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Don’t feed the trolls!

Wednesday, 4th March, 2020 4:41pm

By Dr Sinéad McDonough, forensic psychologist and owner of Safe Search Ireland

The phenomenon called trolling is one of the most controversial aspects of the internet. Known by their appetite for emitting inflammatory comments in cyberspace, trolls have become symbolic of bullying in the 21st century.

Trolls can be located on a multiple range of online platforms by their defining characteristic - the shared desire to instil antagonism via the posting of cruel/provocative comments, usually on social media. Trolls may pretend to be part of the group, but their real motivation is to create conflict for their own entertainment.

While most people generally conduct their face-to-face interactions with strangers politely and respectfully, online, people can be heartless in their interactions with others. This type of behaviour may be explained in part by the Online Disinhibition Effect - the loosening of social restrictions and inhibitions in online interactions that are normally present in face-to-face interactions.

In 2004, John Suler, Professor of Psychology at Rider University, published a paper titled The Online Disinhibition Effect, which explored the facets of online interactions that contributed to this effect.

He describes two forms of disinhibition - benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition. Benign disinhibition describes behaviour in which people might self-reveal more on the internet than they would in real life.

Toxic disinhibition represents behaviour that is inclusive of bad language, threats, and navigating environments of crime/violence on the internet–environments a person might not visit in real life. Suler identifies biases that account for this, some if not all applicable on social media at any time:

Dissociative anonymity (‘you don’t know me’) - the perceived anonymity of the internet may allow people to think that they do not have to ‘own’ their behaviour, resulting in an online persona that is not congruent with their offline persona.

Anonymity may help a person to feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and engaging in antisocial online behaviours. The anonymous cover of the internet gives trolls the opportunity to treat the internet as their personal playground, throwing controversial comments into forums in order to elicit a response.

Invisibility (‘you can’t see me’) - the internet extends a type of barrier, while blocking people from being physically visible. Invisibility affords a person the chance to misrepresent themself, often by taking on a new identity (male presenting as female or vice versa). This presents opportunities that are not as easily achievable in face-to-face interactions.

Asynchronicity (‘see you later’) - the asynchronous nature of online communication can lead to disinhibition, because conversations are not happening in real time. For example, after posting a rousing or emotionally-fuelled comment, it is easy to log off without seeing the response/impact it caused on others.

Dissociative Imagination (‘It’s just a game’) - the internet can present as a make-believe environment; people might feel more disinhibited to act in ways that they normally wouldn’t offline.

Minimization of Status and Authority (‘your rules don’t apply here’) - in real life, we identify those in authority through their titles, environment and their dress but without those cues, their authority is minimised in cyberspace. This in turn may cause a person to feel less intimidated by authority on the internet and may explain the posting of unnecessary malicious and wounding comments that intentionally elicit distress in others online.

Of concern are studies that highlight how Machiavellianism (readiness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse, little or no conscience and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the watching others suffer) have become reified (converted into or regarded as a concrete thing) owing to the internet.

In one such example Canadian psychologists sought to identify evidence that linked trolling to the ‘dark tetrad’ of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Their findings illustrated how dark tetrad scores were highest among individuals who declared that trolling was their favourite internet activity.

The relationship between trolling and the dark tetrad was really significant, with authors quoting that: “the associations between sadism and GAIT (Global Assessment of Internet Trolling) scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists”.

Research also suggests that the best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them, rather than providing them the contentment of an angry reaction.

Individuals merely looking for a negative social reward may still participate in trolling. But if they don’t receive that negative social reward, then their motivation to engage in this behaviour will likely decline.

It would seem that the internet is gradually allowing those with dark personality traits to find voice while assisting the features that support sadistic behaviours. For a troll, it appears that peoples’ suffering is what brings them pleasure, so the best advice is merely to ignore them.

Dr Sinéad McDonough is a forensic psychologist and owner of Safe Search Ireland. She is also a provider of online safety/cyberbullying presentations to young people/parents/educators/organisations across Ireland. Contact:

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