The Pathology Of A Troll: Who Internet Trolls Are And What That Tell Us About Emotional Degeneration
By Mel Francis, Associate Elect at Lighthouse International
What Happens When People Do Not Grow And Develop, But Have an Internet Connection
When I was growing up, a troll was an ugly doll with big eyes and hair that you could comb into a point. A movie called “Trolls” released in 2016 depicts this troll doll design animated into colourful, funny characters who, I presume, have some sort of adventure (I haven’t seen it myself). Now, however, the word troll does not have a cheery intonation to me or remind me of Three Billy Goats Gruff with a troll wanting to eat the goats that crossed his bridge. No. Now, I think about the dark side of humanity, the side that a lot of people go “just ignore it”, I think of the harm that is inflicted on innocent people every day by one of the most dangerous, pernicious and mentally unwell type of person – the internet troll.
More and more research has been emerging over the last few years, confirming who these seemingly elusive people are. This article will aim to walk you through more of what a troll is, some of the ways in which these destructive bullies developed, or rather didn’t. This is with the aim of educating and addressing the underlying causes of the destruction caused by trolls and the devastation caused to the families of adults and children alike who have been driven to suicide as a result of the utterly merciless cruelty of online trolls. Until such time as the internet can be handled responsibly by every single one of its users, we must be all the more responsible with how we handle ourselves and others online and hold them accountable to their actions as we would do in real life. Because, after all, there is no such thing as hiding behind a screen, a crime is a crime and everyone ought to be held responsible for their actions, whether it takes place physically or virtually.
Who Are Trolls?
I was going to title this next section “What is a troll?”, but I feel it important to remember that trolls are human beings. They have heartbeats, they eat, sleep, go to the loo, just like anyone else. They have a level of proficiency with language and have access to a mobile, tablet or computer to access the internet. They have the same human endowments as the rest of us, they are able to make choices, they are able to think, they are able to string a sentence together. What makes a person a troll is the series of unhealthy choices which serves to quell their own feelings of inadequacy or unimportance. These feelings have their genesis in a lack of love, either through abuse, narcissistic damage, narcissistic feeding or neglect.
The Pathology of a Troll: The Dark Triad
A study at Brigham Young University found that “individuals with dark triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism & psychopathy) combined with schadenfreude – a German word meaning that one derives pleasure from another’s misfortune – were more likely to demonstrate trolling behaviors.” That is to say that these traits exist in people who do not troll, but trolling behaviour will be born out of these unhealthy, dark and pernicious character traits.
Simply defined, these traits are as follows:
Narcissism – an obsession with self, either partially obsessed or totally obsessed. Someone who is totally obsessed with self is a malignant narcissist. A malignant narcissist is someone with total self-obsession. Nothing is ever done for another, except through the paradigm of their own self-obsession. Their main paradigm is them. You can see the narcissism in everyone to varying degrees.
Machiavellianism – a personality trait that denotes cunningness, the ability to be manipulative, and a drive to use whatever means necessary to gain power. So named after the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli in the 16th century who wrote widely advising rulers to employ fear, intimidation and manipulation in their authority and leadership.
Psychopathy – a pathology characterised by a lack of empathy continuous antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, callous and unemotional traits and remorselessness.  Psychopathy falls on a continuum opposite to empathy, where the less empathic someone is, the more psychopathic they are and vice versa.
Jennifer Golbeck PhD writes “Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response”. And the response they seek is only to narcissistically feed on other people, that is to say, engage with other people for the sole purpose of feeding their own sense of self.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! – Isaiah 5:20 ESV
Trolls Enjoy Hurting People
Interestingly, some studies seem to show that the dark triad of emotions may have a genetic component, that is to say the predisposition is in our genes, not just in our environments and what we are exposed to as children. What is clear is that, for whatever reason, a person who possesses these character traits is a deeply unhealthy person who hurts other people and chooses trolling as a way of hurting people. In fact, research now shows that people who were involved in malevolent trolling, that is trolling that was deliberately aimed to hurt other people tested highly for “sadism” which is the enjoyment derived from what they were doing. So, not only do trolls deliberately aim to hurt people but research shows that they enjoy it too which is in keeping with the psychopathy and schadenfreude character traits.
No Such Thing as Righteous Trolling
Whether one is theistic or not, when looking at the pathology of a troll, it is clear that this is not a person who makes room to even entertain a genuinely contemplative relationship with anything greater than themselves, because they think they are a god in their own right. If a troll does claim to believe in God, their pathology indicates that the idea they have is self-serving if it justifies their behaviour which is objectively damaging or unlawful.
An article titled You Cannot Serve Both God and Internet Trolling by Christopher Benek addresses the online trolling that exists in certain Christian communities, people who misuse their faith to exalt themselves to write hateful things online, comforted by the idea of redemption. As Benek points out in his article, faith and nationalism can give trolls a feeling of entitlement when it comes to their trolling behaviour and enables them to justify it .
The dark triad of personality traits do not present themselves in a person who has taken their emotional and spiritual growth seriously and looks to God as the source of intelligence, love, wisdom and guidance. The very principles of these healthy things diametrically opposes the wickedness, depravity, iniquity and evil of trolls and their narcissism.
Ultimately, the opportunity exists for everyone to be able to redeem themselves for their wrongdoing by making their wrongs right, apologising and making it up to those whom they hurt with humility and sincerity. Although it may not always seem possible, there can be incredibly powerful opportunities for growth and change for a troll who is willing to take responsibility for themselves, whether they feel like they would like to do that through building a relationship with God through that or not.
This Isn’t Just About Commenting
In various conversations with friends and colleagues about internet trolling, I noticed there seems to be a preconceived notion that trolls are just anonymous accounts on Instagram or Twitter who write rude comments. Jimmy Kimmel, the late night talk show host in the USA even has a segment on his show, “Mean Tweets” in which celebrities read out mean tweets written about them. Videos of “Mean Tweets” have been viewed on YouTube over a quarter of a billion times as celebrities, actors, musicians and politicians make light of the cruel, rude but sometimes surprisingly funny comments people have made about them.
If it were left at that, we could perhaps agree that this was at most undesirable and may still require accountability where it went too far. But where it is pernicious and damaging is where the trolling behaviour extends to the creation of defamatory websites, smear campaigns, online crusades of libel and defamation across multiple platforms, harassment and even the sharing of private personal details about their target such as phone numbers, email addresses or home addresses, leaving their victims open to be targeted by other kinds of criminals online.
A Legal Example
The case of Phipps v Britton saw a web developer use his extensive knowledge of internet marketing, SEO and computing to set up a smear campaign against his former customer falsely accusing him of being a sex offender and a paedophile. Phipps won his case against the web developer Britton who was required to pay him substantial damages for his campaign which was anonymous, a campaign which he believed would never be traced back to him.
As with the degrees of narcissism can vary in a person, so can the extent of trolling behaviour vary. In this, I have not directly addressed where threats of physical harm, abuse, rape or murder are made by trolls quite simply as this breaches into extremely serious criminal conduct and should be reported to the police immediately.
**Please report to the police if you see online content of any kind which makes a threat of physical or sexual violence or a death threat**
How Do You Handle This Pathology?
When you know what traits underlie a troll, it becomes clear that this is a pattern of unhealthy behaviour. The hate you are getting isn’t about you or anything that you have done. Whatever the reason might be that you are the target of a troll, it’s more about what significance they can derive from hating you than it is actually about you. You will not be able to reason with them. You must resist the temptation to want to set the record straight or call out their unhealthy pathology because you are spiralling into a circular argument, or for a troll, a feeding frenzy.
The advice given by some police constabularies is to not respond to the troll, block them, speak to someone and report the user on a given platform. These are all good actions to take, but you may find that depending on the nature of the viciousness of the person attacking you, you may wish to report it to the police to launch an investigation into the troll or series of trolls if they have been able to recruit one another against you, this is called “dogpiling”.
If your business is likely to be affected by trolling, either due to incurring legal costs to apprehend trolls or because the trolling has caused defamation or reputational damage, please seek legal advice about how to identify and hold those who have damaged your business responsible. If you would like to hear about Lighthouse International’s experience apprehending online trolls and how this is being used as an opportunity to teach about what we have learned about this unhealthy pathology as well as coach and counsel people through the damage caused by that pathology, please do get in touch with us.
My fellow associate and friend recently wrote a very moving article about the devastating consequences of online trolling, particularly the effect it can have on children – children who are so mercilessly and cruelly bullied that they take their own lives as a result of the vicious attacks of online trolls.
In the eyes of the law, trolling is a criminal offence that can be prosecuted under the Malicious Communication Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. As of 2014, new laws in Britain mean that someone can spend up to 2 years in prison for trolling behaviour.
Lighthouse International’s Response to Trolling
Trolling is extremely serious and extremely damaging. Lighthouse International will soon be launching Parents Against Trolls and Trolling Forum in light of the damage caused to children and young people online. We are also looking to support those affected by defamation and smear campaigns created by trolls to unlawfully target innocent people who are trying to do good in the world. This forum will form part of the Christian Response Forum and Network, a secular global project aimed at assembling healthy and regenerative followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ who are seeking righteousness to build value in order to provide clean water to every child on earth.
If you or anyone you know would value support in relation to managing negative and destructive influences in your life, speak to one of our mentors, coaches and counsellors by clicking below…