This document is meant to familiarize moderators and admins of online communities with the basic characteristics and psychological profiles of Trolls, and to define the term so that it is not overused in conjunction with other types of aggression. I will also make recommendations on how to handle trolls and trolling if it occurs and provide a risk assessment.
Trolling* is online aggression meant to cause as much disruption and reaction as possible. It is usually hit and run (short term), and is often not tied to the troll’s personal beliefs or experiences (at least consciously).
Trolls are people who engage persistently in trolling. They often use violent language and imagery, as the goal is to create as extreme a reaction in viewers as possible. This is referred to as “LOLZ”. As in the 4chan troll group, they sometimes congregate online to compare their activities. Trolling, like other violent acts, is a performance of power.
*This term, like many that describe online behavior is new, imprecise, and subject to overuse. I provide it in order to create a psychological profile and behaviors for which to be on the lookout.
Trolling is not:
- Online aggressive behavior in general
- Conflict or arguing around specific issues or ideas, unless the instigator is making extreme claims, using violent language, and is generally not associated with the group in which he or she is making those claims.
- Differences in opinion
- Bigotry, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, or other forms of bias and prejudice. Trolls may invoke these types of aggression to get a reaction, but they are not by themselves signs of trolling.
Trolling is an antisocial behavior. It demonstrates an inability to empathize and a tendency to objectify others – to see other people as objects to manipulate rather than people to relate to. One thing to keep in mind – children and adolescents often display antisocial behaviors because they are cognitively unable to truly empathize yet.
To some extent, trolling is also a matter of degree. All humans engage in these behaviors at some point, at some level. Schadenfreude (joy in the pain of others) is typical in the online environment. While not the most mature response to stressful feelings, it does not indicate psychopathy.
Indications of troll/trolling:
- Anonymous handle, impersonation of others, fake or blank profile
- Violent and sexually violent language
- Extreme profanity and derogatory, taboo language
- Extremely prejudicial (racist, sexist, homophobic, sizeist)language
What to do if you experience trolling:
- Screenshot and save ALL material from the troll.
- Follow links to profile and screenshot and save.
- If the content contains direct threats, report to the police.
- A direct threat is “I will kill you,” but not “I wish someone would kill you.” Direct threats of physical or sexual violence are illegal. Both are hate speech if they directly mention a minority group.
- The police may or may not take reports of this nature seriously, but it is important to have a report on record if an incident occurs, or if we wish to take legal action.
- Report to the Southern Poverty Law Center here: https://www.splcenter.org/reporthate
- Report the incident to the admins.
- You may need psychological support if the incident is triggering or upsetting. Trolls use triggering language on purpose. Be sure you have access to mental health resources, or ask for help finding some.
Additional Resources on Trolling
Whitney Phillips is a researcher who has written many articles and an excellent book on trolling as a social phenomenon.
Don’t feed the trolls? It’s not that simple.
Comment moderation and the (anti) social web.
Podcast about Phillips’ book, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
It’s time to search for the troll inside you. – article on the psychology of trolling by psychologist and researcher, Aaron Balick