How To Deal With Trolls Online In Your Community & Beyond

Beth Visser (photo credit: Rebekah Littlejohn)

Beth Visser (photo credit: Rebekah Littlejohn)

For the most part, social media is an incredibly positive, rewarding experience. Yet most everyone online—including us at @Ptbo_Canada—has experienced some form of trolling from time to time. That is, those who try to bait you with mean-spirited, manipulative, vindictive and disruptive tweets that far cross the line over "debate". We conducted an email interview with Beth A. Visser, Ph.D., a personality psychologist who teaches at Trent University's Oshawa campus, to learn more about troll/bullying behaviour and how to deal with them. Read our Q & A below...

PTBOCanada: Beth, is trolling/bullying more pervasive online? What is a good definition of an "online troll"?

Visser: Bullying is pervasive on- and offline. It’s more difficult to think of an offline equivalent to trolling. It would be like going to a party in disguise and making obnoxious and inflammatory comments, hoping that the party-goers would turn on each other and the gathering would be ruined. Internet communities give such a person far more opportunities to spread the chaos. There are lots of definitions out there, but basically, an online troll is someone who uses deceptive, disruptive, and inflammatory tactics to create unpleasantness and chaos in an online community.

PTBOCanada: Is there a significant difference between trolling/bullying or are they one in the same really?

Visser: People sometimes use the terms used interchangeably, but there is a difference— particularly in motivation. Trolls like causing havoc. These individuals will seek to create disruption in online communities, and some research has suggested that they will do so to alleviate boredom, get revenge on a community, seek attention, and gain pleasure. The damage that a troll causes often seems pretty pointless. Online bullying, on the other hand, tends to be about targeting and hurting a particular person or persons.  

PTBOCanada: OK, say you are being "trolled" online. What is the best thing to do in that case? Ignore them? Block them? Repond to them in any way?

Visser: The standard advice is “don’t feed the trolls”, and that’s a good course of action. Blocking them can work, with the troll simply moving on to an easier target—but of course, a motivated troll can always come back under a new name. Trolling isn’t fun when no one engages. (Note that the situation would be different if you are the targeted victim of cyberbullying/harassment. We’re starting to see more arrests in these cases.)

PTBOCanada: How does one distinguish between debate/negativity and when it crosses the line into "trolling"? What's the rule of thumb regarding knowing when to "disengage" and not reply to them on Twitter or block them altogether?

Visser: That’s an interesting question. From the perspective of the “troller” or debater, there is a motivational distinction. Trolls want to have fun at the expense of the rest of us, whereas the passionate debater may be highly invested in a particular point of view. If you know anything about the posting habits of the other person, you might look for whether they have a history of creating havoc everywhere they go and on a variety of topics (or conversely, no history at all because they constantly change identities), or whether they simply have a strong point of view on one particular topic. For a troll, the fun ends when you disengage. Even with a sincere debater, it’s reasonable to let the other person know that you’ve both made your points and you won’t be discussing the topic with them any further.

PTBOCanada: What personality trait(s) cause a person to troll? Are they generally like that "offline" as well? Is an alter-ego created for some reason online?

Visser: In my research, I investigate the so-called “Dark Triad” of personality—that is, psychopathy (callous, manipulative, irresponsible people who lack empathy), narcissism (grandiose sense of personal importance, entitlement) and Machiavellianism (cynical world view, willingness to use deception and manipulation to achieve one’s goals) in “normal” people. Recently, some researchers have made a compelling case that everyday sadism (i.e., sadistic personality traits that don’t warrant clinical attention or assessment) should be added to make a “Dark Tetrad.” Recent research out of the University of Manitoba has shown that Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and everyday sadism were related to enjoyment of trolling in their student and community participants. Sadistic personality traits were the best predictor, suggesting that people troll because they like it. The Dark Triad/Tetrad of personality is associated with social malevolence offline as well, so it doesn’t seem to be the case that our mild-mannered Dr. Jeckylls turn into Mr. Hydes once they have access to the internet and a little anonymity. Mr. Hyde may have a whole lot more opportunity to express his social malevolence online though.


For more information on Beth Visser's research, check out her website You can email Beth here or follow her on Twitter here.

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