The Psychology of Internet Trolls: Why Do People Develop Different Personalities Online?
The anonymity of online platforms make them fertile ground for reprehensible behaviour
Forensic psychiatrist Dr Sohom Das explores the motivations and psychology of internet trolling
If you have been the victim of online bullying, we have therapists who can help here
As a parent, internet trolling is yet another worry for me. It is new, insidious, frightening, clandestine and creepy. If you are as old as I am, it is also an alien phenomenon that we did not experience in our own childhood. What is terrifying is that it can be going on under our noses in our own houses without our knowledge.
As a psychiatrist, I regularly deal with people who have been subjected to a whole host of traumas, many of whom develop issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Internet trolling has started to rear its ugly head towards my patient cohort. I’m also fascinated by the psychological makeup of the perpetrators.
But what are the ‘typical’ character traits of a troll? What are their motivations?
Traits shown by those internet trolls include impulsivity, selfishness, and emotionless callousness. They have a mind-boggling sense of remorselessness and an absence of morality. There is also manipulation and exploitation of others, who they goad into joining in with their cruel and demeaning behaviour. There is also extreme narcissism mixed in with grandiosity and egotism. This is reflected in their desire to assert power and dominance for pleasure.
I think that internet trolls exhibit these traits when they are online, even though some might not do so in real life. Their anonymity amplifies these character traits and behaviours. This is what I call the ‘toxic disinhibition’ effect; a phenomenon which occurs because the perpetrators are far removed from their victims. Not only in terms of distance, but also with time. Their sense of responsibility for their actions is diluted in the knowledge that their targets might not read their vile comments for days, or even longer.
What are the other behavioural and psychological processes that occur with internet trolling?
There are many of them and some overlap. A major one is pack mentality. I’m sure we all remember that behind the biggest bully at school, there were minions hanging around in the background, guffawing. Sometimes they’re jumping on the popularity bandwagon for their own attention, and sometimes because they’re scared of being victimised themselves.
Another common format of trolling is vitriol directed against the person rather than the argument or point he or she is making. This is often because the culprit cannot counter their points intelligibly. Therefore, character assassination is a very quick, if not lazy, way to distract from the argument and cut their opponent down. With internet trolling, sometimes these packs believe in some kind of loose political agenda.
As a BAME YouTuber, I have received my fair share of racial comments, even though my videos rarely touch on race as an issue. A friend of mine who is a popular true crime YouTuber and is gay regularly receives homophobic slurs, even though he never mentions his sexuality on his channel. As many female internet personalities will attest to, a worryingly common form of this is misogyny. Men feel it’s okay to insult women about their bodies or to make assertions (often incorrect) about their personal lives.
Another common trope is for the troll to dismiss an individual’s credibility. They say that target is not an expert in such-and-such field (even if they are) and are therefore unqualified from making comments in anything vaguely related. Ironic, considering that the aggressor seems to have the right to comment on everything.
Inferiority complex-driven attacks seem to occur with many internet trolls. They want to cut down anybody who appears cleverer or more coherent than them. They often show a natural antipathy to logic, knowledge and education. As a psychiatrist, I have to wonder where this all originated. Perhaps they were belittled and ridiculed by parents or siblings as children. Perhaps they themselves were bullied at school. Perhaps they’re stuck in jobs where they feel overqualified and under-appreciated.
What do I do if I'm being bullied online?
If you are being targeted online, the most effective course of action is to simply disengage. A drastic step might even be deleting social media accounts. However, I appreciate that this is easy for me to say and often difficult to do. Many people, especially adolescents, feel that they have their identity, or at least a significant proportion of it, online. Taking this away can be emotionally crippling. If this isn’t feasible, then it’s important for victims to at least look after their emotional well-being when they are off-line. Relaxing or enjoyable activities and hobbies can help serve as a distraction. Of course, our forms of leisure very variable; anything from taking walks, to exercise, to mediation, to meeting up with loved ones. A couple of my patients swear by using ‘mandala’ colouring books for adults.
Whatever your pleasure, I think it’s important to remove yourself from the physical location where you experience the trauma. This will help create a psychological separation too. Talking to a trusted friend about the comments and how they make you feel might help put everything into perspective. They can help you appreciate how insignificant and unimportant the trolls’ opinions really are. This could strengthen your emotional stability the next time that unforgiving screen lights up.
Dr Sohom Das is a Forensic Psychiatrist and the author of In Two Minds: Stories of Murder, Justice and Recovery from a Forensic Psychiatrist