In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement. (Wikipedia)
Over the years, Highland Titles has grown from humble beginnings to become the solid conservation movement that it is today, some 11 years after the first plot was sold. Whilst thousands of people have joined our cause and our way of raising funds, a handful of people have been attracted to me and Highland Titles simply in order to troll us. Most large and successful organisations and people attract a few trolls, so it is hard to be too upset. We do our best to wear it as a badge of honour because it marks us out as having become the market leader in private conservation. But it is interesting to understand the people who do it.
Psychologists categorise trolls as narcissistic, psychopathic sadists. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend in the hope of getting a response and in the hope of inflicting pain. The damage that they cause is all part of their gratification. Research in communication and psychology has investigated people’s perceptions, rationale, and behavior and identified several factors that determine the likelihood that a given individual may post offensive content.
These are some of the most common:
1. Anonymity: Some people relish the anonymous nature of the internet. Sites such as Twitter, the comment sections of media sites, and even Facebook, permit people to use a screen name that bears no relation to their actual identity. This anonymity emboldens people and may encourage more deviant behavior, because their anonymity enables them to avoid any consequences.
Even when people use an account tied to their real identity and know they are not anonymous, they may still be emboldened by feelings of obscurity. They may believe that their actions are still fairly private. If Robin is commenting in a small Facebook group, for example, even though the comments are tied to his real name, he thinks that the people who matter in his life won’t read the post and the people who do read his comments are probably mainly people in other countries and will never encounter him in the real world.
2. In the majority: When people think they are in the majority, they will more freely express their opinion than when they see themselves as in the minority. Thus, although individuals may not make untrue or offensive comments offline, they may feel able to do so in an online setting because they think their opinion is the prevalent one there.
3. Amongst “friends”: On sites like Facebook and Twitter, people may perceive their online environment to be full of people like them, because they are part of the same social network. Thus, individuals feel confident self-expressing because they anticipate support or agreement from their network. Amanda might post an angry, vitriolic message because she assumes that her network members feel the same way. She might even do so to earn “likes” or other expressions of agreement from her friends. But social media networks are often more heterogeneous than we think. Even private posts may reach “friends of friends”— people we may not even know. And comments can easily be shared outside of our immediate network. Thus, although we feel we are surrounded by people who agree with us, there actually may be many who disagree or find our comments hurtful and in some cases may leave a troll open to legal consequences, either for defamation or under the criminal law. Harassment is taken very seriously by law enforcement.
4. Desensitisation: Over time, we may get desensitised to the internet. Whereas once we would have thought about the legal consequences of what we wrote or said, when we are online we just post without thinking about it. We may see so many nasty comments that we think making one ourselves is risk free. If we get used to using a certain social media site like Facebook or Twitter to express our daily experiences and frustrations, we start to lose our filter. It is also easier to type something defamatory into a screen than to say it to someone’s face.
5. Personality: Some individuals, such as politicians, are outspoken by nature. They may tend to think that they are morally superior to others. Or they may just enjoy making other people uncomfortable or angry. Any of these traits may drive individuals to express themselves online without a filter. Personality traits such as self-righteousness and social dominance orientation (in which you think some social or ethnic groups, typically yours, are inherently better than others) are related to expressing intolerance. Others are “hard core” believers who will express their opinions no matter what, because they believe their opinion is infallible.
6. No consequences: Social exchange theory suggests that we analyse the costs and benefits in our communication and relationships. Generally we believe that the benefits of expressing oneself outweigh the costs. If we can remain anonymous, we believe we won’t be held personally responsible. Perceived majority status, social identity salience, or being surrounded by friends means you believe that even if some people are upset or angry, you have more (or more important) people on your side, so you win more friends than you lose. Personality traits and desensitisation may make offending or losing friends not seem like a real consequence, because those friends aren’t really “worth it” if they can’t handle the “truth,” or they aren’t really friends if they don’t agree with or tolerate you.
7. Social identity salience: The social identity model of deindividuation effects, commonly referred to as the SIDE model, suggests that when online our social identity can mean more than our individual identity. Andy might be a nice, civil person offline, but when he goes online to talk about Highland Titles, he may feel free to express outrageous, untrue and defamatory sentiments, oblivious to the damage this may cause and his own exposure to the cost of legal action. This is also often seen in political discussions, in which people start responding like a group member based on political, national, ethnic, religious, or other identity or affiliation. This process of deindividuation is known in more extreme forms as “group mentality”— you stop seeing yourself as an individual and act in line with the group. As a result, the group’s behavior becomes increasingly extreme as individual members of the group shift to conform to the group even if their opinions were not originally as extreme as others in it.
That still leaves the question “Why do trolls do it?”. Just because somebody has a personality that leaves them open to temptation, it is still a personal decision to try and hurt somebody.
Trolls are bored. Being failures in their own lives, they seek attention online where it’s readily available and easily acquired. A troll’s behavior reflects their insecurity. If someone responds to their words it adds meaning to their lives. They crave attention: All a troll wants is you to turn the spotlight onto themselves. They want you to repost their comment to your followers. They want you to write a blog post or status about them. They will use anything and everything to get it and if the truth is pedestrian, they will make up more interesting “fake news” to gain attention.
Victims often feel compelled to respond to “set things right.” However, even if you respond in a cheerful or positive way, providing accurate information, you’re still feeding the troll and the whole enterprise escalates.