Do all trolls have sadistic tendencies?

David Kelly

A link can be found between sadism and internet trolls.

Internet trolls represent some of the worst parts of humanity. The internet has democratised the publication of speech, allowing almost everyone to have a voice. It has also allowed individuals to use their voice to hurt people while hiding behind a screen.

Trolls garner more spotlight than is deserved, normally for the wrong reasons. The recent ‘Captain Marvel’ film was targeted by trolls because the lead identifies as a feminist. They attempted to sabotage the film’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes before it was released, resulting in the site banning pre-emptive scores.

This example of trolling was particularly egregious as the film had not even been released yet. It highlighted the destructive, malicious aspect of the troll agenda. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, so long as somebody is hurt in the process.

Pnina Fichman and Madelyn R. Sanfilippo define trolling as intentionally disruptive behaviour that occurs on the internet and involves users with no existing relationship in real life. This definition leaves some room for nuance, as it considers the grades of trolling that occur.

An article in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality (Psychology) examines the links between internet trolling and sadism. A sadist is someone who derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others. As trolling often involves virtual cruelty without the risk of social repercussions, it is a perfect pastime for sadists.

Trolls and sadists derive pleasure from the pain of others. However, they engage in a psychological rationalisation process to justify this pleasure to themselves. When shown pictures of individuals in pain, trolls will downplay that pain to rationalise their sadistic tendencies.

Often, a person’s self-image defends itself against threats to that self-image by employing mechanisms such as rationalisation. A particularly reprehensible example is the trolling of Leslie Jones, a black actress that starred in ‘Ghostbusters’. By rationalising a racist attack on Jones by downplaying the potential harm, trolls minimise the denigration of their own self-image.

Another example is when the ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ actor, Will Poulter, was trolled off social media after receiving insults targeting his appearance. If individuals view a person in the public interest, like Poulter, as detached from themselves, the cruelty directed towards him becomes more enticing.

Another finding from the research is the link between positive emotion and trolling. The sadistic associations of trolling are not explained by other, broader forms of antisociality, such as aggression and psychopathy scores. Rather, the sadistic aspect of trolling is statistically explained by the release of positive emotion.

It’s interesting to consider some anecdotal evidence that corresponds to this empirical data. Seven News, an Australian news service, completed a report that confronted trolls in real life. The individuals confronted rationalised their behaviour by citing the disconnect between their online persona and their real-life personality.

One troll targeting a 15-year-old Australia’s Got Talent contestant and was confronted by a TV host. They followed the exact pattern laid out in the empirical data. When confronted with the real-life impact of his words, he rationalised his behaviour by claiming his internet persona is disconnected from his actual personality. This apparently justified his sadistic attack.

Not all trolls are sadists, but there is clear link between the two. If we are to develop solutions, it’s important to develop a clear diagnosis.

David Kelly

Image credit: