Trolling is on the increase in the UK, which has prompted an urgent desire to understand why people troll. Recent findings from (Law Commission UK, 2018) suggests that one 1% of Internet users in the UK have been trolled online at least once over the past 12 months. Several studies have attempted to construct a psychological profile of trolls who behave in this way purely to harm and disrupt the lives of others. What type of person would want to deliberately cause harm to fellow citizens? Well, if truth be told, although some do not see trolling as harmful as physical abuse, this perspective needs to change because consistent findings show in terms of impact there is no difference between these two forms of bullying.
What is trolling?
A troll is referred to as a person who intentionally attempts to instigate conflict, hostility, and is characterised by aggressive and deliberate provocation of others. In specific circumstances the intent of the trolling behaviour may even be to amuse and entertain. However, traditionally research explores trolling as a malevolent behaviour, which provides the opportunity for the troll to hurt their victims online.
Why is trolling a problem?
Trolling can cause extreme harm and distress to victims. It is associated with serious physical and psychological efforts, including lowered self-esteem, depression, disrupted sleep, self-harm, and in some cases, even suicide. Trolling is extremely common in the UK. One of the most useful estimates of prevalence of online trolling comes from the 2017 Ofcom report on Adults' Media use and attitudes. Two data sources have been used to inform the report: a survey of 1,846 adults aged 16 and over, and results from Ofcom’s Technology Tracker based on another survey of 3,743 adults aged 16 and over. According to the study, 1% of Internet users in the UK have been trolled online at least once over the past 12 months. This goes up to 5% for respondents aged 16-24. Looking beyond the UK, evidence suggests online trolling and related behaviour are becoming prevalent in other European countries also. Many more studies were identified estimating prevalence of cyberbullying in other countries than the UK or estimating prevalence without reference to specific geographies. Other studies report incidence rates of 31.4% for cyberbullying and 24.6 to 30.2% for cyber victimisation. If we can understand why people troll, this can inform management and prevention.
Considering the frequency of these behaviours, scholars and practitioners are keen to understand who is most and least likely to engage in these harmful acts (LeBreton, Binning, & Adorno, 2006; Raskin & Hall, 1979). Two perspectives dominate this line of inquiry, with one stream of research seeking to understand which of the more traditional personality traits help explain who perpetrates online trolling by investigating its relationship with conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness to experience, and extraversion (Gylfason, H. F., Sveinsdottir, A. H., Vésteinsdóttir, V., & Sigurvinsdottir, R. (2021). In the other stream, scholars have investigated the effects of more malevolent characteristics, exploring the relationship between digital bullying and Machiavellianism (Jones & Paulhus, 2014), narcissicim ( Paulhus, 2014) and psychopathy (Jones & Paulhus, 2011) - commonly referred to as the Dark Triad (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). More recently, scholars have begun to investigate the relationship between sadism and online trolling (Vaillancourt, & Arnocky, 2019) - known as the Dark Tetrad. Sadism means deriving pleasure from inflicting pain, which has generated the broadest consensus (Vaillancourt, & Arnocky, 2019).
More recent studies have found a link between malevolent trolling, sadism, and high-self esteem. Sadism is characterised by enjoyment of physically and/or psychologically harming other people. Findings show that the more somebody enjoys hurting others, the more likely it is they will troll. Therefore, although self-esteem was not an independent predictor of trolling, self-esteem interacts with sadism. So, if a person had high levels of sadism and high self-esteem, they were more likely to troll.
What to do with this information?
The results have important implications for how we manage and respond to trolling. Based on the review of psychopathy and sadism, we understand that the internet troll as someone who is callous, lacks a sense of personal responsibility and enjoys causing others harm. The significance of psychopathy in the results also indicates trolls have low ‘violence inhibition mechanism (VIM)’, particularly when it comes to their ability to experience and understand other people’s emotions. In addition to this, the findings also suggest the more someone enjoys hurting others the better they feel about themselves and their trolling behaviours.
- Don’t react immediately, and out of anger or frustration
- Seek advice to deal with the psychological impact of trolling
- Don’t respond in an aggressive manner
- Don’t respond to trolls - this is like feeding them as it is exactly what they are looking for. Their power lies in the reactions they cause
- Talk about it to somebody you trust - victims of this type of behaviour “crime” report the benefits gained from social support
- Keep a record of the events
- Join the Issues@Work Clinic to gain further support
- Remember that it is not your fault - nobody deserves to be bullied
- Report it to the social media platform. We are aware that some sites are not proactive in taking action against this type bullying
- Report it to the Police by calling 101
- Consult the Online Safety Bill for more detailed information about what counts as bullying, particularly digital forms.
Davis, A. C., Visser, B. A., Volk, A. A., Vaillancourt, T., & Arnocky, S. (2019). The relations between life history strategy and dark personality traits among young adults. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 5(2), 166-177.
Gylfason, H. F., Sveinsdottir, A. H., Vésteinsdóttir, V., & Sigurvinsdottir, R. (2021). Haters Gonna Hate, Trolls Gonna Troll: The Personality Profile of a Facebook Troll. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(11),
Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Introducing the short dark triad (SD3) a brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment, 21(1), 28-41.
Law Commission (UK), Abusive and Offensive Online Communications: A Scoping Report, November 2018, available at: https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/lawcom-prod-storage- 11jsxou24uy7q/uploads/2018/10/6_5039_LC_Online_Comms_Report_FINAL_291018_WEB.pdf
Paulhus, D. L., & Jones, D. N. (2015). Measures of dark personalities. In Measures of personality and social psychological constructs (pp. 562-594). Academic Press.
Disclaimer: The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors.
Dr Michelle Hunter-Hill is a Chartered Psychologist, Behavioural Scientist and Coach who specialises in advising on trolling, and the psychological safety of workers/contributors in various occupational settings (offices, remote-working, on screen, on track/field/pitch). Dr Hunter-Hill creates psychometric profiles (assessments) of trolls/digital bullies, and deviant types such as narcissistic leaders, extreme risk takers and more. Dr Hunter-Hill runs the Issues@Work Clinic, and The Psychometrics Cafe’. Dr Hunter-Hill is Director of the MSc Occupational and Business Psychology programme at University of Roehampton.