The Psychology of Trolls

Once upon a time, there existed creatures called Trolls, or so the legends and folktales say.  According to my reference works on these subjects, Trolls of Scandinavian folklore are usually huge ogres with great strength and little wit.  The most famous tales of them have them lurking under bridges to demand payment of those who would cross, killing those who would make the attempt without paying the toll.  Later, so the texts say, the stories told that they shrank to a smaller, dwarfish folk who inhabited caves.  Eventually, they apparently left our world altogether, and were never seen or heard from again.

But those reports are wrong, for Trolls do indeed exist, even today.  They are alive and well and wreaking new havoc on the Internet.

Do you wish to enter a chatroom or participate on a message board?  Beware the Trolls!  They will appear when you least expect it, and demand a different kind of payment from you.  They will assail you with insults, obscenities, and anything offensive they can think of to get you give them what they really want: attention.  They will keep up these attacks to watch you cry out in protest and pain, and the more you do so, the more they will keep it up.  That's what they really want, after all: a reaction, any reaction, for that is the coin by which they measure their success.    The more they receive, the more they will continue the behavior that is giving them what they want.  That it upsets others is of no concern to them -- or, rather, it is of primary concern for them, for upsetting people is their business.

Like the Trolls of old, they seem to have great strength, given the kinds of trouble they can cause;  but ultimately, also like the Trolls of old, they have little wit.  They all use the same tactics, and they all resort to the same ways of provoking people.  First insult members of the chatroom or board by calling them names, ridiculing their comments and questioning their intelligence.  Then start insulting the subject for which the board or chatroom was created.  If that doesn't get enough reaction, start upping the ante by bringing in completely unrelated subjects.  Tell the other participants that they (or the subject under discussion) are prejudiced racially, sexually, ethnically, religiously -- take your pick, they'll eventually hit 'em all, and then go for the jugular: doing all this while throwing in obscene language and casting other foul aspersions on anyone who happens to be within range.  This is, of course, incredibly inflammatory behavior to any marginally civilized person, and a normal sense of justice and fair play naturally demands defense and protest.

Which is exactly what the Troll is hoping for, because they don't play fair.  They don't care about the same things that brought the other participants to the site; they only want to get people riled up and see the trouble they created so they can feel big and strong and powerful because they created such a fuss.  And while they're watching the outrage and anger fly, they're sitting under the bridge, laughing while they chew on the bones of their victims.  All that public indignation has served only one purpose: it fed the Troll's hunger for power and made him happy.  It certainly did nothing for the people who got upset.

Tales tell us that warning signs were put up near bridges where Trolls were believed to be living, to keep unsuspecting folk away so that they would not be robbed or killed.  You could not cross that bridge without losing either your money or your life, so it was better to turn around and ignore that bridge.  Not especially convenient if that was one of few bridges around and you needed to get to the other side, but eventually, the Troll would either starve to death or leave, and the bridge would be safe again.  Until the next Troll moved in, and then the same warnings and behavior would apply.

Simply put, Trolls are bullies.  They are at heart small and mean people who have a need to make themselves feel big and strong, and the easiest way they can find to do that is by mistreating other people and taking pleasure in their pain.  It's not healthy, but it's also not something that will be made better by giving in to the bully.  It is far better to walk away from him, to ignore him, and even suffer a few punches rather than give him what he wants by crying and begging for mercy or even fighting with him.  If you are not a "good victim," he will look elsewhere to get what he wants.  And ultimately, if direct action needs to be taken against any bully, it has to come from the proper authorities: in the case of school bullies, the administration and faculty, or even the police, in the case of Internet bullies, the persons on the site who have the power to block or remove their inflammatory and offensive remarks.

Because if you look closely at what these Internet Trolls say, you will eventually see the truth: They may look like big nasty ogres, but theyre really just sorry little people hiding in their dark caves, coming out to make mischief before running back into hiding where they can watch the trouble they made and laugh all alone in the dark.  They're emotional terrorists.  Ignoring them isn't easy because it hurts to see them say and do things designed to make people feel upset and angry, but it's the only thing that will make them go away.  Ignoring them completely creates an environment that simply does not give them what they're looking for.  It's like soaking the woodpile with water: when the match comes along looking for something to burn, it wont catch, so it must go elsewhere to have its fun.  But everyone must turn their backs and not respond, or the Troll will have the hope that if he keeps at it and tries hard enough, he'll get a big enough reaction to start a real fire.

Be it a Troll under a bridge or a Troll on the Internet, the warning sign is the same:

DO NOT FEED THE TROLL.


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