The Science of Internet Trolls

Ah internet trolls – whether it’s on twitter,
a forum, or even these very YouTube comments…ehem…we can’t seem to escape them. But who are these
people – and what do they look like when we evaluate them scientifically? While many people do enjoy chatting and debating
issues online, approximately 5.6% of individuals self identify as trolls, or say they enjoy
trolling online. So, scientists studied a group of 1200 internet users to understand
these trolls in particular and found a myriad of something called ‘dark traits’. Specifically,
online trolls were found to display high levels of psychopathy, narcissism and most specifically
sadism; that is, people who enjoy the pain of others. Now, most people tend to avoid inflicting
pain on others, and if we do, we experience guilt or remorse. But for sadists, cruelty
can be exciting and pleasurable. These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or bad
people, but they get an emotional reward when causing or observing the suffering of others.
In fact, there’s even a category called ‘everyday sadism’ that highlights how
sadistic traits are present in many people – not just sexual deviants and criminals.
For example, many of us enjoy a good fight during a sports game or the thrill of a violent
movie, right? If you were given the choice of the following
4 jobs, which would you choose? a) Killing bugs b) helping an experimenter kill bugs
c) cleaning dirty toilets or d) enduring pain from ice water? Studies show that those who
choose to kill bugs have higher scores on a scale measuring sadistic impulses. But internet trolls show very high levels
as sadism and have fun distressing others by being argumentative and disruptive. Studies
have also documented a link between these individuals and anti-social behaviour. So
are these individuals different in real life? Not likely – the studies suggest that these
traits carry over into their regular day-to-day and reflect one’s actual personality. But
since the internet offers anonymity, antisocial individuals can connect with similar others
while distancing themselves from their acts in terms of personal responsibility. The unfortunate part is that trolls not only
comment more but receive more replies than the average user, suggesting they are quite
successful at luring others in. On top of this, negative feedback only stimulates a
harsher response from trolls, and their behaviour becomes worse over time with more feedback. So, the next time you’re being trolled,
just remember, they WANT to disrupt you – and they feed off of your unhappiness. Ignore
them, and you’re likely to diminish their effort. Need more science? Here’s a playlist of
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Danny Hutson

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