February 2020

The psychology a Troll teaser image
I have been an average social media consumer (the consumption has been on a decline) for my adult life. I have heard about internet trolls but fortunately never encountered one (I guess I am not that average consumer). Nevertheless, I at least knew what the idea of an internet troll was. But, very recently, I happened to be in a conversation with a person and by the end of which I felt frustrated and angry. For the rest of that day, I kept on thinking as to what exactly happened. What was it that engaged me in the argument even though the whole discussion was never going anywhere? After some careful analysis of the situation and some information provided by another person who encountered a similar situation with the person mentioned earlier, I identified the behavior showed in the discussion as ‘trollism.’ It was my first encounter with a troll or ‘trollism,’ and it piqued my curiosity about it and so began the research (read google search) for the psychology of trolls. This blog is in a way summary of my understanding after some careful reading of blogs and other sources on the world wide web.

The most important thing to realize about trolls is that they enjoy the whole process. The best way to sum it up, “If you fight with a pig, the pig enjoys it, and you get dirty.” Trolls want you to get all riled up. And to do that, they employ an essential tool at their disposal, empathy. For me, empathy has always been a favorable idea; how can someone with empathy cause hurt. But trolls use empathy to seek pleasure. You see, empathy allows us to feel what the other is feeling. Trolls are a special kind of empathetic; they can sense what we feel but don’t feel the same. And once they know, they can very smartly use such words or actions that would add more agony to our feelings. For example, you are passionate about a topic about discrimination. A troll would sense that in the initial conversation and then throughout the discussion would call you as discriminatory without any rational reasoning. In due time, you’ll be all riled up trying to put forward your views against discrimination while trying to prove that you are not one. Another trick they’ll use is laughter or a wry smile for a rationally presented argument. Suddenly your passionate feelings have been brushed off with a little laugh. This can send waves of anger through you. Every passing minute of the discussion is like fodder to the troll’s pleasure and your misery.

The question then is how to deal with a troll? One answer and the philosophy I have now decided to abide by is don’t engage them. As soon as you feel that the discussion is not heading toward any logical conclusion, you are feeling anger, and the other party involved is unfazed, that’s troll alert. Stop right there, disengage. Another possible way is to out troll the troll. That’s not something all of us can do but it’s certainly not a bad option if you are up for it. An example would be just merely calling them names and instead of engaging in the discussion focus entirely on how to make the troll feel sort of diminished and less of himself. I think of it as getting in a fight with a pig and ending up cleaning it, bathing it, and putting lipstick on it (the pig) for good measure.

Before I close, I feel that I should look at things from a troll’s perspective. I would like to believe that these trolls are not bad people entirely. They are psychologically wired to entice pleasure from the misery of others. But then does that allow them to be this way, especially if they knowingly engage in the act of ‘trollism.’ In my opinion, people who recognize this behavior in themselves should seek help. They should not continue to believe that at heart, they are good people, and this one trait of theirs is mostly harmless — people who have faced the wrath of internet trolls while at their lowest would beg to differ.

Social media is not going anywhere soon and, to some extent, has become an essential part of our lives. I hope this glance into the psyche of a troll helps to make your experience a little more pleasant.

---Kunal Gupta
Kunal Gupta is a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

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