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The science of trolling

The contemporary term ‘troll’, exists in two forms. It is a noun and a verb. The noun troll was originally a Norse mythological creature. Very much like shame, it resided in the dark and would die when exposed to sunlight. It normally lived in forests or a mountain, menaced travelers, and was not safe for humans to be around. In mythology, trolls symbolize destructive instincts.

The verb ‘to troll’ or ‘trolling’ is a method of fishing. While trolling, a fisherman casts a line out into the water, usually a few, and pulls them behind a boat, hoping that he will catch something.

Internet trolling consists of both of the above. It does involve baiting people into getting an emotional reaction out of them by pushing the right (read: wrong) buttons. If you are passionate about something or believe in a cause, a troll will target exactly what you hold close and will oftentimes get your attention.

A troll will ‘bait’ you by abusing, irritating, making fun of your opinions, or just by not taking what you are saying seriously – in plain simple words, by provoking you. The most effective means of trolling are personal attacks where you share your work but the troll offends you with off-topic comments about your body, complexion, gender, faith, etc.

When I had to look up comments of trolls as part of research for this article, I would say that it was not the easiest task at hand. Trolls in our region seem to use undoubtedly the most obnoxious abuses which may impact the mental health of anyone who is subjected to their brutality. This kind of trolling falls into the category of cyber-bullying and to an extent, cyber-crime. Research has also shown that the term ‘trolling’ should be eradicated because online abuse is far more than an online prank with dire repercussions.

According to my research in cyber-psychology, what enables a troll is the online disinhibition effect. Factors like anonymity, lack of eye-contact, invisibility, dissociative anonymity, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority interact with each other while creating this toxic online environment. Some studies say that trolls have narcissistic, anti-social tendencies with the least amount of affective empathy.

These trolls – who are mostly men, according to a study by researchers at Brunel University London and Goldsmiths, University of London – troll people for many reasons. There are predisposing and precipitating factors of this.

In my opinion, they invest so much of their energy into abusing, criticizing, and mentally harming strangers due to something we call psychological projection. It is safe to say that every human being projects the disowned facets of her/himself onto other people.

Similarly, on posts of people who are living the dreams of the troll, a troll will degrade them to make them feel how he feels about his life. When you start feeling terrible about the way you look when a troll body-shames you, his projection becomes successful and his feelings of self-loathe are carried by you.

Another instance when people troll is when they are trying to create an online identity for themselves. They find validation in likes and followers and find a sense of achievement after bad-mouthing someone of perceived high stature. If someone is looking to be in limelight, his go-to move is to put up a highly controversial critical statement about a star or a celeb or someone who is being followed by a lot of people. Sharing similar opinions with other trolls also gives them a sense of connection and society. A troll will not say things he says online to your face!

A troll feeds off attention. He will do whatever it takes to get your attention. I have noticed that on social media, trolling famous people with a lot of followers is a good way to gain followers off their profile. Unintentionally, when a famous person responds to a troll while trying to educate him or teach him a lesson, the troll gets noticed by thousands of followers of the famous person – which ends up in the troll gaining some recognition. This is a means of self-publicity of the troll opening its way to ridicule, jealousy and betrayal. By responding, you may be empowering your troll. This also goes the other way round. By responding to a troll in a ‘savage’ manner, celebrities try their hand at more engagements and project back their un-coolness.

Trolls’ aversion to authority figures can be seen under posts of people of high social standing, and insecurity about their manhood on posts of feminists. Likewise, when they aren’t secure in their religious beliefs, a post with the beliefs of another sect or religion will trigger their anxiety which will require them to dismiss their opinion by projection so that the trolls don’t have to carry the uncertainty of their belief. When they feel powerless is when they attempt to make another powerless.

According to an American study, trolls are mostly inclined towards right-wing politics. But as the recent documentary on Farhan Virk showed, political trolling is another ball-game altogether. Even in his story, I noticed a great deal of social media addiction. Like other addictions, even social media addiction has predisposing factors – but the economic and social structure of Pakistan facilitates precipitating factors.

These trolls are mostly unemployed. If you ever notice, meme-generators are incredibly witty and intelligent but due to lack of opportunities their energies are misdirected. If nothing more, it provides amusement and attention that they lack in their personal lives.

Trolls are not just these faceless people on social media. On a larger sphere, Donald Trump and Sheikh Rasheed (more so in person), and even your aunt – who is always after you for no reason, invalidating your successes, focusing only on that one thing – fall into the similar category. So it’s just not about surface-level factors but goes deep down to their sense of self.

If you notice them, you can see clearly that while abusing one person, the abuser actually addresses millions for followers of that person and often gives out statements that will gather him more likes. This is how they self-publicize at the expense of others.

Some people may assume that they have mastered the skill of ignoring trolls but trolling is in no way harmless. Especially not when there is an army of them versus one 22-year-old female, Japanese wrestler, or one Indian teenage TikTok user or a Hollywood celebrity. Cyber-bullying can take its worst form into cyber-crime and impact the mental health of people which takes them to the verge of suicide. Trolling or cyber-bullying may not be the main cause of someone’s suicide but can surely prove to be a huge factor and a catalyst to the process.

In future articles, I hope to further discuss the toxic environment of the internet and its impacts as well as the manifestations of online abuse. I would also like to introduce the culture, values, and vulnerabilities of Gen-Z and the role of parenting along with what can be done about the issue of growing cyber-crime on every level of analysis.

Syed Askari, "The science of trolling," The News. 2020-07-16.
Keywords: Social sciences , Religious beliefs , Economic structure , Social structure , Toxic environment , Mental health , Social standing , Media addiction , Social media , Sheikh Rasheed , Donald Trump