A few days ago, some interesting research hit the news. Everyone who has used a 'discussion forum' online, or perhaps posts to a blog, even uses FaceBook to post 'updates' abot their activities, or reads the comments beneath articles in online newspapers, will have encountered at least one 'troll'. These people never debate or discuss anything. They resort to offensive smears, name calling and often extremely personal attacks on any and every topic, from religion, through climate change and politics. Even science threads are not completely free of them.
The Canadian research, which is comprehensive in its sample and extensive in the testing, has come up with an interesting conclusion. 'Trolls' are generally people who display Machiavellian manipulative traits; they enjoy causing offence and hurt; they enjoy causing fear (one acquaintance had an exchange with a Troll, who then stalked her across the internet, making personal threats. The Police were called and traced him. He turned out to be a 13 year old with the classic psychopath profile) through stalking and threats, and who have sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. This should concern us, because it is often these behaviours that make the running on a wide range of subjects and topics in todays world.
Just look at how the political debate between left and right ideologies seems to have become bogged down and dominated by epithets, offensive labels and name-calling. Look at the typical behaviours of those leading it. It seems to be particularly prevalent among many 'atheists' who troll religious debates and sites. The same has happened in the 'climate change' debate - it is the Trolls who make all the running and currently have the attention of policy makers and politicians. Why is 'cyber bullying' such a problem? Once again, it is those inclined to 'trolling' who are the lead offenders, and other studies over the years have suggested a strong link between 'bullying' and psychopathic and sadistic behaviours.
Among the classic indicators found by the researchers was 'desire to hurt' among many Trolls. These people actively take 'roles' in online games which give them the best opportunity to 'cause hurt' to other game characters, or 'kill' opponents. Another tendency is to regard animals and people as 'things', objects to be used, manipulated and abused. Again, classic psychopath behaviour. Once someone becomes an 'object' he or she is no longer considered to have any more value than would be given to, say, a stone or a window to be broken with it.
The online Independent carries a good report on the research here. The full report is available (behind a paywall) at Science Central entitled "Trolls just want to have fun". Unfortunately, it does seem that their idea of fun is to cause as much distress and pain as possible to anyone who happens to come into contact through the internet or any other medium.
We should be worried by this, since it does tell us something important about the society we have blundered into creating. Perhaps it is also a call to run a few checks on the trolls - none of the traits they display can be termed 'healthy' for anyone, least of all themselves. The research raises some very interesting questions across a very wide spectrum of behaviours closely related to 'trolling', with big implications for a number of organisations who encourage it as a part of 'civil action' for their causes.