Understanding Internet Trolls

The term internet troll has come to mean random strangers who spend large amounts of their personal time typing provocative statements on websites that encourage comments. Social forums that have highly active, poorly monitored comment streams (such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit) are especially attractive to trolls because they will receive a much better response rate. It’s negative responses that trolls are trying to provoke, and the more emotional the responder sounds, the better. The fact that trolls have such a clear agenda to upset others causes them to be very disliked. And once we dislike someone, we tend to consider them unworthy of compassion, so we don’t put any effort into trying to understand why they do what they do. The problem with this response is that without understanding, we tend to make poor choices in how we respond to those who are trying to upset us. There are wise and foolish ways to respond to internet trolls, and the purpose of this post is to both educate you on the wise response, and to help you develop compassion for this universally disliked group. Despite the fact that we give these people the inhuman label of trolls, they are all quite human, and like all humans, their behavior is being driven by their personal needs and internal wounds.

Let me start by clarifying which kind of trolls I’m talking about in this post. While some trolls are being hired by others to stir up trouble for those who their bosses have a personal beef with, others are acting independently in a response to their own unresolved issues. Human minds are highly intelligent, and as technology changes, minds are swift to see new tools emerging that have the potential to help them cope with unprocessed trauma. For example, a flourishing internet has made finding and watching deviant porn far easier to do, and many traumatized minds have latched onto that activity as a critical source of stress relief (see Deviant Porn & Your Subconscious: Understanding the Appeal). Then we have the introduction of social media forums like Facebook and YouTube. Suddenly anyone from anywhere can set up a little shrine to themselves and actually get live feedback from all over the world. Once you understand how many core needs social forums offer to meet for human beings, it’s no surprise that they have become so popular. Suddenly with a few clicks of a keyboard (or a few taps on your phone screen), you can become anyone you want, say anything you want, and make all kinds of social connections that are normally beyond your reach. It’s both the ultimate escape and the ultimate opportunity, and it’s being offered to you entirely free of cost…or so it would seem. But like so many things that seem “too good to be true,” this glittering promise that you can get your core needs for affirmation, worth, power, and social interactions satisfied by a bunch of folks who are being as deceptive as you are is too good to be true. The cost of all of this posing we’re doing is very real, and alarmingly high, but it’s also invisible, which makes it a lot easier to ignore.

And then we come to trolls. While social media companies try to promote themselves as offering positive social opportunities, they can’t help the fact that they are also making it easier for us to trash each other on a global scale. Since high traffic is how the folks behind the scenes are making a profit off of your little corner of the web, forums push you hard to “interact” with your visitors and to encourage “discussions.” They also tell you that it’s quantity that matters, not quality. So what if 500 people are ripping each other to shreds on your personal website? What matters is that you’re getting lots of daily traffic. With this bad advice getting hammered into you on all sides, you’re going to abandon the idea of closely monitoring the comments on your feeds and banning any rabble rousers. Without you micromanaging your feeds, it’s only a matter of time until it all goes south and people start fighting with each other about things that have nothing to do with the subjects you’re posting on. If you look closely at how these bizarre fights begin, you’ll find that they often start with some unknown visitor showing up and posting some short yet highly offensive comment that is guaranteed to cause offense. That unknown visitor is a passing troll, stopping by to see if your people can be conned into giving him a dose of what he needs. They usually can. Trolls tend to be very successful at accomplishing their goals when they target busy feeds. But what exactly is their goal? How does it help them to get a bunch of random strangers (most of whom are hiding behind fake pictures and fake names) to get all hot and bothered online?

Searching for Power

You might have heard that old saying “negative attention is better than no attention.” This is a very true principle for attention starved humans, but when it comes to trolls who are trolling as a means of coping with unprocessed trauma, there is another important element involved. Traumatized trolls don’t just want to be noticed, they need to see evidence that they are powerful. And of course whenever you see humans chasing something as desperately as trolls chase power, it tells you that those humans feel desperately short on whatever it is they are looking for.

Now there are productive and destructive ways to go about getting something. Productive methods build a positive connection between you and the thing you need. Once that connection is built, you can keep using it in the future to gain more doses of what you need. Building a bridge over a ravine so that you can cross from one side to the other would be an example of a productive method.

Destructive methods also connect you to the thing you need, but they do so in a way that causes harm to you and the source of what you want. Blackmail is an example of a destructive method. The blackmailer typically wants money, yet his destructive method guarantees that the source of his money (the person he is blackmailing) won’t last. Whether the blackmailer’s victim becomes so stressed that they kill themselves, so angry that they kill the blackmailer, or so financially strapped that they can’t make payments, the blackmailer sabotages himself by choosing to use a destructive method. The same is true for internet trolls. They are essentially doing an electronic form of social bullying, and their goal is to gain the illusion of power. I say illusion, because the troll himself actually feels desperately short on power and very vulnerable to being hurt. Their own sense of frailty is revealed by the fact that they hide their true identities while carefully avoiding sharing any personal information about themselves. The common strategy of the traumatized troll is to use the most basic principles of psychology to agitate other humans. If you type “You’re such an idiot,” in the midst of a busy comment stream, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone will take your bait and respond with anger. By using such a vague insult, you avoid arming anyone with sensitive information about yourself, and therefore protect yourself from feedback that you know you can’t handle.

Traumatized bullies are in a very delicate position due to the fact that they are usually grappling with some pretty severe psychological pain. While bullying can be motivated by different issues, one of the most common scenarios is that the bully has someone in his personal life who is trampling him in a way that he finds agonizing. The bully’s real life antagonist is often someone he often feels that he can’t escape from, and it’s usually someone who he desperately wants to please. This complex crisis makes the bully feel intensely miserable and terrifyingly vulnerable to being hurt.

Pecking Orders

As good as chickens can be on your dinner plate, when the birds are alive and hanging out in groups, they act like vicious little bullies. Flocks of hens have a tense atmosphere of fear and pain as individual birds desperately try to demonstrate their power by giving their feathered comrades painful pecks. If you don’t manage to get yourself a few cowering underlings, then you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the pecking order, with all the other hens pecking you, bullying you, and cutting you off from available resources. It’s a terrifying thing to be the last hen in the pecking order. It’s a terrifying thing to be the last human in a human pecking order as well, and such pecking orders abound everywhere.

Whenever humans group up, someone will try to claim the position of leader. If he succeeds, everyone else in the group will be treated as his subordinate. But some of us resent not being top dog, and if we can’t oust the current leader, we try to force some of our fellow followers into submitting to us. It’s easier to endure being shoved around by a leader you don’t like if there are other folks who you can shove around as well. This is the strategy bullies use to try to lessen their own distress at being dominated by an alpha figure in their own lives: they find other people who they can personally stomp on so that they can prove to themselves that they are not at the bottom of the pecking order.

For internet trolls who are trolling to manage their own unprocessed trauma, their provocative comments are the equivalent of a hen’s sharp peck. They need to see evidence that you found their peck painful, and you express your “ouch” by typing out a shocked and angry response to whatever they wrote. If instead you don’t respond, then it’s like their peck had no power and that is a distressing idea for a traumatized troll.

Suppose you are trapped on an island that is full of monsters and you’re scared out of your wits because the only weapon you have is a ridiculous gun that shoots cotton balls. What you need is a gun that shoots large bullets. If you had a beefy weapon, you might be able to calm your nerves and work up some confidence about your ability to survive for more than one night.

When humans are caught in impossible situations, their minds will automatically default to different emergency strategies. Some minds will face an honest assessment of their situation, while others will pour a bunch of resources into trying to deny the way things actually are. Bullying is a trauma coping method that is based on denial. Rather than face how desperate his own situation is, the bully’s mind instinctively tries to create an illusion of power by finding other humans that he can trounce on. When the bully sees his victims respond with emotional distress, he tells himself that their reactions are evidence that he is very powerful. The problem is that stomping on other random passive personalities doesn’t do anything to resolve the bully’s actual crisis, which is the fact that he can’t find a way to neutralize the person who keeps trampling on him in his personal life.

Now a lot of people scoff at the idea of denial being a legitimate coping method, viewing it as an unintelligent “cop out.” But denial is a very intelligent strategy that is far more calculated than it first appears. Both your soul and your mind use denial to manage their personal stresses. Yet whenever denial is being used, there is always careful strategy in use. For example, the school bully is very selective about who he attempts to bully. He goes for the wimpy kid who he has observed cowering in the face of threats while he leaves the muscular jocks alone. For bullying to be helpful to the bully, it is vital that he avoids feeling defeated by whoever he tries to pick on.

So how do you ensure a win when you attempt electronic bullying? Attacking from behind some phony profile is a good first step. Trolls don’t want you to know their name, where they live, or what they care about. They want to hide their fragile selves behind a mask of anonymity while they lash out at you using language that makes them sound a lot more confident and fearless than they actually are. When you then respond with a bunch of distressed emotion, they interpret your behavior as a reward for their efforts. Remember, these folks are feeling dangerously low on personal power and all they want from you is evidence that they haven’t slipped to the bottom of the global human pecking order.

Searching for Significance

Imagine how terrifying it would be if suddenly nothing you said or did triggered any response from other human beings. If you suddenly found yourself unable to get other humans to acknowledge you, what would happen to your sense of personal value? If no one seems to give a toss that you exist, it would be pretty hard to feel like you really matter, wouldn’t it?

It takes time, practice, and education to learn how to positively engage with other human beings. Some of us simply don’t get the education we need, and through no fault of our own, our social skills are just plain bad. This causes other humans to instinctively shun us when we try to engage with them. Once you rack up enough painful rejection experiences, it’s easy to become despaired about ever being accepted by other humans. By the time you give up on this idea, other humans have hurt you so much in life that you view the whole lot very negatively. But hating other humans doesn’t free you up from your core need for social interaction, and for many minds, this means there is only one option left: get nasty. Since people won’t be nice to you, you’ll settle for them being mean, as long as you can feel in control of the situation. Here is where we come to a second motivation for traumatized trolls to start trolling: getting recognition from other humans. Once again they are measuring their success by how agitated they can make you. Since they can’t see you, they need you to type out a translation of your emotional response to them. Silence is a very upsetting response which only causes the troll’s personal sense of inferiority to flare up, so he will try to ensure you give him what he needs by making his first comment highly offensive.

For this second group of traumatized trolls, their history of being painfully rejected by other humans makes them very afraid of pursuing friendships. Even though they feel desperate for friends and painfully isolated, they are likely to respond to any kind words with mocking aggression so that they can protect themselves from forming false hopes.

Conclusion

If there’s one thing I want you to takeaway from this post, it’s that trolls are not monsters, they are hurting human beings. Yes, their behavior is very destructive, and yes, they do cause immense pain when people do not know how to respond to them wisely. With electronic bullying being blamed for many teen suicides, it’s easy to see the bullies themselves as subhuman worms. And yet one person’s pain doesn’t become invalid just because he responds to it by hurting others. It is by striving to see all humans through the eyes of compassion that we end up minimizing the damage done by trauma coping methods as well as helping those who are traumatized. In the meantime, stop engaging with internet trolls. Block them as soon as they appear and delete any comments they post. If you’re on someone else’s page and you see a troll starting a fight, don’t join in. Recognize what he’s doing as a misguided effort to help himself manage stress that he doesn’t know how to deal with productively. Then remember that ignorance is always a correctable problem. We can learn to develop better social skills, we can learn to draw healthy boundaries with our personal antagonists, and we can learn how to process our own pain in ways that will actually help. There is always hope–even for traumatized trolls.

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