What motivates internet trolls and how to deal with their vile

Worried about being the victim of internet trolls? Learn how to deal with it when targeted and how to stay safe online.

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Trolling is about intentionally setting out to hurt or harm others using the cloak of anonymity offered by social media platforms. Trolling is recognised as deliberately inflicting hatred, bigotry, racism or misogyny. Individuals who engage in trolling are referred to as ‘trolls’. Trolling becomes dangerous when they find vulnerable people to target. It is slightly different to cyberbullying as they are not necessarily targeting an individual in the initial attack but are usually throwing out abusive statements hoping to reel in people who fall for their bait. People who take the bait are seen as fair game by trolls.  

People engaged in trolling are not interested in rational debate. There can be a case to be made for anonymous debate on online forums. That, of course, could be considered consistent with the principles of free speech in a free society and could also be viewed as fun. Indeed, we need to be careful not to view perceived 'rude speech', or views we disagree with, as a case for moral panic and to think about tearing down some of free society’s most cherished assets derived from free and open discussion in a public setting. Trolling is different to engaging with robust debate with your critics. It involves setting out to specifically target people with the intention of harming and undermining another user and to cause chaos and to incite a reaction.

Trolling involves a form of deindividuation since it releases an individual’s impulses under the cloak of anonymity and temporary identity loss. This psychological state can also be seen in other areas of interpersonal relations such as gaming, role-playing and crowd behaviour (such as football hooliganism, for example). Victims are not seen as people with names and members of families with similar concerns and worries but as objects to be derided and abused.

Trolling can also be viewed as being motivated by envy and jealousy. The anonymity of the internet can be a way of individuals expressing their personal frustrations with their lot in life. They gain a form of perverse satisfaction in expressing hate at objects of desire, such as fashion models, sports stars, celebrities, wealthy people and high achievers.  It can breed narcissistic behaviour, which can be defined as an obsessive interest in your own appearance, extreme selfishness and a craving to be admired by others.

There needs to be more robust research into the role of trolling in society in order to better understand the motives underlying the behaviour. However, some research findings so far would indicate that those individuals motivated by trolling share some similarities with sadists as they appear to enjoy harming and intimidating people.  Some might also have some symptoms consistent with psychopathy (particularly a lack of empathy or remorse as well as antisocial behaviour). 

The link between psychopathy and cognitive empathy could be a lethal cocktail as those engaging in trolling can quickly realise when they have got the reaction when pressing another’s buttons of vulnerability.

Trolling can be seen as a status-enhancing activity as they feel more important when they attract the attention of other readers or when they spark debate on social media platforms. They may even feel more important in that moment than they do in their so-called real life where they might struggle with personal relationships and with the challenges of occupational hierarchy.

Trolling can have a powerful effect on victims, particularly vulnerable people prone to anxiety and depression. The activity can have a long lasting impact on an individual’s ability to trust others and to display vulnerability in a public setting. There are also third party victims, people who witness their vile comments towards others on forums, for example.

What you can do to deal with internet trolls

Trolls are perpetrators and will induce in their targets a temptation to feel the victim. Avoid that temptation as any visible display of suffering might make them think they are winning. Perpetrators like to feel in control so the best thing to do is to ignore them. They might quickly lose interest if they don't achieve the desired result. You could also seek to make light of the offending comments, if it is deemed appropriate to do so.

The advantages of dealing with online anti-social behaviour over offline behaviour is that you can use technology to tackle them.  Effective steps could involve disabling anonymous posting in comments sections. The trouble with this option, however, is while you're preventing trolls in the first place, you’re also preventing discussions among your online community. You could also consider moderating comments, banning offenders and reporting the worst offenders to the authorities (Persons engaging in internet trolling are potentially committing an offence under the Malicious Communications Act).

Fear of judgement can make us do things we would not do when in company. Anonymous internet usage can motivate the worst aspect of human nature. It can allow an expression of personality that is held in check by social etiquette and rules. 

We are over 20 years into the world wide web experiment and are playing catch-up when it comes to detecting and dealing with anti-social behaviour online. Over the past decade, the very nature of the way we relate to each other has been massively transformed by online social networking and the mobile technologies that offer unfettered access to it. There are now more reporting tools on social media platforms and perhaps a need for a continuing debate about the role and responsibilities of the tech companies as well as governments.

In addition to taking practical steps to stay safe online it is also important to remember that your online profile is just a part of your whole self. A troll does not know your whole self and can't access your inner core in spite of repeated attacks and abuse.


Noel Bell

I have spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. I am integrative in my approach and tune my work to the uniqueness of each individual I work with.