Online trolls are just “everyday sadists,” according to new paper

February 12, 2014

In yet another instance of science belatedly confirming what common sense has already told us, a new paper from researchers at three Canadian universities concludes that Internet trolls aren’t just mean — they’re sadists and psychopaths.

This black-and-white illustration, called “troll face,” is often pasted in forums to celebrate when someone’s been trolled. (Memegenerator.net)

The paper, published last week in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, surveyed a group of several hundred on their Internet behaviors and personal traits. It found that trolling correlated with higher rates of sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, a certain lack of scruples when it comes to deceiving or manipulating other people.

“… it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists,” the paper rules.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been “trolled” online before. For those of you that have not, know first that you are living a blessed existence — and second, that online “trolls” are frequently anonymous people who provoke discord and discomfort online, often just because they can. (This Know Your Meme post sums the “subculture” up pretty well.)

Trolling has grown to encompass many behaviors since this usage was first coined on Usenet in the late-’80s and early-’90s, but it’s always been identified as an online behavior; in fact, trolling is not infrequently blamed on the infrastructure of forums and comment sections, which often allow users to post anonymously, without moderation. (“…the internet created an age of rage,” asserts one Guardian headline.) That has many people in media rethinking how these forums should work.

“As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide,” Popular Science editor Suzanne LaBarre wrote in September, explaining the magazine’s decision to cut its comment section. “The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”

But the intriguing thing about this new study by researchers from University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg and University of British Columbia is the idea that trolling behavior springs not from the opportunity provided by the Internet, but from innate characteristics people possess both online and off.

That bodes poorly for efforts to tame the trolls. It also suggests, somewhat ominously, that there are lots of “everyday sadists among us.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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