PSYCHOLOGY: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TROLLING

Published August 21, 2022
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When 21-year-old Hamza* posted a music video of himself, he put his life, quite literally, on the line.

Shy and reserved by nature, the aspiring young musician wished to share his passion with the world. So he took to the internet to post a video displaying his musical talent from the comfort of his room, without having to socialise in real life.

“I had always thought music was my true calling,” says the 21-year-old. “However, I did not have the confidence to play live in front of an audience, since that would trigger my social anxiety. A friend suggested that I post my music online instead.”

Still, sharing his secret passion was like exposing a part of his innermost self. “I had to muster a lot of courage to post my video online,” he admits.

Why do trolls find pleasure in harassing and cyberbullying strangers online and what factors perpetuate this damaging behaviour?

And the world was not kind to him in return.

While his video garnered some positive feedback, mostly it was panned by random strangers. Reading the negative comments that inundated his feed pushed Hamza into a dark place. “It plunged me into depression,” he says. So much so that it led him to attempt suicide.

He realises now that the opinions of people hiding behind spam accounts should not have bothered him but, at that moment, they chipped away at his already fragile self-esteem. “When you are being bullied in your real life, at least you can take a stand against one person,” he explains. “On the internet, however, I did not know how to fight these nameless, faceless people.”

According to various surveys across the world, there has been a rise in cases of people suffering from mental health issues after being trolled or harassed online. In internet parlance, trolling is a type of online bullying and is defined as aggressive and malicious online behavior. “Trolls” seek to deliberately provoke, bully and harm others via inflammatory messages and posts.

Although both trolls and cyberbullies share aggressive attributes, cyberbullies are not characteristically deceptive or randomly disruptive. On the contrary, research suggests that cyberbullies are often known to their victims in real life and the harassing behavior involved in cyberbullying is very direct and specifically targeted. Trolls, however, usually do not have a vendetta towards any particular person but are more likely to troll people with major followings.

What compels a person to spew hatred towards strangers?

Zehra*, 16, has been diagnosed with depression. “I feel so unhappy all the time and there is nothing I can do to make it better,” she explains. “So if I cannot make myself feel better, the only thing within my control is to make others feel just as miserable as I do. That is why I troll people, by making fake profiles on Instagram. It gives me a sense of satisfaction.”

According to Dr Hadia Pasha, associate director of Counseling Services and Wellness Office at Aga Khan University (AKU), a person may choose to defame, ridicule or libel someone else to express anger, take revenge, gain attention or to derive sadistic pleasure by seeing the impact their actions have on the victim.

“All these situations are intentional, where the perpetrator is either incapable of experiencing empathy or chooses to ignore feelings of concern for the other by convincing themselves that the victim deserves this treatment,” she says.

Research conducted by an Australian cyberpsychology expert, Evita March, helps outline a psychological profile of online trolls. Trolling was strongly associated with what is called the Dark Tetrad personality traits. These comprise of Machiavellianism (callous, manipulative and deceptive traits), psychopathy (amoral and antisocial behaviour), narcissism (a grandiose sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others) and sadism (deriving pleasure and gratification from the pain or humiliation of others).

Of the Tetrad traits, psychopathy and sadism have been found to correlate more strongly with internet trolling in past studies, as well as with cyberbullying. Men were more likely than women to troll the internet and scored significantly higher on all the Dark Tetrad traits.

Sohrab*, a 19-year-old boy, was brought to therapy by his parents on account of temper tantrums and behavioural issues. Among other things, one of the reasons he was having behavioural issues at home was that he was not a popular kid at school. He discovered later that he could get the social validation he craved from online strangers when he posted mean comments under photos of celebrities.

“The more vicious my comments, the more engagement they get,” he says, “whether it be in the forms of likes or comments. If I don’t write things like that, no one reads me. I do not troll people because I hate them. It’s just so that my comment does not get lost among all the others. I just want to be noticed.”

This is not surprising since low self-esteem has been found to be directly related to trolling. Research on loneliness and aggression suggests that loneliness represents a state of chronic frustration, caused by social isolation and needs that are not being met. Hence, it can express itself in maladaptive ways, such as aggression towards others.

One important factor that perpetuates online trolling is anonymity, which leads to “online disinhibition effect” — the tendency to experience a dramatic loosening of inhibitions and social restraints on the internet. This means that even people who would never bully someone in real life might indulge in “trolling” others on the internet. This disinhibition effect encourages mob mentality and groupthink.

“The internet provides a convenient shield for a lot of people,” explains Asha Bedar, a senior clinical psychologist, trainer and researcher. In fact, research shows that, for people who lack confidence in real life, the internet is a channel to express their dormant and suppressed emotions.

“So it has provided this platform to people who otherwise may not be that expressive,” says Bedar. “You get attention, an audience and a safe space — since no one can harm you, no one can see you, there is no accountability. This can also be a good thing but, on the flip side, this means that there are very few filters and social etiquettes in place when we express ourselves on the internet.”

Bedar further adds that trolling is being justified since the internet as a public space allows toxic opinions. Offensive, inappropriate expression is becoming normalised to the point where we stop seeing it as problematic, until it becomes dangerous. “The internet has become a dumping ground for a whole lot of emotional issues,” says the psychologist.

Since our virtual lives spill over into our real ones, the impact of internet trolling is also not confined to virtual space. Victims of trolling can experience a variety of psychological, social and emotional issues in their real lives. Online trolling can aggravate self-esteem, body image and anxiety issues, since it confirms a person’s most negative beliefs about themselves.

The inquiry report Safety Net: Cyberbullying’s Impact on Young People’s Mental Health reveals that 60 percent of young people in the UK have witnessed online bullying but most do not intervene. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey revealed that Instagram has been reported as the social media platform where maximum people have experienced internet trolling. 42 percent users of Instagram have experienced harassment on the platform, as indicated by The Annual Bullying Survey 2017, carried out by a youth charity in the UK.

Children and young people under 25 who are victims of cyberbullying are more than twice as likely to self-harm and enact suicidal behaviour. Also, perpetrators themselves are also at higher risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviours according to a systematic review study led by Professor Ann John at Swansea University Medical School in collaboration with researchers from the universities of Oxford and Birmingham.

One of the least discussed forms of cyberbullying is where certain people are continuously ignored in virtual social groups, so much so that they start feeling insignificant and rejected by their peers.

“This is a form of covert bullying that is similar to ostracisation in real life,” says Dr Pasha from AKU. “While not involving any direct offensive behaviour, it creates deep scars on a person’s sense of self-worth, leading to low self-esteem, feelings of hurt, loneliness and, in many cases, depression.”

According to L1ght, an organisation that monitors online harassment and hate speech, there has been a 70 percent increase in the amount of internet trolling/hate speech among teens and children from December 2019 to late 2020, since the Covid lockdowns began. This can be attributed to pandemic-related factors such as prolonged isolation, pent-up frustration at circumstances beyond our control and the socio-economic repercussions of the pandemic. All of this has led to a general increase in stress levels and mental health deterioration, which gets displaced by vitriol against strangers online in the form of trolling.

Victims of internet trolling and harassment in Pakistan can reach out to various resources. The Cybercrime Wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) directly receives complaints and takes legal measures against cyberbullies and harassers. The Digital Rights Foundation also has a toll-free and confidential Cyber Harassment Helpline which provides legal advice, digital security support, psychological counselling and a referral system to victims of online harassment.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

The writer is a clinical associate psychologist and freelance journalist. She can be reached at rabeea.saleem21@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 21st, 2022

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