Now that the Republicans trolling American democracy have recently (and temporarily) been vanquished, it seems as good a time as any to think about the nature of trolling.
Why people become horrible trolls online, taunting and harassing others for spite, joy, or profit? John Suler of Rider University has some answers. In a 2004 article entitled “The Online Disinhibition Effect,” he theorizes that people “say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world” for six reasons, cumulatively called the online disinhibition effect. I find 1 through 3 to be the most convincing, but here’s the whole list.
- dissociative anonymity: “When people have the opportunity to separate their actions on- line from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out.”
- invisibility: “In many online environments, especially those that are text-driven, people cannot see each other. When people visit web sites, message boards, and even some chat rooms, other people may not even know they… This invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t.”
- asynchronicity: “In e-mail and message boards, communication… [p]eople don’t interact with each other in real time…. Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction disinhibits people.”
- solipsistic introjection: Solipsism is the belief the one’s own existence is the only thing that is real of meaningful. “Absent face-to-face cues… can alter self-boundaries…. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head….The online companion then becomes a character within one’s intrapsychic world…” and not a real person with thoughts and feelings.
- dissociative imagination: “Consciously or unconsciously, people may feel that the imaginary characters they ‘created’ exist in a different space… [a] make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world.”
- minimization of authority: This one relates specifically to why people feel comfortable trolling others that have higher offline authority or status, why trolls have neither fear nor respect for these people (celebs, politicians) online. “Authority figures express their status and power in their dress, body language, and in the trappings of their environmental settings. The absence of those cues in the text environments of cyberspace reduces the impact of their authority.”
Suler is careful to argue that trolls are not necessarily jerks offline as well. The online context, combined with inherent personality traits, brings forth the habits of trolling.
Image: Troll Hunter (film)