Everyday sadists, psychopaths and narcissists: who are the internet trolls?

Rossalyn Warren, author of Targeted and Trolled: The Reality Of Being A Woman Online, looks behind the screens at the type of people who troll

Rossalyn Warren: researchers described the practice of trolling as an ‘internet manifestation of everyday sadism’

Rossalyn Warren: researchers described the practice of trolling as an ‘internet manifestation of everyday sadism’

 

Who are the trolls that commit online abuse?

In fairy tales, a troll is a supernatural being that lives in the wilderness or lurks under a bridge and is rarely helpful to human beings. Internet trolls are pretty much the same thing, but lacking the whole supernatural-folklore element. Rather than contribute an interesting point to an online conversation, trolls sit in their wilderness (aka in the glare of a computer screen) and post abusive and inflammatory comments with the intention of upsetting their victims.

The internet offers a convenient way for people to be abusive. Victims are often told to turn off the computer and walk away – an unrealistic option in our modern world where so much of what we do in our professional and private lives is so intrinsically linked to being online.

‘It’s just the internet, ignore it.’

‘Don’t log on if you don’t want to deal with it.’

‘Don’t use Twitter and feed the trolls.’

‘You probably shouldn’t have written that if you didn’t want a reaction.’

There have been a number of studies focused on the victims of online abuse, but we still know little about the perpetrators. The stereotypical troll, played out in the media, is a young man, usually white, often socially alienated. And yes, when convictions for trolling do occur, in many cases the accused matches this description. But not always. The reality is, those who commit online abuse can be of any age, race or gender. A 52-year-old family man from a rural community was convicted of harassing the family of a murdered soldier. A 24-year-old woman was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for sending menacing tweets to a feminist campaigner. An unemployed 42-year-old man was jailed for eight weeks after posting abusive messages about the stabbing of a teacher.

‘It’s actually very difficult to determine the gender (or indeed, nearly any common patterns) among individuals who troll,’ says Dr Claire Hardaker, a lecturer in linguistics at Lancaster University, who specialises in researching online aggression and trolling told me in an interview. Hardaker explains that part of the problem is the inability of researchers to determine whether an account belongs to one individual or is being shared by multiple users, or whether the 30 accounts they’re analysing in fact belong to just three people. Although they fit no particular demographic profile, studies have suggested that certain personality traits play a role in determining those who troll.

In two online studies conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba, Canada, it was found that individuals who engage in trolling exhibit above average levels of sadism, psychopathy and narcissism. The researchers described the practice of trolling as an ‘internet manifestation of everyday sadism’, and there is clear evidence that ‘sadists tend to troll because they enjoy it’. Participants in the study revealed that other factors, such as boredom or the need to seek attention, also played a key role.

But whether trolls do it out of boredom, revenge, are male or female, young or old, there’s no denying who their preferred targets are for the most severe types of online harassment: women. The abuse that targets girls and women online exists because, just as in the real world, gender inequality exists.

If you’re interested in knowing more about how and why trolls target women, it’s an issue I explore in depth in my book Targeted and Trolled: The Reality Of Being A Woman Online, which is available here.

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