Dark Trolls: A Psychological Profile

12 mins read
Online Trolls

Around 2014, instead of having more blow-ups with “conservative” friends on Facebook — which usually ended in resolving nothing, hurt feelings, and sometimes lost friendships — I went to Twitter to “scream into the void” about America’s frustrating issues.

Of course, as a social media newb, I was mostly ignorant to the many forms of trolls that existed outside my Facebook bubble. So I had no idea that my public comments about politics and psychology, no matter how logical, would inevitably attract negative responses from nonsense arguers, toxic abusers, bots, and other forms of trolls, who for whatever reason, wanted to scream back at little old me.

Like everyone who participates in public online forums, I found myself asking questions like: What is the nature of a troll? What causes trolling? What kind of a person becomes a dark troll? Why would anyone waste their time and energy trolling? 

According to Merriam-Webster, “In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word ‘troll’ to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities.” 

I pieced together a more detailed definition of the darker trolls: people who parachute into a public feed, thread or comment, and in bad faith and/or with bad intentions, post moronic, inflammatory or maliciously disruptive comments, images or points of view. They do this to deliberately trigger, trick, provoke or upset people, all in hopes of causing the debate or conversation to change course, go in a negative direction, or — the ultimate goal —  completely devolve into some combination of confusion, shock, horror, outrage, hurt feelings, anger, and/or just plain old chaos. 

“Trolling” is a fishing term that generally means dragging a baited hook behind a moving boat, so whether the troll is a trickster, sadist or creature, they move their bait around the Internet for prey to see, and then feast on who gets hooked taking the bait. 

In essence, the nature of a troll is a digital fishermen searching for emotional and psychological buttons to push and trigger. They can do this for “harmless fun” so they can feel relevant and funny. They also can do this in cruel, disruptive and destructive ways, so they can feel smart, strong and powerful, by toying with, gaslighting and traumatizing unsuspecting victims, who got tricked or antagonized into taking a troll’s bait.

One key to better understanding trolling is the role of the user on the other end. You are not by definition being “trolled” if the person is honestly clueless, unintentionally disruptive or just unwittingly wrong. In other words, if someone sincerely shares a different, stupid, shocking or controversial viewpoint they believe is truth, and doesn’t realize it will distract or blow up your conversation, that is not officially “trolling,” no matter how much it feels like you are being trolled. 

This distinction is even more blurred once you know about popular trolling techniques like the “well-meaning moron” and “sealioning,” where the troll’s game is to politely pretend they have no idea they are being a moronic, disingenuous and disruptive troll.

“Well-meaning moron” tricksters see themselves as comedians, and everyone on the Internet as a potential unwitting “straight man” for their “jokes” and “humor.” 

Learn all about the well-meaning moron

“Sealioning” is “well-meaning moron” trolling taken to a darker, more manipulative level. It uses the same seemingly sincere, polite yet repetitive idiotic, bad faith questions, comments and answers. Claiming to be truthseekers, the sealion aims to make those trying to help them understand reality lose patience and lash out at the sealion’s bottomless idiocy. The sealion troll can then declare how “mean and nasty” the person they gaslighted is.

I will have eggs over easy with toast, please.
See more of David Malki!’s cartoons here.

Having just learned about these trolling tactics, I realize I have likely fallen for them before. I now question if I will have the patience to discover the difference between an ignorant person sincerely wanting to learn, a secret “comedian” playing the “well-meaning moron” role, or some stealth chaos agent “sealioning” me. 

Worst of all, these types of trolls help bring about their self-fulfilling prophecy of society descending further into chaos and darkness because they “poison the well” for those of us honestly trying to seek and share truth and knowledge.

What Causes Trolling? 

Initial conventional wisdom on trolling was that normally well-mannered people felt completely anonymous, hidden and thus unaccountable and invincible online, which caused them to behave in ways they never would “in real life.” Trolling researchers call this “the online disinhibition effect.” 

This seems logical because the vast majority of us know we have said things online that we would never say to someone’s face, but in truth, this conventional wisdom is mostly a logical fallacy. Lowered inhibitions due to unaccountability and anonymity provide opportunities, not reasons, for someone to waste so much time and energy on self-indulgent “comedy” routines, cruel online “pranks” or political vendettas, when there are so many urgent needs and important issues to resolve.  

As more data came in, early researchers started seeing direct correlations between trolling and the darker sides of human psychology. When they aligned trolling behaviors with similar psychological syndromes and personality disorders, it quickly became obvious that most trolls’ real-life psychological issues closely resembled, if not perfectly matched, their dark online trolling behaviors. 

And it makes so much sense that dark personalities with high levels of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism (known as “the dark tetrad”) in real life are the darkest of dark trolls online as well, because darkness hunts everywhere. Now you understand much of the psychology of the worst trolls and their motives behind wasting so much time trolling. To them, it is not wasting time at all. It is their nature, and being mostly anonymous online, and thus mostly unaccountable, just makes it so much easier for them to spread their disordered darkness online and off.

Thankfully, despite being ignorant to trolling psychology early on in my social media life, I did know the psychology of narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, and thus the dark tetrad, so I unknowingly already understood the nature of dark trolls when I started on Twitter. 

I now see what a blessing it was to be able to recognize the psychology of most trolls fairly quickly. Experts in psychology I knew recommended blocking these pathological narcissists from your life whenever possible, following the mantra “just get away.” In hindsight, this knowledge made instablocking dark trolls a no-brainer and likely saved me from years of trolling. 

Understanding that these disordered people rarely change because it is who they have become psychologically, or who they have always been, through brain loss, trauma, heredity, or all of the above, is the key to a sad understanding about a fair percent of our fellow humans. For those who reach the levels of clinical narcissism and/or psychopathy caused by the above issues, there are currently no known cures or even highly effective treatments. The only actions that seem to stop them from compulsively trolling are firm barriers like blocks, suspensions, bans, fines or jail. Take a wild guess at who would be most disingenuous and complain the loudest about being “canceled.”

If the pathological narcissist troll is someone you care about or cannot escape, you have tough choices to make. Cut all ties, fight back on their dark battlefield or accept you will continue to be sucked in, used, abused and triggered. Perhaps you can take solace in the possibility that you may be keeping a “loved one” from going full dark side.

It seems the only effective “mitigating treatments” for these dark personalities are a loving childhood and proving to them why it is in their own selfish interest to not be manipulative, toxic and cruel, but obviously, this is a tough sell to people who are genetically driven and/or psychologically traumatized into lizard-brained thinking about themselves, their power and predatory instincts. Hence, trolls of this nature do not engage to learn. They are only there to trigger a response via gaslighting in hopes of feeding some empty hole inside themselves. 

Of course, people with little to no conscience, empathy or remorse led by their predatory instincts need outlets too. The Internet provides endless opportunities for trolling due to many of its most powerful gatekeepers like Facebook making the Faustian bargain of prioritizing profit over the social responsibility of stopping trolls from endlessly flooding their platforms and triggering the vulnerable into becoming trolls, or worse.

So the next time you feel trolled, keep in mind that good people rarely become dark trolls because they feel less inhibited. Online trolling is mostly a result of cruel, shameless, power-hungry people wanting or needing to feel relevant and superior. They make others suffer to reassure themselves they are the strong and powerful Oz they think they are and not another empty fraud hiding behind a curtain. 

Always remember, those with predatory and sadistic personality traits offline perpetrate the most trolling and bullying online too, and bullying is never wasting time to a bully. It is their compulsion, and with few gatekeepers or consequences to stop them, the Internet provides the darkest, most disordered personalities a mostly unaccountable playground 24/7/365. We should probably do something about that.

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Sam is an international strategist, writer and traveler. He grew up in the multicultural SF Bay Area with a liberal teacher mother and conservative stockbroker father, which gave him a natural desire to bridge cultural and political differences. In the 2000s, Sam recognized a friend needed rescuing from a bully, so he studied bullying psychology. He later discovered he had accidentally become an expert in the psychology of narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths when others kept asking for help. Sam went on to write his dream book explaining America.

*Find Sam on Twitter @slipperyhero.

*Book link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HNQYCNY

*Hear him discuss narcissism on the Backwards & In High Heels podcast: tinyurl.com/37mv8cwu

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