Why do men troll? Unpacking the psychology of online trolling

By Jack Ramage

Published Jun 24, 2021 at 11:32 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

‘Why do men keep their cars spotless but live like pigs at home?’, ‘Why do men cheat?’ and ‘Why do men ghost women?’ are a few of the many Google searches you’ll be recommended when pondering over the things men do and the reasons behind those actions. Worry no more though, because I—a man—am here to explore and answer some of those million dollar questions as best as I can, smashing stereotypes along the way.

The more beautiful and purer a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it. Rule 43 of the internet. It’s one of the many reasons why anonymous internet trolls, from the comfort of their own basement, hiding behind a dimly lit screen, engage in the act of trolling.

If you don’t know what trolling is yet, where have you been? Over the last decade, the term—once only surfacing on the backwaters of internet forums like 4chan—has seeped into mainstream culture. Mainstream media outlets caught on to the trend around the mid-2010s, producing reports which seemed humorously behind-the-times for younger internet dwellers. Jokes aside though, trolling—the internet slang term used to describe any internet user behaviour that is meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone else—can have a significant tangible, and detrimental, impact on the lives of innocent people.

So what makes people troll? Who are the people carrying out acts of trolling? Are they men? Many would argue that the majority are, but if that’s the case, then why? That’s what we’ll be unpacking in this edition of the Why do men column, joined by Siân Brooke—a Gender and Data scientist at the University of Oxford.

Why do more men troll?

Now, to be perfectly transparent I was a little misleading with the headline. Not all men are trolls. Brookes highlights how “part of the standard operating procedure for trolls is anonymity. However, they overwhelmingly target women and the behaviour of trolls are typically antisocial and masculine.” In other words, it’s difficult to pin down the gender of each troll online, since they tend to hide behind a veil of anonymity, but the majority display masculine traits. 

This shouldn’t really take anyone by surprise, gender differences in online—and offline—communication aren’t a new phenomenon. As Brooke highlights, “Studies suggest that women are more active in blogging and are more interested in the social aspects [of the internet], seeking to build communities constructively.”

Previous academic research has indicated that the perceptions of gendered behaviour lead individuals to subconsciously anticipate future gendered behaviour, as Brooke notes: “Individuals explain the same behaviours differently for men and women based on gendered implicit biases. It has been found that women trolls were perceived to have fewer motivations, malevolence and instigation were less often identified by others than for men or gender-neutral (completely anonymous) trolls. Overall, perpetrators who are women are characterised as mild whereas perpetrators who are male are responsible for more severe deviance.”

Why do people even troll?

On the face of it—and to put it in simple terms—many would argue that if you actively troll, you’re just a bit of a dick. And to a degree, this is true. Psychologists have attempted to pindown internal and external behaviours which may make someone more prone to trolling. Looking at the data, you might actually feel sorry for them. For instance, a psychological study conducted by the Federation University Australia pinpointed which personality traits predicted trolling behaviour. These included “the role of gender, psychopathy, sadism, emotional empathy, communication ability, narcissism, and other negative traits in motivating Internet trolling. Their results showed that psychopathy, sadism, and enjoying the pain of others are personality traits that contribute to internet trolling,” Brooke added.

She continued, “Unsurprisingly, emotional empathy and anxiety meant that an individual was less likely to become a troll. Interestingly, they found that gender did not significantly predict internet trolling. However, these sorts of psychological studies do not hold all the answers. While gender is not found to be relevant in the model, the behaviour that is significant is typically masculine, such as a lack of emotional empathy is. My research argues that there is not an innate difference in the psychology of men and women, but rather gender differences are so heavily socialised that they appear natural.”

Alongside gender, the specific context and platforms used affect how trolls are perceived by others. Brooke argues how “trolls of Wikipedia are seen to be motivated by internal factors relating to their sense of self-worth, whereas on Yahoo! Answers trolls are more influenced by external factors—such as social capital and standing.”

How is trolling evolving?

So, the multifaceted and complex nature of trolling has come a long way since the ‘troll face’ meme, drawn on MS paint with a mischievous smile meant to represent the facial expression of an internet troll. If you were around in the days of the late 2000s Facebook or even Myspace (rest in peace) you may remember it was plastered all over your timeline—it was something I just couldn’t get rid of, like my student loan. But still, the premise behind trolling has remained untainted—to cause harm and unwanted distress to the victim, often with little to no repercussions for the perpetrator.

Rapid developments in the technological sphere is bringing trolling to worrying new lows. For instance, the use of deepfakes—manufacturing audio, images and video that appear real, or could be passed off as real, when they’re actually fake. Of course, most deepfakes have been used in lighthearted contexts, such as splicing the face of Nicolas Cage over pretty much everyone and anyone. However, combine the creepy technology with the act of trolling and it gets rather more sinister.

As Brooke explains, “Deepfake pornography is a particularly concerning trend—generating fake pornographic content of individuals and celebrities, and sharing them widely. Women and especially POC women are overwhelming the targets of such abuse. Even if these images are not shared, their creation is incredibly concerning and is an act of gendered violence and harassment.”

Brooke draws upon how trolling within recent years has taken a political turn—often masked in different forms. As a feminist woman working in academia, Brooke shared that she’s been subject to “concern-trolling: harmful and demeaning messages or comments masked as constructive feedback; as well as sealioning: endless demands for evidence or answers that maliciously aim to derail the conversation and exhaust the speaker.”

She added, “In recent years, the language surrounding trolling has changed too. It’s become more political and intertwined with conspiracy theories. A common construction of trolling is now used by the far-right to derail liberal conversations.” Whether you agree with their political orientations or not, trolls have taken to hacktivism—an internet form of activism—too. Brooke draws upon an instance in 2015, where the Anonymous affiliate GhostSec replaced a website that publicised and supported the militant group ISIS on the deep web with an advert for Viagra and a message to “calm down.”

Although I don’t condone internet trolling in the slightest, there is an element of humorous creativity that, I have to admit, a part of me does respect. That being said, the vast majority of trolling online lacks such creative energy and instead is used to derail healthy political discourse. There’s so much more to be said about the psychology of trolling, and in particular why masculine individuals tend to gravitate towards it. If trolling was a chest buried in the desert, I’d only have dug the hole and brushed the sand off its lid.

To open the chest would require writing a book—and there’s definitely more qualified people to write such a book, Brooke being one of them. Regardless, I hope this column has helped you gain a little bit of understanding of why, the next time you make a provocative tweet and you encounter an anonymous troll fishing for a reaction. Don’t feed them—feel sorry for them. As science shows, they’re either, quite simply, douchebags or have their own demons they’re trying to mask through trolling strangers online.

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