The Science Behind Internet “Trolls” and Online Harassment — and How to Take the High Road

July 19, 2017

If you are active on any social media platform, chances are that you’ve faced what the Internet has labelled a “troll.” The definition of a troll varies, though 5.6 percent of Internet users self-identify as one“Trolling” can be relatively benign in the form of jokes, which is likely what the self-identifiers refer to, but recently it’s evolved to become much more sinister and threatening: it frequently escalates into harassment.


Photo: Victoria Heath on Unsplash 


Is it really a problem?


A new 2017 Pew Research study found that 41 percent of Americans have experienced some sort of online harassment, and 66 percent have seen someone else being harassed. Some of these behaviors are less serious, such as offensive name-calling or intentional humiliation. A full 18 percent of Americans, though, have been subjected to severe harassment. 


It’s especially prominent among young people: a whopping 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have been harassed. 


14 percent of Americans who have experienced online harassment say they were targeted because of their political views, 9 percent have been harassed due to their physical appearance, 8 percent due to their race or ethnicity, 8 percent due to their gender, 5 percent for their religious views, and 3 percent for their sexual orientation.


35 percent of women who have been targeted online found their most recent incident to be “extremely” or “very” upsetting, while only 16 percent of men said the same. 62 percent of people consider online harassment a major problem.


For the 38 percent of us who don’t think online harassment is a major issue (and the 5 percent who don’t even think it’s a minor problem), let’s look at some examples.


In 2012, 15-year-old Amanda Todd killed herself after two years of harassment from a sexual predator online. Her suicide sparked a serious international conversation about cyberbullying and its lingering effects off-screen.


Opera singer Leandra Ramm said she spent ten years fighting an online stalker from Singapore in what was called a case of “psychological terrorism” and culminated in the first successful conviction for international cyberbullying.



Many female celebrities — Blac Chyna, most recently — have had their nude photos shared online by others without their permission to do so.


Why does online harassment happen?

Psychology Today explains the eight primary factors that enable people to spout abusive, hateful content on the Internet:

Anonymity & perceived obscurity: Online trolls are empowered by masking their identity. When they do use their real names, they often take to large groups over small ones to blend in with the crowd.

Perceived majority status & presence of friends: On the other hand, they may believe their opinion is shared by the majority, which boosts their confidence about saying whatever is on their mind. They may also believe that only their friends will see their posts, and that their network online is comprised of those who agree with them.

Desensitization & perceived lack of consequences: They may also be desensitized to the trolling environment online and not even stop to wonder if what they’re posting counts as abusive, because so many others on the internet behave this way without getting called out. Thus, they feel comfortably protected and supported by anonymity and an online culture that normalizes attacking others, leading them to perceive a lack of consequences for these actions.

Social identity salience: This is the idea that the way you present yourself online under a guise of secrecy and security is more representative of your personality than the way you behave offline. In the real world, you’re more likely to be civil or even kind when someone says something contrary to your own ideas. It’s easier to abandon civility when you can’t see the face of someone you are abusing.

Personality traits: Sometimes people are simply hard-wired to exhibit behaviors like these. Some have a superiority complex and genuinely believe they are more moral or intelligent than the people they encounter online, and as such, view their opinions as vastly more important.


“Recovered” trolls generally support these ideas when asked about their past habits. Former political troll Matt Saccaro reported to AlterNet, “I think some trolls are just people who don’t have a lot going for them [in real life] like I did: few if any friends, unpopular, suboptimal home life, etc. So perhaps some of this comes from people looking for any kind of validation/attention they can find. Any harassment these people do could perhaps be interpreted as lashing out…”


He then explained having no real creative outlet. Attacking people online helped him blow off steam. “Moments of success made me feel almost giddy, like I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt a bizarre kind of power, too.”

How can we combat it?

Even when you know why people lash out like this on the internet, it can be tempting to fight back and defend yourself. Another former troll, Paul Jun, warns us that “feeding” online harassers is the worst thing we can do, as it proves to them that their ploy for attention works. He writes, “The harsh reality is this: You will never beat a troll. You will never change a troll’s mind. You may delude yourself into thinking that you proved them wrong, however, never in my years of dealing with trolls have I seen a troll lay down his or her arms and say, ‘You know what, you’re right. I was so wrong.’”


Jun also encourages using foresight and challenging yourself to imagine what will come of it if you do respond to a troll. If you’re thinking clearly, you’ll likely deduce that nothing good can come of it and that you’ll only get angrier while inadvertently satisfying them. Blocking and even reporting someone on a social media site is usually all one needs to do to escape them.


If what started as trolling becomes harassment, though, some have taken to sending screenshots of the abusive language and sending them to perpetrators’ employers, parents, officials at their universities, or even their parish priests. In cases of threats to your safety, get help from someone you trust or even the police.


Emily Rose is 17 years old and from Athens, Georgia. Beginning in fall 2017, she will attend Mercer University. She plans to double major in Journalism and Political Science and to minor in Global Development Studies. She is a writer, musician, activist, and feminist who hopes to use her platforms to inspire positive change by providing different perspectives on the world’s political and social issues.


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