You can’t argue with sadism

Chris Mooney reports at Slate on a new study that finds (or confirms) that internet trolls really are everyday sadists.

(There’s an irony in that, since a few years ago he was a big fan of a troll who was active on his blog and elsewhere – “Tom Johnson” who was actually Wally Smith. But maybe he’s learned since then. I’ve learned some things since then.)

The research, conducted by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba and two colleagues, sought to directly investigate whether people who engage in trolling are characterized by personality traits that fall in the so-called Dark Tetrad: Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others).

It is hard to underplay the results: The study found correlations, sometimes quite significant, between these traits and trolling behavior. What’s more, it also found a relationship between all Dark Tetrad traits (except for narcissism) and the overall time that an individual spent, per day, commenting on the Internet.

Imagine my complete lack of surprise.

Overall, the authors found that the relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” they wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

That helps to explain the difference between people who argue with others online, sometimes rudely and aggressively, and people who persecute others online. The former do it because they’re interested in the argument and the latter do it because they like the persecution. This in turn explains why the former type does not fixate on a few people and refuse to let go, while the latter type does. The arguers argue and move on; the persecutors persecute the same people for an open-ended length of time.

The study comes as websites, particularly at major media outlets, are increasingly weighing steps to rein in trollish behavior. Last year Popular Science did away with its comments sections completely, citing research on the deleterious effects of trolling, and YouTube also took measures to rein in trolling.

That sums up my policy on commenters very neatly. I don’t allow trolling.

But study author Buckels actually isn’t sure that fix is a realistic one. “Because the behaviors are intrinsically motivating for sadists, comment moderators will likely have a difficult time curbing trolling with punishments (e.g., banning users),” she said by email.

Ah but it’s not punishment. That’s how they see it, or pretend and claim to see it (cf the first item in the Tetrad: Machiavellianism), but that’s just more trolling. It’s not punishment, it’s just not wanting them on your blog. Why should anyone want Machiavellian narcissistic psychopathic sadists on her blog?

The larger point is, this just demonstrates (what we already knew) that blather about “peace talks” and “sitting down to settle our differences” is just that: blather. It’s stupid at the foundation level, because the trolling is not fundamentally about genuine “differences” or “issues” or “grievances”; it’s about persecuting people for pleasure. That’s all there is to it. It’s not complicated, it’s not interesting, it’s not subject to diplomacy or management. It’s just everyday sadists doing what they like to do. You can’t argue them out of liking to do it.



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    I doubt that Niccolo Machiavelli, were he alive today, would engage in or approve of trolling.

    And I suspect that the “absence of narcissism” finding will need revisiting (this study used self-reporting, right?).

  2. lpetrich says

    Niccolo Machiavelli got his reputation for endorsing sleazy tactics because of his book “The Prince”. It was basically about how to win in the politics of Italy in his day, and he was not afraid to note that one could do so by sleazy and crooked and underhanded means.

    But in “The Discourses”, he describes the ends that he wants to seek, and they are much better — and not stereotypically Machiavellian.

    In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell speculated “Perhaps our age, again, can better appreciate Machiavelli, for some of the most notable successes of our time have been achieved by methods as base as any employed in Renaissance Italy. He would have applauded, as an artistic connoisseur in statecraft, Hitler’s Reichstag fire, his purge of the party in 1934, and his breach of faith after Munich.” Also the likes of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.

  3. says

    Back in the early 90’s I ran across a group called alt.syntax.tactical, the stated mission of which was to infiltrate and disrupt established Usenet communities by starting arguments and encouraging factionalism. And I thought: My god, how much time would you have to devote to such a project, and can you really not find more enjoyable hobbies? And I saw a manifestation of that sort of thing on rec.ponds a few years later.

    I’ve wasted plenty of time over the last 23 years (ie. since I first discovered Usenet) debating or just chatting, but the idea of putting in the effort just for the purpose of being mean is fucking pathetic, and more than a bit sick.

  4. Shatterface says

    And I suspect that the “absence of narcissism” finding will need revisiting (this study used self-reporting, right?).

    Doesn’t the study suggest that narcissism doesn’t correlate with time spent on the internet rather than there being a negative correlation (absence)?

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