By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
If you read articles online and continue into the "comments" section, it doesn't take long to find them: individuals, usually anonymous, who are engaged in surprisingly hostile and personal exchanges with strangers -- and they seem to relish the sport. Who are these people, I'll often wonder, and what motivates this odd hobby of picking fights online? There is a name for them: "Internet Trolls." Not to be confused with patent trolls, who obtain patent rights for the sole purpose of winning damages in litigation, the internet trolls are those who engage in communication looking to spark controversy, taking positions and choosing insults for what seems to be the sole purpose of getting a rise out of someone. According to the Wikipedia definition, an internet troll is "a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response."
There is some new research on what would make a person choose that kind of role. Three Canadian psychologists (Buckels, Trapnell & Paulhus, 2014) looked at the troll-personality and found it associated with some deeply serious behavioral traits. Internet trolls, according to the authors quoted in Mother Jones, "feel sadistic glee at the distress of others," adding that "sadists just want to have fun...and the Internet is their playground!" The study and surrounding discussion opens up an interesting window on human communication. In contexts outside of the anonymous comment sections, to what extent are people prone to using communication as a weapon for its own sake or as a tool to gain attention? This post takes a look at that, and adds some thoughts on the kinds of trolls that might lead you to trial, or appear in trial or pretrial research.