We hate Internet trolls. But should we be helping them?

by Grace Boey

Sad_troll_by_alexichabane-d6a7e5oLately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Internet trolls. I’d always been vaguely aware of their presence, and had read some articles here and there about the threats they pose to constructive debate—but I never truly realized the full nature of their pestilence until I had to deal with them myself. Since I started publicly writing and commenting online, I’ve encountered abusive, non-constructive comments and emails on an increasingly frequent basis. I also co-manage an atheist social media page; I’m not the direct target of the trolls that lurk here, thankfully, but I do have to trawl through their vile comments, where they often abusively attack (or embarrass) causes I care about deeply.

Naturally, none of this has been good for my blood pressure. Last month, I became irritated enough to start work on a long exposition of online trolling—in the process, targeting specific trolls I’d personally encountered. Yes, hell hath no fury like a woman trolled, and I spent more time than I’d care to admit compiling comprehensive records of at least three of these individuals’ online activities. I even uncovered the physical, non-virtual identity of one of them.

You’d think I’d be happy for striking troll-hunter’s gold. Yet, the more I wrote and uncovered, the less I wanted to publish a piece bashing trolldom in general, let alone one that put specific individuals on the spot. Though I was pleased with the quality of the article, I refrained from running it. And very fortunately so—a couple of weeks after the piece would have been published, the Brenda Leyland troll-exposing controversy erupted.

Here’s what I've come to think: there’s very strong reason to believe that many compulsive Internet trolls need our active help. The impersonality of the internet makes it easy for them to dehumanize others, but for this same reason, it’s also easy for us to completely dehumanize them. But we must resist this temptation. Who are the people behind these monikers and computer screens, really? Why do they thrive on trolling, and why on earth don't they have anything better to do? How did they become this way? When we really stop to think about these questions, a disturbing social and psychological picture emerges. Virtual trolls may be a problem as much to their human selves as they are to their human victims.

Humanizing the troll

Of what trolls do I speak? As Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse note, online trolls come in many shapes and sizes. But the trolls they (and I) are concerned with are those who “dominate discussions with overblown objections and personal attacks, who seem immune to criticism, and who thereby derail Internet argument.” Such trolls “thrive on the negative reactions they elicit”, and “responding to them and defending your view causes them to become even more unhinged. Trolls are a cross-cultural phenomenon, and a brief look at Wikipedia reveals some gems about trolldom around the world:

In Chinese, trolling is referred to as … bái làn ( … literally: “white rot”), which describes a post completely nonsensical and full of folly made to upset others, and derives from a Taiwanese slang term for the male genitalia, where genitalia that is pale white in colour represents that someone is young, and thus foolish. …

In Portuguese … pombos enxadristas (literally, “chessplayer pigeons”) or simply pombos are the terms used to name the trolls. The terms are explained by an adage or popular saying: “Arguing with fulano (i.e., John Doe) is the same as playing chess with a pigeon: the pigeon defecates on the table, drops the pieces and simply fly, claiming victory.”

Much of the discourse on trolls so far has focused on the following: how should we minimize their negative effects on us? How should we react (or not react) to those who seek to aggravate, letting them wreak as little destruction on our constructive discussion as possible? The general consensus on these questions seems to be ‘don’t feed the trolls’, and it is important that this message should continue to be spread. However, comparatively little has been done to address the issue that many of these people are probably in great need of help themselves—especially ones with significant histories of trolling behaviour.

We sometimes touch upon his when we shake our heads in despair at a troll, saying, “I feel so sorry for you.” This sentiment is often sincere, yet snarkily expressed: genuine pity for the troll is conveyed, but brushing them off as low-lifes usually has the primary function of helping us feel better about ourselves. Most of the time, we move on after this momentary shudder. But when one really stops to think about it—what it must feel like to be the kind of person who lurks anonymously behind a screen, compulsively making petty and abusive comments, and what must have happened to such a person to make them that way—it seems we may need to take our pity more seriously.

Starting on an anecdotal level, many of the persistent trolls I’ve observed have troubled personal lives. It may take some digging through past comments to find references to the relevant events, but they’re there. Such people inadvertently reveal deep insecurities, or unresolved emotions, by projecting them onto whoever or whatever they attack. They may, for example, be insecure about not having successfully completed some level of higher education, and reflect this through a pattern of attacking the intelligence of qualified writers for (real or perceived) minor grammatical errors, and perceived character flaws like pride. Insecurities like these may explain why trolls often hold their targets to high standards of argument and conduct, while (unwittingly) not meeting these standards themselves.

Yet another scenario I frequently witness is this: male trolls who are bitter over failed relationships with women, reflecting their feelings through a pattern of sexist, anti-feminist attacks on female writers and commenters. This happens even when the original topic has nothing to do with gender or feminism.

There’s also the question of why someone would choose to troll virtually and anonymously, rather than personally. Ostensibly, many trolls choose a virtual platform for their bad behaviour as they are unable, or unwilling, to express these unhealthy urges in in the flesh. This may stem from a few possible reasons—such people may be embarrassed or repressed, or perhaps simply driven into seclusion after being rejected for similar behaviour in person. They may be socially isolated, have few meaningful in-person relationships, or they may be suppressing some pent-up part on themselves in front of friends. They may be building a fantasy persona online, to escape problems they're unable to cope with in real life.

Troll psychiatry

Recent, more academic discussions have linked online trolling to psychiatric illness—in particular, personality disorders. Individuals with personality disorders don't experience human relationships and emotions the same way others do; in many ways, they're missing out on many things that healthy people value most in life. In a recent study, psychologists from the University of Manitoba found that online trolling behaviour correlates strongly with diagnostic markers of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavelianism, and most strongly, sadism. Cyber-trolling, they concluded, seems to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism. It has also been argued that flame trolling activities share a number of similarities with the diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder. Given the commonalities between people with personality disorders and Internet trolls, it's no big surprise that the advice to their victims is identical: don't engage.

Treating personality disorders is difficult, but there's good reason to think that troll psychiatry extends beyond this category of illness. The mental disorder linked with sadism—sadistic personality disorder—shares high comorbidity with other psychiatric conditions, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. And for what it’s worth, two out of the three trolls I personally looked up had a history of psychiatric mood disorders. Quite imaginably, cyber-trolling may be related to a whole host of other psychiatric and psychological problems: Internet addiction seems like a strong possibility, as does isolation and depression from severe social anxiety. Trolling may stem from persistent boredom, or lack of meaningful activities in the troll’s life. Bad online behaviour may also be compulsive—like pathological liars, some trolls may simply not know how to stop.

That cyber-trolling should be related to mental illness is no big surprise. Changes in our social landscape create new ways for mental disorder to express itself—and the Internet, growing in its social pervasiveness, is a natural playground. (This is true for online behaviour other than trolling: psychiatrists are now saying that compulsively taking selfies and posting them on social media may be indicative of body dysmorphic disorder.) We should want to help these people we see online—for their own sakes and not just ours—to the same degree we want to help people in real life who display similar symptoms. These unpleasant online entities, after all, are just that—real-life people with issues—and it’s easy to forget this when interaction is mediated by computer screens.

Helping the cyber-troll

So, how should we go about helping the Internet troll? Here’s one method I'm skeptical of: victims of trolling attempting to reach out to their troll attackers. There have been instances of people doing this successfully: Cambridge professor Mary Beard, for example, has even befriended some of her previous abusers (including one who called her a ‘filthy old slut’). But realistically, few people have the emotional intelligence, patience or benevolence required not to botch the job. And more importantly, it’s also unfair to place the responsibility of solving trolling onto the trolled—it’s somewhat akin to asking a victim of stalking to reach out to his obsessive harrasser. We certainly aren't under any personal obligation to help our haters.

Rather than looking for answers in the troll-trolled relationship, it makes sense to view the phenomenon similarly to how we view the social, psychological and psychiatric issues that seem to be related to it. This means that public, organized outreach efforts on a society-wide level would be helpful. It also means that individuals should keep an eye out for friends and family who seem to spend a lot of time online, compulsively engaging in troll-like behaviour, and extend support to them where needed—just as we’d do for loved ones we suspect are slipping into depression. Much more awareness needs to be raised of trolling as being indicative of deeper personal issues, and this may even encourage people to seek help for their own unwholsome online behaviour that's gotten out of control.

If these recommendations seem vague and tentative, it’s because so little research has been done into the relevant aspects of trolldom that might help us help them. This brings us to the next thing that needs to be done: research. Many bits of this piece have been general and speculative—inevitably so, given the lack of rigorous data we have on trolls. All that can be concluded from the information on hand, really, is that there’s strong reason to think that trolls need our help, and quite a lot of it too. More research studies like the Manitoba investigation need to be done. We need to take further steps to find out who exactly these people are, discover the reasons for why they do what they do, compile any co-morbidity rates and relationships with other mental disorders, and develop effective treatment options for those who need help.

Not all trolls will need our help. Ostensibly, some trolls are just assholes, which is all there’ll ever be to it. And sometimes abusive behaviour stems from a mix of simple ignorance and thoughtlessness; all it takes is a little nudge for some people to properly recognize just how harmful their behaviour is. But from what I can tell, a great number of trolls seem to need help rebuilding some part of themselves and their lives.

Imagining these vicious people grumbling behind their computer screens sometimes reminds me of the cave trolls in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt—creatures who luxuriate blindly in squalor, representing the depths we may fall to if we neglect our task of realizing our full human potential. The Internet continues to change the ways in which we live and relate to others, and constantly opens up new ways for people to trap themselves in sub-humanity. Compulsive trolls only play at goals that the rest of humanity finds fulfilling, like solution-seeking, constructive debate, and meaningful social interaction. Perhaps it’s time to take our pity for trolls seriously, and take a good look into how we can extend a helping hand.

Illustration courtesy of Alexi Chabane.