Internet trolls can't help themselves

Why does anonymity and an audience bring out the absolute worst in people?

Published August 1, 2012 9:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

In the year that I wrote for a blog about Brooklyn real estate, I was regularly plagued by "trolls"--online commenters who write inflammatory or derisive things in public forums, hoping to provoke an emotional response. These commenters called me, and one another, everything from stupid to racist, or sometimes stupid racists. And that was just when I posted the menu of a new café.
The most infamous and offensive of these commenters was a man (we assumed) who called himself "The What." His remarks ranged from insults to threats. "I know where you live and I'm coming for you and your family," he once wrote. The intrigue around The What's identity warranted a cover story in New York magazine. What kind of person would spend so much time, and so much energy, engaging in virtual hate?

The consensus among sociologists and psychologists who study online behavior is that all kinds of people can become trolls--not just the unwound, the immature or the irate. See your perfectly pleasant work neighbor, furiously typing next to you? He might be trolling an Internet site right now.

"Most people who troll are people who are just like you and me, but just a bit more intense," says Olivier Morin, a cultural anthropologist who has written about trolling.

One website breaks trolls into categories: the hater, the moral crusader, the debunker, the defender. But trolls might not retain those qualities in real life. It's just that the Internet's anonymity makes it impossible for them to resist spewing vitriol from the protective cave of cyberspace. Psychologists call it the "disinhibition effect," in which "the frequency of self-interested unethical behavior increases among anonymous people." Non-academics refer to it as "John Gabriel's Greater Internet F-wad Theory": the combination of anonymity and an audience brings out the absolute worst in people.

"Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity--a process called de-individuation--we are less likely to stick to social norms," wrote Michael Marshall in New Scientist. "The same thing happens with online communication...Psychologically, we are 'distant' from the person we're talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we're more prone to aggressive behavior."

Online disinhibition ranges from benign--oversharing of personal information--to toxic, virtual hit-and-runs in which you call writers stupid racists, or in which you write in response to the shootings in Colorado: "What kind of idiot parent brings their 3-month-old to a midnight movie. Morans." Hey, no one ever said you had to be a good speller to be mean.

Only a psychotic person, incapable of empathy, or someone perpetually engulfed by rage, would say such things in public. But people feel alone when they're typing on a computer, even if they're in a public "place" like a chat room on Facebook or the comments section of an article. MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls this "being alone together"; the Internet causes "emotional dislocation," so we forget about the together part.

Anonymous, unethical behavior started way before the Internet, of course. Plato wrote of the ring of Gyges, which bestowed the gift/curse of invisibility, leading men to thieve. Who wouldn't swipe stuff if he knew he couldn't get caught? Well, said Plato: no one.

But we're not talking about thieving anymore. We're talking about cyber bullying that leads to teen suicides, and trolls that leave photographs of nooses on tribute pages to those dead teens. "Trolling normalizes abuse, and that's what's frightening," says Morin.

Online anonymity creates a sense of a culture without consequences. Think of that tween who posted a video on YouTube of his own abuse of a 68-year-old bus monitor. The Internet limitlessly expands the possibilities for unkindness and waywardness and misbehavior (and, yeah, for community-building, too--Internet users raised $700,000 for that bus monitor, and now she's retiring). Lots of folks who would never step foot in a whorehouse happily watch Internet porn.

Anonymous comments once embodied the promise of the Internet, the supposed democracy of the place, and their defenders say that privacy is what we must prize the most. But I'm not sure donning an alternate identity, hiding behind a screen, is the same thing as privacy. There is a movement to eradicate, or at least reduce, anonymous commenting in the hopes that it will seal up this space between our lives, online and off. Many sites require readers to log in through social media to comment, so that they are, in theory, linked to their real-life selves.

Personally, I resist such cross log-ins. I'm not much of a commenter myself, save for when the New York Times covered the controversy at my local food co-op over whether or not to carry six Israeli-made products. And all I said was: Why is this story in the New York Times? (It turns out that a disproportionate number of New York Times employees shop there, and thus were under the mistaken impression that this constituted news.) But I don't necessarily want all my Facebook friends to read that comment. That was, I hoped, for the Times' editorial staff.

One of the strangest things about the commenters from that Brooklyn blog was that many of them had in-person relationships. They held regular meetups in local bars, attaching a face, if not their real names, to their screen personas. And for a few days after these gatherings, the comments would be less vitriolic, as if the civility of the evening leaked onto the virtual pages of our site.

Did The What ever attend, skulk in the background and sip brandy while watching the blog devotees socialize? He could have been anyone, of any race or either sex. But he never attached a face to his online name.

Perhaps, like a lot of people, The What simply wanted to articulate his worldview. You can't ask why trolls do what they do without asking why people argue in general, and people do that, says Morin, because they want to assert their own rectitude. "They really want to be right, and prove a point," says Morin. "And the magic of the Internet does the rest."

By Lisa Selin Davis

Lisa Selin Davis is the author of "Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different" (Hachette Go; August 11, 2020). She is an essayist, novelist, journalist who has written for major publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Time, Yahoo, and Salon, among many others. She lives with her family in New York.

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Alternet Psychology The Internet The New York Times Trolls