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Editorial: Tiny, tattered trolls

Online "trolls" and their motivation are the topic of academic study.
Online "trolls" and their motivation are the topic of academic study.

It’s become a bit of a trope to argue that, if you’re afflicted by online trolls, you should simply think of them as angry men in their bathrobes, shouting through their computers from the safety of their mothers’ basements.

Well, new research suggests that idea might be closer to the truth than you might think.

A study in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour titled “Are sex differences in antisocial and prosocial Facebook use explained by narcissism and relational self-construal?” (you can read it here — http://bit.ly/2eYA0mq) has taken a look at men, women and their roles on social media platforms.

Surveying both sorts of users, the researchers found that men scored higher in surveys measuring narcissism, and at the same time, reported different and more hostile forms of social media use.

“Men are more likely to engage in bullying on Facebook, and trolling online in general relative to women,” the researchers wrote. “However, no research has yet examined why men might engage in these antisocial uses of Facebook. In the present study, we hypothesised that narcissism may be a trait that explains men’s more antisocial motives for using Facebook relative to women.”

“To this end, 573 participants living in the United States completed measures of narcissism, relational self-construal, and motives for using Facebook. Results revealed that men reported more antisocial motives for using Facebook than did women, which was explained by their greater narcissism,” the study says. “Narcissists are self-focused and characterized primarily by their exploitativeness, need for leadership, grandiose self-perceptions, and self-entitlement. They show increased attention-seeking, egotistical biases, nonconformity, hostility, prejudice, and a lack of consideration and tolerance for others.”

Researcher Nellie Ferenczi explained to VICE that people with narcissistic tendencies, “may also behave in hostile ways because they are prone to aggression and manipulative behavior. Underlying a hostile action might be the intent to re-establish power and self-esteem. Finally, some research indicates that narcissism is linked with a drive for negative social influence and power which may also explain in part the attraction of hostile attention.”

In other words, trolls bully online because they feel tattered and small — and because, as the researchers point out, narcissists are enabled, “to use Facebook in antisocial ways to meet their self-promotion needs and to counter ego threats.”

When you interact with them, it makes them feel more important and massages their egos. Hence the oft-quoted internet dictum, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Now, that might not make you feel any better the next time you’re savagely attacked online. But what the researchers hope to develop, with this evidence in hand, are functional ways to intervene and contain online hostile behaviour.

We wish them every bit of luck, while admitting we expect at least a few trolls to post squeaky little “I’m important, I’m important” messages in the comments section below, denying everything. Two steps up, one step down. Every time.

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