logging and tracking all peoples traffic (how much already happening - ref. Snowdens revealings)?

      How do you protect people from, due it, becoming target of something else as well - and which countries instances should be the monitoring element to watch over that no misuse is happening by the administrators and/or moderators?

      I'm pointing at this because the bots and malware et all are causing so much trouble to regular people these days and most stand pretty defenseless in all of this. That, in itself is worrying to not then add on top of it these matters that are discussed here.

      Best regards

      • As an addition to continue on my own comment. For example at worst case if it were a threatening comment that I made - instead of actually try to better something - I would become the target and maybe put on a list for surveillance, because of my comment. The worst of internet trolls in high level positions and technical instances - only the imagination is the limit for those.

        It is quite scary that the world is turning the way it does, but in its best there is also _a_lot_good_happening - because of the common sense of people and putting heads together to find good positive solutions without causing harm while on it.


        I could go on forever with these subjects. Partly because of frustration on seeing how very difficult it is for anyone to really get help in those situations when a troll, or group of such, are on them in many different ways. Very challenging subject altogether in my opinion. Very.


  18. Mrs. W · 589 days ago

    In the old days, we engaged in countertrolling (aka reverse trolling), which was a lot more fun and effective at stopping trolls. There's a beautiful example of this on GitHub from #haskell on IRC.

    This works better in closed settings like chatrooms than open ones like comment sections. As long as there's at least one person shrieking like a wounded animal, the sadist still gets their jollies.

  19. Internet Troll · 589 days ago

    This experiment is poorly conducted and the results are a confirmation bias. The researchers wanted to find this and set up an experiment to get their expected results. Bad science, bad article. Unimpressed all around.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.