It’s easy to believe that the Internet is filled with vindictive barbarians with little concern for the people on the other end of their screens—especially after scanning the comments section of an article or your Twitter and Facebook feeds. The trolls are everywhere.
In fact, a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences last February found trolling strongly correlated with “the Dark Tetrad” of personality traits: Machiavellianism, sadism, psychopathy, and narcissism. Indifference to others does not a troll make, found the researchers. True trolls take pleasure in their abuse of others.
In an inverse of the “Halo Effect” (by which we assign positive traits to people we already view favorably), we often assume that people do bad things for bad reasons. Fortunately for us, we can blame trolling on the same negative emotions we already find disturbing and off-putting: selfishness and an urge to manipulate and hurt others.
In fact, narcissistic personalities might even be helpful in fostering social group cohesion. According to Psychology Today’s Jennifer Golbeck, research “[suggests] that narcissists could actually help unite social groups. A shared dislike of the narcissists they know may be a factor that brings people closer than they would otherwise be.”
Indifference to others does not a troll make, found the researchers. True trolls take pleasure in their abuse of others.
But if despising narcissists were enough to stop trolls, the Internet would be a Utopian paradise of camaraderie and fellowship. Instead, the core structure of social media encourages many of the personality traits we criticize trolls for exhibiting.
As much as Facebook and Twitter are avenues for self-promotion, they are also systems that reward people for exploitation, abuse, and generally defiant behavior, offering them the attention they crave. While any troll is the party responsible for their ugly conduct, social media environments enable such behavior at best and, at worst, they encourage it.
That aforementioned study, titled “Trolls Just Want To Have Fun,” found not only a correlation between trolling behavior and Dark Tetrad traits, but also a relatively weaker correlation between psychopathy and all online commenting.
“It is our view that enjoyment of cruelty is experienced in various degrees by non-disordered, everyday people,” Erin Buckels, one of the researchers behind the study, said in a Q&A. “In other words, sadism is a personality trait.” We all have varying degrees of twisted character traits, and one of the ways that comes out is in online behavior.
Indeed, there’s already an established connection between the amount of time spent online and overall narcissism. While a chicken-and-egg debate struggles to answer whether Facebook use causes narcissism or vice versa, numerous studies have found that Facebook users tend to be more narcissistic than the general population, particularly those who’ve amassed a hefty numbers of “friends.”
As psychologist Vivian Miller states, true pathological narcissists suffer from “a chronic and desperate need for attention, a desire for ongoing external sources… in order to feel safe and secure.”
For those that know how to use and abuse it, social media has an abundance of attention to give to anyone with a lack of shame or remorse—and Facebook is certainly happy to encourage frequent visitors. As Nir Eyal told Business Insider last November, Facebook’s structure as a website drives encourages heavy use through a cycle of internal and external triggers:
When I send someone a message on Facebook, or I like something, or I comment on something, guess what Facebook gets to do? They get to send me an external trigger, bringing me back, saying so and so replied to something that you were involved with. … Loading the next trigger is when they send you this external notification that you prompted and now you’re passing through the hook once again, continuing through the same basic cycle.
While identifying heavy users can be fairly easy, identifying trolls in person is nearly impossible—even the study on “Dark Tetrad” traits required self-reporting. But when the attention-seeking needs of narcissists are met with the impersonal, largely consequence-free environment of Facebook or Twitter, it’s a perfect storm for abusive tendencies to come out.
In regular forums and even subreddits, moderators can create consequences for harassment or spamming. Most of social media, however, is a free for all that requires users to moderate themselves.
When you insult or even criticize someone face to face, their immediate reaction likely forces you to feel empathy for the pain you’ve caused, lessening the chance you’ll do it again. When such speech is exchanged online, however, we tend to suffer from the so-called Gyges Effect.
But if despising narcissists were enough to stop trolls, the Internet would be a Utopian paradise of camaraderie and fellowship.
Because we don’t physically sense how people react to harmful things said online, our brain struggles to register their hurt as real. Our brains aren’t naturally employed to flood us with empathy for people we hurt online, argues linguistic researcher Claire Hardaker, so our online habits “can readily escalate into more and more serious abuse so that the individual may not realize that they’ve gone from being mildly offensive to actually engaging in potentially criminal activity.”
This cycle could be especially encouraging to narcissists (who will continually hunger for attention) and sadists (who will continually hunger for hurting others without consequence). But it’s also encouraging to sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Although a general environment of trolling can hurt business, encouraging frequent use of their services engenders the narcissistic tendencies that lead to trolling. This isn’t just an ethical problem, either—people are generally less likely to use a service if harassment is part of the experience. A YouGov poll found a strong correlation between how many people have witnessed trolling on different social networks and how much they use them.
When YouTube attempted to clean up their notoriously filthy and misogynistic comment sections by forcing all users to employ their real names, a user revolt followed, forcing the company to switch back to its largely anonymous comments. They found it was actually bad for business.
In the case of Twitter, however, a widespread public response to harassment issues encouraged some well-received changes to how content gets moderated. After the Gamergate movement used Twitter to send rape and death threats to women fighting for equality in the gaming industry, the site streamlined the blocking and reporting process and allowed victims to describe problematic behaviors in detail.
In March, Twitter forced users with a record of harassment to provide their cell number in order to login, an effort to catch them even if they use a different account. Now, thanks to another recent change, users can now share their list of people they’ve blocked and why, crowdsourcing the fight against serial harassers.
Because we don’t physically sense how people react to harmful things said online, our brain struggles to register their hurt as real.
Twitter should be applauded for these new efforts, yet they still bypass the underlying issues presented by the nature of interacting online. It encourages us to promote ourselves as a commodity and seek attention. The most successful Internet personalities are those that give attention to their fans, making fame an interactive experience.
For people with personality disorders, old grudges, or simply boredom and free time, it’s a “virtual playground” built by Silicon Valley giants eager to take advantage of the human need for regard of any kind. Most of us are looking for positive reinforcement when we interact online. But it doesn’t take a psychopath to confuse attention of any kind for affection, even if it’s negative.
Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.
Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III