The virtual world is an integral part of our everyday life. It is a place where we can interact and connect with others through social media, blogs, websites, teleconferencing, emailing, etc. This unique environment forms a distinct online community that operates independently, yet in conjunction with the real world. The virtual world is a fascinating culture of faceless humans. However this mysterious world is inundated with those who don’t play by conventional social rules. Rather, they deceptively manipulate situations and create havoc in a peaceful community with their rude and ruthless behaviour. Who are these people? Trolls of course!

Unlike the trolls represented in literature, there is nothing magical about internet trolls, and if you spend time online, you are bound to run into one. They love to hang out in crowded online communities, eagerly waiting for a post to appear on a site and comment on anything that could create complete chaos. Their goal is simple—to disrupt the flow of communication while having a laugh at another’s expense. Here are some of the tactics they use to entice their victim to respond to their virtual jabs:

  • Name-calling
  • Insults
  • Deliberately saying and doing dumb things
  • Put-downs
  • Rants
  • Harassment
  • Off-topic posts

Once they get the community riled up, they sit back and watch their plan unfold. Trolls love to engage in combative and non-productive inflammatory jests which often leave their victim[s] feeling defeated, humiliated, insecure and sometimes even threatened. These individuals often play with people’s emotions and don’t know when to stop.

Why would someone be cruel online?

Since trolling is a relatively new phenomenon, research is lacking on what the motive and personality characteristics of people who participate in trolling is. But, if we agree that all practising socially acceptable behaviour serves a purpose, then clearly internet trolls are getting some type of kick out of their actions. But what are they getting? Furthermore, what are some of the personality quirks associated with this type of behaviour?

Internet trolls are:

  1. Emotionally detached
    People who troll have lost the feeling of empathy. They have desensitised themselves to the feelings of the person on the other side of the screen. The computer creates a barrier to human emotion and it’s hard to detect how much damage is being done when they can’t see how the person on the receiving end is responding. Plus, a screen allows leeway for the troll to do whatever they want without any accountability. Thus, they engage in conduct that they never would have done in a face-to-face interaction.
  1. Identity coverers
    Within a matter of minutes, 53-year-old Sam can become 25-year-old Christina, and you’ll never know who he really is because he has concealed his identity. People who troll conceal their identity and hide behind a cloak of anonymity. If they can’t be seen, they can behave anyway they want [or so they think]. Many people who troll the internet take great pride in masking their true identity. In a matter of minutes they can create a fictitious profile, switching their gender and age; and if you ask for proof, they send a photo of their fake self easily pulled off the internet.
  1. Leading a double life
    Similar to point 2, people who troll feel empowered by their online persona and may use the internet as a means to say and behave in ways they wish they could in their real lives. Internet trolls like juicy gossip, they like tabloid headlines and they like to nose around in other people’s lives, but they can’t seem to get a handle on their own. It’s almost as if the troll takes on an independent personality to cope with their current life situation.
  1. Deceptive manipulators
    Unfortunately, some people who troll enjoy deceiving and playing with the emotions of others. Research has found a correlation between trolls and sadistic behaviour. So these people take great pride in humiliating and degrading other people. They enjoy watching others suffer. Maybe they are suffering in their own life and this is the only way they can get back at others. For instance, someone who is bullied in the workplace might retaliate online. So in a sense, trolling serves as a means of retribution for the things that have gone wrong in their own lives.

How can you avoid becoming the victim of a troll?

If you want to steer clear of trolls, you have to beat them at their own game. Understand what feeds and drives them to take things to the next level. Listed below are some things you need to know about people who troll:

  1. They love it when you retaliate. When they know they have exasperated you, they will intensify their ill-mannered tactics
  2. You cannot reason with them; they are irrational
  3. They lack manners and therefore don’t operate under the conventional terms of social etiquette
  4. They will not let you win or have the last word.

What are some practical tips to help me deal with a troll?

the-toll-trolls-take-2-200x300If you are the victim of a troll, do not fret. Here are some tips to help you when you encounter trolling situations:

  1. First disengage from any combative conversation. Do not let yourself get personally absorbed in an unhealthy dialogue. Every electronic device has an amazing little button that powers it off. Use it.
  2. Take a break and get away from the computer. The online world creates a lot of impulsivity. Often you may feel that you need to respond immediately. This is dangerous. When you respond impulsively, you are reacting. It is okay to get away and put time and space between yourself and the situation. Time and space will help you calm down, clear your head and figure out a more appropriate way to respond.
  3. Don’t take it as a personal attack. This is easier said than done, but you have to separate who you as a person are from what you are being attacked for online. Odds are, the person trolling you doesn’t even know you personally. So regardless of how unkind and personal the troll can become, it’s not a direct attack on the individual.
  4. Cut off the conversation. Come up with simple statements like “You are entitled to your opinion, but rude and personal comments are unwarranted and unwelcome.” Then completely disengage from the conversation.
  5. Do not engage in accusatory lingo online. For example, be wary of ‘you’ messages, as they can create a hostile conversation.
    Here is an example:
    “You don’t know what you’re talking about. How can you be so stupid?”
    A better approach is expressing your own perspectives, views and opinions by using ‘I’ messages.
    Here is an example:
    “I disagree with your statement and the view is not reflective of current research.”
  6. Ensure your safety. If at any point in time your safety is threatened, you are harassed and the intent behind the trolling is to cause you harm, you must report the incident[s] to the site providers. Keep a record or screenshots of all of the threatening posts. You may need this information in the event you have to pursue legal action.

The virtual world is an intriguing world. As a matter of fact, many of us couldn’t do our jobs or function efficiently without the internet. Unfortunately, as long as the online community exists so will trolls. So, accept them for what they are—nuisances who serve no true purpose except to create trouble with a capital T [for Troll].

This was first published in the May 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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