Trolls: Warping the Internet into a Sadist’s Playground

Trolls: Warping the Internet into a Sadist’s Playground September 29, 2017

I know this might sound a bit naive, but bear with me. What is it in human nature that makes some people derive pleasure in others pain or discomfort? Why do some people only feel big when they make other people feel small? In short, what dark aspect of humanity turns people into trolls?

A cottage industry has sprung up around the attempt to understand trolls. As quoted in Alternet, the authors of one study put it:

“Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior,” study authors note. “Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism. Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an internet manifestation of everyday sadism… Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun… and the internet is their playground!

Trolls, like the poor, will always be with us. But is there any way to combat them?
Via David Herrera, CC BY-SA 2.0.

You won’t be surprised to learn that psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism were also widespread among the trolls in that study. (The researchers’ invocation of sadists in playgrounds triggers my own painful memories of being bullied as a child. But more on that later.)

I found myself contemplating the puzzle of trolling when a trollodyte invaded a recent Miracle Girl post. This creature accused one of my commenters  of harassing by email his son. Another commenter, “Baby_Raptor” vouched for “Mad Gastronomer’s” character, but added a nasty homophobic comment for not-so-good measure. I banned Baby_Raptor for a month with a warning, but didn’t know what to make of the accusations.

The mystery was cleared up the next day when I learned that a homophobic troll has crashed numerous Patheos Nonreligious blogs using faked IDs mimicking legitimate Disqus members. Among the spoofed accounts were those of Mad Gastronomer and Baby_Raptor.

A warning about trolls in a wildlife preserve.
A warning about trolls in a nature preserve. Via Keith Onstad.

I immediately banned it’s IP address from Miracle Girl. But I fully expect this slime to continue to haunt other blogs.

At times like this, I find the sensitive, bullied little girl I once was peeking out from under the decades of adult coping mechanisms, as the terror I experienced comes rushing back to me. Like clockwork, every day after elementary school, my personal troll would lay in wait for me to retrieve my bike.

Leroy stripped the gears of that bike. And beat me up every day. (You have to understand that I’ve always been extremely small.) The only time Leroy ever got in trouble was when he made the mistake of kicking me in the crotch during recess.

Hell yes I told a teacher. But I paid for it later. This budding psychopath’s reign of terror only ended when we moved. My condolences to whoever took my place as Leroy’s designated victim.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Leroy’s kids grew up to be trolls, assuming he was ever released from whatever prison he no doubt wound up in. The asshat doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The question is, should we be grateful that the Leroys of the world now have an online outlet that “only” inflicts psychological pain instead of the physical kind?

Trolls, Like the Poor, Will Always Be With Us

The internet didn’t create the ugly impulses that drive trolls, but it created a novel way to express them. Every advance in communication technology seems to be accompanied by those who get their jollies from abusing it to harass the innocent.

Telephones were soon followed by crank callers. And these weren’t all of the harmlessly juvenile, Bart Simpson variety.

Imagine the terror of a rape survivor receiving a heavy breather call.

Probably, telegraphs were commandeered by trolls in knee pants. Were smoke signals used to puff out rude messages? How far back in time do you think trolling goes?

Were the vaginas etched on cave walls actually the work of Cro-Magnon trolls? Imagine the generations of paleoanthropologists debating whether these vaginas were related to fertility or merely paleolithic porn, when they were actually intended to be crude insults.

Trolls, like the poor, will always be with us. But is there any way to combat them?
Via Herzi Pinki, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Okay, I’m getting snarky here. But there is a serious point to make. Something in humanity drives the need to cause humiliation, disgust, anger, or fear in others. These impulses predate any means of expression.

The internet provides a unique opportunity to abuse complete strangers, with little chance of retribution. Yet it isn’t a victimless crime. Vulnerable people — especially kids and teenagers — have been driven to suicide by cruel trolls.

Still, humans are by nature a social species. Yes, even loners. As soon as the internet truly became a World Wide Web, people immediately gravitated to chat rooms, list servers, and the proliferating forms of today’s social media landscape.

The web is an incredibly powerful means of connection. I have dear friends across the country — and even spanning oceans — that I’ve never met. My life would be poorer if I had never come to know them.

Are we agreed that the pluses of the internet far outweigh its negatives, then? Well, you are reading this particular collection of internet-based pixels….

So, what can we do to combat trolls, in an age when a schoolyard bully occupies the White House? You can block all them you want but trolls are like the hydra of Greek mythology. If you cut off their heads, two grow back.

The web will never be free of trolls, so you have to take the good of the web with the repulsive. Yet, psychologists seem to agree with the conventional wisdom about these cyberspace sadists: Trolls live for your anger, but die from being ignored.

In other words the best advice is still…Don’t Feed the Trolls!

Don't feed the trolls!
Via Josh Wedin, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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