In Real Life

The Worst Internet Trolls Might Be Mentally Ill

So, this billy goat goes trip-trapping across a bridge. As he clops along, he hears a voice from down below: “Roar! I am a troll! If you cross this bridge, I’ll gobble you up!” The goat is kinda freaked out, since, you know, god only knows what’s down there in the dark.

“Er, why would you eat me?” the goat asks. “I’m small and not very meaty! You might want to wait for my older brother. He’ll be along shortly.”

“Nah, it doesn’t really matter,” says the troll. “I’m not actually going to eat you. I’m not even a troll, I’m just this guy. I work in accounting at an insurance company. Sometimes I go under this bridge and mess with people, pretend to be a monster or whatever. I do it to everyone.”

Internet trolling — the act of writing deliberately provocative or hurtful things on message boards and social media — seems to be everywhere these days, from the rampant online abuse hurled at Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist kickstarter campaign to the Xbox Live insults chronicled at Fat, Ugly or Slutty to, well, more mundane things seen on video game message boards, Reddit, and in some of the sillier comments we get here at Kotaku.

A new article at news.com.au talks with a few trolls, as well as a couple of psychologists, the latter of whom float the idea that trolling, particularly extreme trolling, is as much about mental illness as it is about social maladjustment.

A troll who goes by “Ben” in the article has gotten into some troubling stuff:

“It just makes me happy when I can make someone angry. It sounds weird but I kind of feed off their anger. The angrier I can get them, the better I feel,” he told news.com.au.

He usually only trolls a post or website once before moving, not out of any sense of decency, but because he is scared of being arrested.

He said the worst thing he ever did was vandalise the Facebook memorial page of a young girl who had committed suicide. “I wrote, ‘How’s it hanging guys’.”

He doesn’t feel any remorse, and strangely doesn’t consider his actions bullying despite claiming he probably wouldn’t have started trolling if he had not been bullied at school.

Trolling like this is often shrugged off as “online disinhibition effect” — the moment people aren’t held accountable for what they say, they start to say horrible things. This phenomenon is more popularly referred to as the “Greater Internet F***wad Theory” as coined by the webcomic Penny Arcade, seen in this comic:

While it’s easy to just say, “People suck! Here’s another example of how,” extreme trolling (like, say, writing hurtful jokes on the Facebook page of a girl who killed herself) may be a sign of more serious emotional trouble. Among those interviewed for the news.com.au article is psychologist Karyn Krawford, who says that some kinds of hardcore trolling may signify mental illness. Krawford says that she’s done studies that demonstrate that the longer the mentally ill spend online, the more their empathy decreases.

“This lack of empathy caused people to become emotionally immune and desensitised to images they’re not seeing in real life,” she said.

In one study, subjects displayed a complete lack of empathy when shown images of people dying. “They couldn’t see how much that person was hurting; they couldn’t see the cut off arm or the pain and distress and terror.

“As a consequence they were able to make these remarks and express these bullying type behaviours.”

Interestingly, both of the trolls in the News.com article attribute their behaviour to being bullied as kids — both claim to have been pushed around when they were younger, and both say that they carry anger around with them as a result. The spectre of childhood bullying looms large over a lot of online hostility, and is frequently invoked as justification for all manner of internet behaviour. A high-profile example that comes to mind is the Ocean Marketing/Penny Arcade beatdown, where a weirdo marketing representative bullied a customer who then (successfully) called the games media to bully the bullier.

Another troll featured in the article is a woman who relentlessly harassed another woman who had posted on the mum blog BabyMama.org. The troll went so far as to download and save revealing images that her target had posted to the blog, then upload them to a separate Facebook page after her target had removed them from the site. “I randomly targeted a lady for no reason, humiliated her for no reason” the troll confesses. “Looking back now it was petty. I’m one of those remorseful trolls, I suppose.”

Not all trolls are mentally disturbed, of course — some are just immature, or bored, and some competitive gamers troll to lower their opponents’ morale. Kotaku ran an open Q&A with a teenager who regularly trolls people on Xbox Live. He said he has fun messing with people, but also does it to win: “I do this for entertainment or for strategic purposes. For example, if you’re playing angry, you’re not playing well. I use this to my advantage.”

People do all sorts of things on the internet for all sorts of reasons, but it’s not a huge surprise to hear that the most extreme and disconnected among them aren’t just jerks — they have real mental and emotional problems. One more reason, I suppose, not to feed the trolls.

‘It just makes me happy when I can make someone angry’ – A special investigation into the dark world of trolling [news.com.au via Roger Ebert]