Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing American journalist who is proud of his abusive online posts, was permanently banned from Twitter last year after a particularly offensive tirade. Yiannopoulos has often been described as a professional troll. So what makes a troll – professional or otherwise – tick?
Trolling is a relatively new term that is used to describe online behaviour that is disruptive, offensive and hurtful towards other internet users. Trolls intend to provoke a reaction from others which allows for an escalation in their abusive behaviour. The extent to which they participate in negative behaviour can range from annoyance to extreme cruelty, such as posting abusive messages on memorial pages.
Are trolls ordinary people living ordinary lives until they are online? And why do some people behave in a more aggressive, disrespectful and hurtful way online than in a face-to-face interaction?
Research into the motivation for this type of behaviour is limited, even though trolling is a widespread and a well-known phenomenon on social media. Factors believed to be motivating the behaviour include craving attention from others, seeking pleasure from causing others pain, boredom and revenge. What is clear is that trolls want to cause chaos and havoc in public discussions and their intention is to humiliate anyone who attempts to strike back.
Trolling is usually considered a form of cyberbullying, but there are subtle differences. Cyberbullying targets victims, while trolls use a baiting tactic to find victims who will provide them with the most entertainment. People who take the bait are then considered fair game by the trolls.
An integral part of the antisocial behaviour is that trolls must have an audience to witness their antics – and this aspect appears to play a major part in the pleasure they experience. If trolls do not receive gratification they will simply move on to the next social media platform and continue baiting to find their next victim.
Anonymous and invisible
Trolling has been explained by a psychological concept called the “online disinhibiton effect”. This effect suggests that social barriers to negative behaviour are lowered because of the way the internet allows users to remain anonymous and invisible. People are allowed to express themselves more freely than they would in face-to-face encounters and disregard moral responsibilities. For anonymous users, there are no repercussions for bad behaviour. They are able to reveal aspects of their personality that are held in check by social etiquette and rules.
Research has found that when anonymity was removed from social media sites, it reduced the amount of trolling, but people wanting to continue antisocial behaviour would resort to creating fake profiles.
Invisibility is another element of social media platforms, which is different from anonymity. With the exception of webcams, people on many social platforms are invisible to one another. You may be able to see a photo or avatar of other users, but there is no eye contact. The gaze of a person’s eyes has been shown to inhibit negative behaviour. Eye contact increases self-awareness, empathy and the awareness of other people’s reactions to what is being discussed. People who are out of sight are easier to attack because there is no negative visual feedback that inhibits further bad behaviour.
Although there have been many attempts to prevent or control trolling, none have proven to be very successful. As the verbal abuse that trolls engage in – however brief – can cause psychological harm to both the intended victim and any silent viewers and third-party onlookers who might see it, it’s important that scientists continue to explore this under-researched phenomenon. Only when we truly understand what makes trolls tick will we be able to rein them in.