The Psychology of the Internet Troll

What makes an Internet troll tick? In a word – disinhibition. Academic Earth illustrates how anonymity contributes to the online disinhibition effect, illuminating the psyche of the these anonymous troublemakers.

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We all behave differently when alone. Anonymity frees us from a perceived obligation to act in accordance with certain social norms. For example, most people refrain from picking their nose in public, but dig with abandon when alone. This isn't revelatory – fear of judgment is a powerful motivator and is well documented by psychologists.1 So, while most of our anonymous behavior is relatively benign, what happens when it isn't?

In 1981, Leon Mann published a study documenting the phenomenon of suicide baiting.2 Studying the circumstances surrounding 21 public suicide attempts, Mann observed that in 10 cases victims were jeered and baited to, "jump!" He identified several contributing factors to this anti-social behavior including membership in a large crowd, the cover of night, and relative distance from the victim – all hallmarks of anonymity. The irony here is that while a focused set of watchful eyes keeps us in check, the distracted eyes of many don't.

Anonymity makes all the difference, and unfortunately, this frees some to partake in some pretty egregious behavior. This is particularly true online. We're 20 years into the experiment of the World Wide Web, and we can clearly see how Internet anonymity plays out across social media, chat rooms, and comment sections. Usually just a nuisance, anonymous troublemakers, known as trolls, can be dangerous when they go after the vulnerable. In an effort to better understand what makes them tick, psychologists are starting to take a closer look at the psychology of the Internet troll.

1 Van Der Linden, Sander. "How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person: Scientific Scientific American, Inc., 3 May 2011. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

2 Mann, Leon. "The Baiting Crowd in Episodes of Threatened Suicide.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41.4 (1981): 703-09. Print.



­­­­At their most benign, trolls raise blood pressures across Internet chat rooms. At their worst, they push innocents to a lethal breaking point. But why? Why engage in such anti-social behavior? Those trying to understand, motivated by the desire to best the troll, find as many answers to this question as trolls themselves. Some assume trolls are bullies, cowards, or sociopaths. Is this true? Sometimes, but as David Auerbach posits in, anonymity as culture: treatise, “…there’s no way to know the views of the participants.”1 They’re anonymous players in a game without rules.

Without the why, perhaps understanding lies in the mechanism for how trolls engage in such behavior. How can someone who outwardly appears to respect social norms (going to work, raising a family) so easily adopt a contrarian alter-ego? In a word, disinhibition – the phenomenon wherein one abandons social inhibitions that would normally be present in face-to-face interactions.

In what he calls, the online disinhibition effect, psychologist, John Suller, explaisn that anonymity afforded by the Internet sets the stage for trolling.2 Similar behaviors were observed over CB radios in the 1970s when airwaves were infected by racist ramblings and disturbing masturbation fantasies.3 Arguably, the Internet is more disposed to this behavior, because, as Auerbach observes, this is the first time where “discourse is primarily written rather than spoken.”

Suller identifies six factors contributing to the online disinhibition effect.

Dissociative Anonymity and Invisibility: You don’t know me, and you can’t see me.

Michael Brutsch, a computer programmer, cat-lover, and family man, turned himself into Violentacrez, the infamous Reddit smut-peddler who earned fandom through moderating controversial subreddits like “Jailbait.” The Internet allows one to reinvent him or herself behind an anonymous veil. The obvious irony is that Brutsch was outed by Gawker. A fool-proof system, it is not.

Asynchronicity: See you later.

Trolling comes from the fishing technique of setting one’s baited line in the water, dragging it behind the boat, and waiting for a bite. The activity is passive, allowing one to go about his or her business while waiting for results. The same principle plays out online. Brian Limond, a self-confessed troll and atheist prefers going after his own. His chum of choice – posing as a devout Christian. Setting his bait in the Twittersphere, “It’s such a shame that athiests will never know true love. #atheism,” he sits back, enjoys that beer, and watches as the infuriated godless bite.

Solipsistic Introjection: It’s all in my head.

Without the visual cues of face-to-face conversation, one is free to assign characteristics to those they encounter online. Discussing what he calls A-culture, Auerbach asserts that introverts who once found solace and community online felt threatened when Facebook took it away, turning safe anonymity into a competition for attention. Participants in A-culture see outsiders as a threat to their territory.

Dissociative Imagination: It’s just a game.

Violentacrez illustrates how one might dismiss trolling as “just a game.” Reddit assigns “karma points” to popular subreddits, motivating people to actively moderate provocative content. Justifying his anti-social persona in the name of the game, Violentacrez admitted creating racist and misogynistic subreddits in an attempt to accumulate “meaningless Internet points” – he was wildly successful.

Minimizing Authority: We’re all equals.

The Internet provides a unique opportunity for individuals to interact freely across the social strata. This is notably true in politics. Some political parties hire people to troll forums, spreading their rhetoric. Perhaps only online can a troll launch ad hominem attacks “directly” at the President, a privilege once reserved for pundits.

The online disinhibition effect illustrates that trolls are opportunistic, playing an online game rooted in their anonymity. Simple, really.  Do note, however, that each factor relies on a common thread to make it viable – people willing to engage the troll. Trolling is not a game of solitaire. Unless we want to actively suppress freedom of speech, the only way to beat a troll is to not play the game.

1 Auerbach, David. “Anonymity as Culture: Treatise.” Issue #15 – Triple Canopy. Triple Canopy, 09 Feb. 2012. Web.

2 Suler, John, Ph.D. “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 7.3 (2004): 321-26. Psychology of Cyberspace. Rider University. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.

3 Tynan, Kenneth (1978-02-20). “Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale”The New Yorker February 1978. Web. 18 March 2013.


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