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.