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Where do trolls come from? This is what is behind the best known sociopaths on the Internet

26 mayo, 2021

The first thing we must acknowledge to trolls is that they have become ubiquitous beings: Wherever there is a comment box, a trolling appears. We almost accept it as something cultural, part of the essence of the Internet. But how did we get here?

After investigating why there are people who want to go viral, we continue mixing psychology with Internet history to break down the profile of the most well-known sociopaths on the net. What’s behind the sometimes endearing and sometimes obnoxious trolls?

A bit of history and etymology


In the linguistics department of Lancaster University, they defined the troll as “someone who appears to have a sincere desire to be part of a community, but whose real intention is breaking into the conversation or getting to exacerbate a conflict, for the sole purpose of entertainment. They also established that the trolling it fails if it fails to provoke other users or is not interpreted correctly.

The most purist trolls will take their heads with this definition: the original concept of “Internet trolling” is much friendlier. Arose to early 90’s on alt.folklore.urban (one of the most popular newsgroups on Usenet, forerunner of today’s discussion boards). To spot newcomers (newbies) and incidentally distancing themselves from them, veteran users published more than discussed topics in which only new subscribers commented.

This elitist process was considered a contribution to the platform and was baptized as “trolling for newbies”. In English – apart from the troll being that mythological creature on the bridge – the verb trolling refers to a fishing technique, which consists of dragging various tackle from a boat and luring the fish with baits (see picture).

By the end of the decade, alt.folklore.urban grew so much traffic that trolling increased and the term began to evolve. Now the insiders they took trolling as a form of entertainment: they deceived and misinformed newbies as part of an inside joke. Always for fun, not as a form of provocation.

Then,when was the trolling idea deformed to understand it as a way to interrupt a conversation and cause uneasiness among other users?

The funny troll vs. the stinging troll

Rubius troll

At some point, the concept of trolling that we have just seen crossed with another equally old: that of flame (a provocative message that generates heated responses). That’s why today there is a duality in the idea of ​​”trolling”: apart from that elitist and funny troll is the troll flamer and hurtful, that comes to get someone out of their minds.

Funny little trolls have fun fooling and teasing newbies in their community. They are such a dynamic and powerful subculture that without them the Internet would not be the same: they invented a slang that is already pop culture (lmfao, pwned, noob, 1337 …), they invented memes (rickroll, The Game, ragefaces …), they are even the origin of Anonymous and the symbol of the Guy Fawkes mask.

Hurtful trolls are a totally different, ubiquitous species born from the disinhibition effect provided by anonymity on the Internet. They have the freedom to express themselves as they would not in reality, which encourages them to be cruel to others as they would not be in the street.

In short, what we have called “funny trolls” here are there to waste your time, and those we have called “hurtful trolls” are to piss you off. Done the differentiation, what psychological profiles hide behind the two cases?

Funny troll profile

The funny troll, typical of chats and online communities, responds to the same social needs that we saw with people who want to go viral (except for status, since they normally act from anonymity). In summary:

  • The approval and membership needs: be accepted as one more in the online community, for example interact with others on the / b / board of 4chan without being called “newfag”
  • The need for prestige: the desire to do something important, such as causing a trolling and other users to follow your game or recognize it

In other words, they suffer a mix of elitism and narcissismThey long to belong to a minority, the troll subculture, and at the same time they want to make a fool of someone. “U mad?” it is what they say to someone when they have just left it “butthurt”; They do it for fun but deep down they feel “above.”

Quick tab:

  • Where are they: in a community that they consider their second home; 4chan, Reddit, YouTube, Forocoches, an online game, the deep web …
  • Who they attack: to the newbies (newcomers to the community) to show that they are the ones in charge or to distance themselves from the moderators. Also other communities they want to make fun of (Justin Bieber groupies, Apple fans …)
  • Why do they do it: because it’s fun, because they want to show that others are stupid.
  • Where do they come from: so that there is a ingroup there has to be an outgroup. The troll arises from the need for antagonism towards all those outside the group. This also happens in reality (taxi drivers vs Uber, for example).
  • How they affect us: this type of trolls enriches the Internet with its own language and viral phenomena that the rest of the network inherits.

Scorching Troll Profile

The troll that hurts is a kind of bully that hides in anonymity from Internet. As that first definition we saw said, it is one that “bursts” into conversations and always draws attention above others, because its primary intention is precisely to be noticed. To do this, he uses aggressive language, without filtering what he says, or directly makes threats.

These people may have antisocial disorder in real life (they are sadistic and narcissistic), but what makes them the sociopaths of the internet is that they forget that on the other side there is a person with feelings. There are academic studies that link the hours these trolls spend on the Internet with their lack of empathy. Thus, they end up treating others as objects instead of equals and when they close the tab they forget, they do not understand that they have just hurt a person.

The psychotherapist Aaron Balick (in the video) relates this type of trolls to the dark triad of personality, three “malevolent” traits that we can find in people:

  • Narcissism: feelings of greatness and lack of empathy.
  • Machiavellianism: tendency to manipulate and exploit others.
  • Psychopathy: antisocial, impulsive, and unapologetic behaviors.

An extreme case of trolling, where the “dark triad” is evident, is the RIP trolling: the game of going to make fun of those who have just lost a loved one. “How’s it hanging guys?” wrote a 4chan troll in tribute on Facebook for a girl who had just committed suicide.

Quick tab

  • Where are they: all over; Wherever there is someone creating content, a troll will appear in the comments to lower their self-esteem or simply to contradict them.
  • Who they attack: to the author of the content (bloggers, youtubers, tweeters …) or other users of a forum.
  • Why do they do it: to provoke, to get attention, for fun, or for self-defense during an argument. In general, they are looking for a reaction.
  • Where do they come from: They are people whose personality can be on the most sadistic and narcissistic end of the spectrum, who do not know how to recognize a person with feelings on the other side of the screen.
  • How they affect us: they can hurt our ego; We are vulnerable and negative comments are the most persistent in our head.

For the rest of the article, we focus on these types of trolls.

Why do their attacks affect us so much?

Bad comments are the ones that persist

The majority who smiles with the whole group is not the one who stands out, but the madman who is yelling and insulting on one side of the scene. Why? Because we cannot disconnect emotions from reasonWe feel first and think later. It’s a chemical thing: our brains produce a reaction long before we try to downplay trolling; if someone comes to attack us, their comment persists above the positives.

And although we fully understand that trolls are a minority, inside of us there is a small voice that wonders «What if the troll is right? What if this post / this video / this song that I have done is shit and I should dedicate myself to something else? »

But trolls don’t just affect content creators, they affect the audience as well. They explain it in Mother Jones: “the more despicable the comments of the trolls, the more polarized the readers of the article become.”

That is, trolls who oppose you with insults may affect the convictions of other commenters. Specifically, they get others to reinforce their prejudices: let’s imagine that the article demonstrates the existence of climate change; If a reader did not believe in climate change, he will pay more attention to the troll that insults the author than to the argued article he has just read.

Illegal trolling and jail time

Troll mail Insults that our colleague Miguel López received in the mail from a troll

In the UK, online threats face a prison sentence of up to two years. In what cases can we report a troll here in Spain?

The crime of threats has an unintuitive nuance: if they want you to be dead, it is not a crime; If they give you to understand that they will do you some harm, yes it is. That is, you can report when they threaten your peace of mind. On the other hand, the crime of insults is that they say something about you knowing that it is false.

The penalty in Spain for a crime of threats depends on whether the person who threatens imposes a condition to stop. It would be one to five years if it is conditional and achieves its purpose, six months to three years if it is conditional and does not achieve its purpose, or six months to two years if the threat has not been conditional.

Trolls generally do not have a purpose, they threaten without conditions, and yet sometimes (they go more than we would like) we read that they have achieved the worst: that people commit suicide after being insulted. What is it that motivates them? In they contacted three trolls from different communities that are explained like this:

“Ben” from 4chan:

It just makes me happy to make someone angry. It sounds weird, but I feed off his rage. The more they get mad, the better I feel

“Sarah”, troll on a parenting website:

I left school at the age of nine [por el acoso escolar]. I guess I’m a jerk because I drag all that grudge with me

“James”, gamer:

On gaming sites, if you’re not trolling, they see you as a moderator’s ass lick. Lots of people take it too seriously, especially on social media

Trolleo and machismo, do they go hand in hand?