For a long time there has been an increasing sense that Internet trolling has been growing out of control. Though the phenomenon has been around for some time, trolling rose to prominence in 2013 when, in quick succession, shocking threats were received by feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez and classicist Mary Beard. There is little doubt that while the trolls were braying for blood, others were braying for the trolls.
Last week it seemed that some sort of public justice was delivered when a Sky News reporter tracked down and exposed an individual who had allegedly been using Twitter to abuse Gerry and Madeleine McCann repeatedly since 2010 – sometimes up to 50 times a day (buzzfeed). No doubt Sky viewers experienced some satisfaction when Brenda Leyland was confronted on the street by Sky reporter Martin Brunt. There, in front of a TV camera, he destroyed the cloak of anonymity offered by her Twitter handle “sweepyface” and asked her, point blank, “Why are you using your Twitter account to attack the McCanns?” She made a quick getaway.
The satisfaction of seeing her exposed did not last long. Three days later she was found dead in a hotel room in Leicester. Suddenly the tables were turned and some public soul searching began as sympathy turned to Ms. Leyland herself. In her death, she is seen less as a sadistic monster than as a vulnerable individual who couldn’t tolerate the consequences of her actions once made so public.
Even the Sky News investigation [video] admitted that Leyland’s tweets were not the worst taken from a portfolio of anti-McCann trolls – presumably she was singled out because she was unlucky enough to be identified. A closer inspection of her tweets clearly indicates an obsession with the McCann case and a certain insensitivity towards the McCann’s themselves, but among her tweets, no threats were identified and her language of “attack” was described by Buzzfeed as generally “polite and measured.”
Ultimately this turns out to be a tragic story full of unexpected paradoxes leaving us all with further questions. Who was more harmed in this tragedy, the original “troll” or the McCanns? Was the Sky News item itself a “parallel process” in which we the public became the trolls and Leyland became the victim? Perhaps what’s happened in this case rightly complicates an issue that we all hoped would be so simple – that the trolls are bad, and the rest of us are good.
We all knew it had to be more complicated than that. Psychology has long shown us that people are complex beasts with both good and bad inside them (this mixture was a speciality of Freud’s). When you think about the Internet as an extension of self into the digital world, you can see the heady mixture that it offers. Sure, the Internet is just a tool, but the way in which individuals use that tool will vary greatly. A hammer can be used to productively slam a nail into a wall, or it can be used to bash somebody’s head in. The tool is neutral, but the way it can be used is not.
In my book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self I show that online social networks, in particular, enable some parts of the psyche to the exclusion of others – namely the ego. In a freshly released article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences entitled “Trolls just want to have fun,” the authors argue, with some compelling research to back them, that those certain personality traits are not only more likely to be online, but to troll online while they are there. They describe the “dark tetrad” of personality traits found in some individuals (narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism) that are highly correlated not only with trolling, but also with the enjoyment of trolling. Such was the extent of the correlation that the authors say “the Internet is their [the sadists’] playground.”
Men are more moral than they think and for more immoral than they can imagine – Freud
Something that Freud taught us, which is not reflected so much in psychometric tests these days, is that we all enjoy a little bit of sadism which is why there would have been satisfaction derived from Leyland’s public exposure. It is not only a matter of “just deserts” but that sadistic part in all of us that allows us to get rid of our own discomfort with our own bad bits, but projecting them onto others.
The Independent’s Grace Dent describes our era as that of the “Internet wild west” in which “the rules of civility are yet to be established.” I would argue that the Internet itself can enable less civility because of the way it interacts with our psyches. Online social networks like Twitter that allow anonymous posting enable users to interact with others without the consequence of direct emotional feedback from the people with whom they are interacting.
While it would be comforting to believe that this “online disinhibition effect” (John Suler) not only affects those with sadistic or anti-social traits, this simply is not the case. Though the authors of “Trolls just want to have fun” state that “dark personalities leave large digital footprints” – the nature of the Internet also enables the darker sides of all the rest of us to be activated more readily. It is a paradox then, that the recent death of an exposed and branded “Internet troll” forces us to ask these questions. After all, we may indeed be in the Internet wild west, but it’s the wild west in each of us that we really need to worry about.
Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another – Freud
In this interview with TheWebPsyche Nathalie Nahai, I apply psychological insights to explore the more complex nature of trolling:
More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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