The Psychology of the Internet Trolls

Everyday we hear brands, celebrities; politicians complain about being trolled on social media and are scared to share their views on controversial topics. Even brands get trolled making it difficult to protect their brand image. So who are these Trolls? Troll is a person who sows discord on the social media by posting inflammatory messages targeting the strong brands and personalities. The people who relish this online freedom is called trolls, a term came from the fishing technique of slowly dragging a baited hook from a moving boat. Troll is kind of a ugly monster hiding in the caves and scares and makes life difficult for travellers (in our case Social Media Users).

Remember the time when we subscribed to social media (facebook, twitter etc.) to get connected, share ideas and access free flowing information in the digital space. But now people say and do things in social media that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in real time situations. Psychologists call this the “online disinhibition effect”, which is of two types – The Benign Disinhibition and Toxic Disinhibition. The former involves sharing of personal things including secret emotions, fear and wishes and the later one involves rude language, harsh criticism, anger, hatred, even threats.

Benign Disinhinition is an act of better understanding oneself by exploring new emotions and experimental dimensions to one’s own identity. In contrast, toxic disinhibition is a blind release of strong repressed emotions without any personal growth. John Suler, Department of Psychology, Rider University, Lawrenceville, New Jersey has explores six factors that interact with each other in creating this online disinhibition effect: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority.



Though people might open their social media accounts with their email and phone numbers but this may not reveal much about their personal details, also they can alter their identity by giving false information. This anonymity gives them courage to act online in the manner, which may not match their real life image. Also this gives them the freedom to disown any wrong action committed on the Internet by just saying, “It’s not me”.



Mostly all the social media platforms are text driven whether it is Twitter, whatsapp, etc. Since conversations on these platforms are not face-to-face, therefore this invisibility feature gives courage to the people to say things, which otherwise they wouldn’t. People don’t have to worry about how they look or sound when they type a message. They don’t have to worry about how others look or sound in response to what they say.



Our emails, facebook and twitter posts are asynchronous. People don’t interact with each other in real time. Others may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to reply. Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction disinhibits people. In real life the situation is not so and a person gets real time reactions and therefore is more cautious as to what to say.



Absent face-to-face cues combined with text communication can alter self-boundaries. People may feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche.



If we combine the opportunity to easily escape or dissociate from what happens online with the psychological process of creating imaginary characters, we get a somewhat different force that magnifies disinhibition. Consciously or unconsciously, people may feel that the imaginary characters they “created” exist in a different space, that one’s online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. Therefore, they view the Internet as rather their dream virtual reality, and split their persona life between the two. They would not care about their behavior in a dream world where they have the control.



While online a person’s status in the face-to-face world may not be known to others and may not have as much impact. Authority figures express their status and power in their dress, body language, and in the trappings of their environmental settings. The absence of those cues in the text environments of cyberspace reduces the impact of their authority.


Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. Researcher Ben Radford wrote about the phenomenon of clowns in history and modern day in his book Bad Clowns and found that bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls. They do not dress up as traditional clowns but for their own amusement, they tease and exploit “human foibles” in order to speak the “truth” and gain a reaction. Experts believe that the Internet will go worse in the future. Some worry this will hurt the open exchange of ideas and compromise privacy. Trolls and bullies seem to behave uncontrollably and disruptively online, but could technology and other techniques be used against them?

By Gaurav Sood – The author is a brand communication professional, consultant and educator with two-decade practice of creating strong brands.

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