The dark side of social media: A day in the life of an internet troll
A typical day for a troll
I recently came across an internet troll who admitted openly on Reddit in the thread ‘DecidingToBeBetter’ that they were addicted to trolling, and were trying to stop. As they confessed anonymously, they said it had “been a few years” and that they “mostly troll on Reddit”.
Since social media first became a fundamental part of our lives in the early 2000s, there have always existed individuals who enjoy hiding behind their screens and ‘trolling’ others. Sometimes they do this under a real name or a pseudonym for anonymity.
The user explained that they had initially set up their account as a trolling account, but had decided to quit and delete all of their troll posts, (some of their troll comments remained). They admitted that what they hated most about trolling was “not only inflicting negative emotions upon people for no beneficial reason, but I feel like a terrible person. While doing it I laugh my ass off a little bit and as soon as I finish I just feel guilty, regretful and I hate myself…” They go on to say: “It ruins my whole day by setting a bad feeling and it wastes huge, I mean insane, hours of my time. I often have used trolling to procrastinate for hours on end.” The anonymous user did not go into details about what type of trolling they did. However, I reached out to them to ask a few questions and they told me that they made things up to get attention (so no malicious comments), and didn’t have a set routine, they just trolled randomly whenever they felt like it.
They ended their confession by saying they had been “one week clean” from trolling and they have quit other things in the past like gaming and pornography. They confessed they “get addicted to things easily” but it was “time for me to be a good person now”.
Many users had written supportive comments under this post, with some revealing they are also online trolls. One user admitted that they “sometimes purposely say dumb things to people online if they irritate me”. And another even admitted they “pretend to be a homophobic racist and a nazi”.
It was suggested that the OP (original poster) might have ADHD and were “understimulated” so “don’t know how to deal with it”.The OP replied that they had been told by doctors that they do in fact have ADHD. The commenter provided many helpful links to resources such as self-help CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which was received gratefully.
From reading this thread, it seems to me that trolls are trying to get attention, albeit the wrong kind.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines trolling as “the act of leaving an insulting message on the internet in order to annoy someone”. In reality, trolling goes much deeper than this and can exist in many forms including; bullying, scamming and even abuse like death threats.
In a recent prominent case in the UK media, an online troll was arrested for making death threats to the TV show host Piers Morgan. The Twitter troll’s menacing death threats resulted in Mr Morgan reportedly installing a panic button near his bed. The perpetrator was found and arrested in August 2021.
Psychology behind trolling
Dr Marc Feldman, a professor of Psychiatry from the University of Alabama, has coined a term for a specific trolling method when individuals make up an illness or claim that their loved one is seriously ill in order to gain sympathy or raise medical funds. He calls this ‘Munchausen by internet’. This concept comes from a 1951 study by Dr Richard Asher. Dr Asher determined that people who pretend to be ill to gain sympathy and attention have Munchausen Syndrome. An article from the Guardian in February 2016 mentions various cases whereby people created false personas and pretended to be dying, or set up crowd funders to pay for treatment for themselves or fake relatives. Stories would sometimes be stolen from legitimate people who had shared their stories online.
A scientific study carried out by the University of Brigham found:
“that individuals with dark triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy) combined with schadenfreude – a German word meaning that one derives pleasure from another’s misfortune – were more likely to demonstrate trolling behaviors.”
The findings fit with those of Professor Sam Vaknin. In this 2-part interview from 2018, he explains his analyses in great depth. He claims as people become more aware of the negative effects social media has on them, there will soon be a clear distinction: those who use it (social media) and those who don’t.
This study from 2007, found that making death threats, in particular, has been linked to mental disorders and homicides, although a small percentage of these occurred.
When covid-19 hit in early 2020, some of us had more time to think and ‘wake up’ to certain realities, including that of social media. The Netflix Documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ touched upon similar findings to those of Prof. Sam Vaknin, highlighting the addictive factor being built into social media platforms. This not only causes average users to consume and share too much content but theoretically, could enable internet trolls to keep doing what they’re doing.
In 2014, a Dutch graphic design student decided to fake a five-week holiday to south-east Asia. During the experiment, she created videos and pictures of herself in typical holiday settings you might expect, such as scuba-diving, eating out, and visiting a temple. She was able to achieve an A grade for her assignment and convinced her friends and family on Facebook that she had actually been on holiday.
Although this type of trolling is not considered malicious or threatening behaviour, pretending to be someone you’re not or faking a lifestyle, can turn into something that has hugely detrimental effects on others, as seen in the recent Netflix Documentary ‘The Tinder Swindler’.
A troll can be very difficult to identify. Since social media enables anonymity and the ability to be whoever you want to be, we can never be sure. This is indeed the dark side of social media.