Chris Mooney at Slate reports on some actual psychological research that has been done on Internet trolls:
[R]esearch, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).
The result? Definite correlations. And this is amusing as well:
What’s more, it [the research] also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet.
So, if you’re a troll, maybe you’re not just a contrarian. Maybe you’re also a sadistic and Machiavellian psychopath. Just saying.
And here’s how Mooney’s article concludes:
Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” they wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”
The study comes as websites, particularly at major media outlets, are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior. Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.
But study author Buckels actually isn’t sure that fix is a realistic one. “Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users),” she said by email. “Ultimately, the allure of trolling may be too strong for sadists, who presumably have limited opportunities to express their sadistic interests in a socially-desirable manner.”
I wonder if whole websites can be identified, in this context, as trolling sites. I’m thinking, for example, of the intelligent design website, Uncommon Descent. Its typical post features some combination of feigned outrage, incredulity, mockery, or snark directed at mainstream science, individual scientists, or atheists designed to get a (usually unwarranted) rise out of people. The post writers tend to be shocked–shocked!–that anyone could actually take Charles Darwin and naturalism seriously. And, of course, the site’s working assumption is that, at the top of mainstream science’s food chain, are blind, corrupt, and authoritarian scientists and professors vested in keeping from the general public the truth (which is that their disciplines are in epistemic chaos because they don’t take into account all the evidence right in front of them that God exists and directs history). Uncommon Descent’s preferred rhetorical stance is thus to be incorrigible, like the Southern politician (dug in; proudly impervious to proportion or common sense; apologetically armored against all outsiders). If researchers did a study of such websites, would they find the people who started them scoring high on Dark Tetrad traits?
And then, of course, there is the trolling politician. This would be the person who doesn’t seriously believe half of what he says, but loves to put on a straight face, stand before cameras, and say things he knows will raise a shit storm. Doing this is delightful to him–it’s what he lives for–though he never shows this delight in public. Ted Cruz comes immediately to mind.
Of course, we need contrarians–thank goodness for them! And we need critical thinkers, and people who will speak up when they notice incoherence. But the troll only plays at being these people. The troll is actually in bad faith, looking for any route into an argument, however strained, that will direct pain to others. The troll is Iago-like. The pain is most important, not the truth.
To do a bit of armchair psychoanalyzing, I think the typical troll is in pain himself, and is striking back at a pain that he–and it’s usually a “he”–felt directly in childhood. The targets of a troll are people like the people who caused the troll pain. For example, my guess is that Ted Cruz felt the pain, at a young age, of a liberal who ridiculed the sort of right-wing political fundamentalism Cruz grew up in, and now, with his Harvard degree and position of power, Cruz means to use his gifts to bring pain and inconvenience to liberals everywhere, no matter how gratuitous. It’s his mission in life, and his pleasure, to get back at that childhood nemesis by being a political troll today. And obviously, there are a lot of people who share Cruz’s resentments–and know the same pain–and will cheer him on wherever he manages to turn the tables. Rush Limbaugh runs on the same troll energy.
How does one stop breeding and feeding trolls?