For the lolz: New BYU research uncovers what motivates online trolls

Digital Exclusives

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PROVO, Utah (ABC4) – Trolling, or making a comment or post online to derive some sort of reaction from others, isn’t new to Internet culture. Some have even mastered getting a rise out of a stranger from behind a keyboard to an incredible degree.

However, newly published research from Brigham Young University has found data suggesting what could motivate a person to troll online.

Surveying over 400 users on Reddit, the popular news aggregator website filled with segmented discussion communities called subreddits, BYU researchers found individuals with dark triad personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy – when combined with schadenfreude, a German word describing when a person receives pleasure from passively watching the misfortune of others, were more likely to troll online.

“When they’re online, and they’re making comments or disruptive comments online, they actually derive pleasure from seeing others suffer,” Dr. Pamela Brubaker, a public relations professor at BYU who co-authored the research, tells ABC4.

Further understanding from the data also suggests women view trolling behavior to be dysfunctional, whereas men are more likely to see trolling as the means to a productive dialogue.

To Brubaker, understanding the difference between what a troll may be intending to communicate and the way they can be perceived is vital. Many who exhibit trolling behavior may be doing so to expose a sort of perceived flaw or wrongdoing they see in another’s behavior. By dropping a snarky comment or some other post that is intended to get a reaction, they may see it as a way to open up a conversation or dialogue.

“They don’t see trolling as being pointless, they actually see trolling in an online dialogue or conversation as actually having a point,” Brubaker explains of those with schadenfreude who in turn, post provocatively online. “They feel like its purpose is more, you know, to satirize or like mock or ridicule or poke fun at or expose people’s views. Basically, they feel like they’re foolish and they want to expose other people in front of an online audience.”

The problem for the trolls comes when those in their audience read their comments or posts and take offense to the way they have chosen to express their outrage.

“There’s a larger group of people who don’t feel like trolling provides value, and it doesn’t help facilitate online dialogue, and it disrupts it to the point where it doesn’t feel like we are collaborating and discussing ideas in a productive way,” Brubaker says of those who find trolling annoying or problematic.

While Brubaker says Reddit’s online forum format served as the ideal platform to conduct this research, which took three years from conceptualization to publishing, she says what anyone who has ever been on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook can attest to, trolling can be found anywhere online.

“This is clearly a behavior we see other places and these predictors are likely to come out in other forms, as well,” she adds.

Another important distinction she mentions is that trolls do not see themselves as being cyberbullies, especially since this behavior is not seen in a one-on-one setting, they see themselves as Internet comedians of sort. They do it for the “lolz” as Brubaker puts it.

Despite her findings, Brubaker doesn’t necessarily see trolling as a problem. She feels her team’s findings clearly indicate some sort of divide or dichotomy between what makes a troll and what makes a troll disliked.

“We just have to recognize that some people may perceive trolling as having a functional behavior, and other people don’t perceive it as having a functional behavior they feel like it disrupts the conversation,” she summarizes. “Everyone has a different perspective, and while trolls maybe enjoy provoking others online, others who are online don’t enjoy being provoked and they don’t appreciate these comments that are interjected into the conversation.”

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