Trolls and cyberbullies have always been assumed in our society to have low self-esteem – after all, what kind of a person would go out of their way to demean and bully other people than someone who struggles with their own self-worth? Unfortunately, there are darker forces at work which appear to be driving these online predators – and their horrific online behavior has far more to do with sadism and psychopathy than low self-esteem.
Research has shown that those who enjoy trolling also happen to have high levels of narcissism, sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, known as the “Dark Tetrad of personality” (Buckels, Trapnell & Paulhus, 2014). This means that the same narcissists and psychopaths you encounter in real life could very well also be doling out their abuse behind the computer screen.
Cyberbullying and the Connection to Narcissism and Psychopathy
An even more recent study revealed that while trolls have the cognitive empathy to assess how someone might feel about their insulting comments, they lack the affective empathy to actually care about how that other person might feel (Sest & March, 2017). Unsurprisingly, the same conclusion about cognitive empathy versus affective empathy has been shown for narcissists in another study (Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012).
The same study showed that higher levels of sadism and psychopathy predicted trolling behavior. The higher someone scored on psychopathy, the more likely they were able to recognize and provoke the suffering of their victims but remain emotionally indifferent to it.
In short? The reason trolls and cyberbullies are able to abuse others so effectively (or at the very least persistently) is because they derive a sick sense of pleasure from harming others and do not suffer any negative emotional consequences themselves from inflicting pain. While not all trolls are created equal, those who are psychopathic are psychologically dangerous to those they target.
Abuse Victims and Cyberstalking
Cyberbullying and harassment present another layer of harm when the “troll” in question is not anonymous but someone you know in real life. Many victims of malignant narcissistic partners find themselves harassed, stalked and bullied online by their former partners, especially if these victims left their abusers first.
Abusive narcissists can create numerous anonymous accounts to “troll” and stalk their former victims on their various social media platforms, post the victim’s intimate photos or personal information, hack into their accounts, stage smear campaigns online, or even create fake accounts of the victim in an attempt to ruin the victim’s reputation. There are many ways in which this form of stalking can escalate online and it can be an unsettling ordeal for victims who simply wish to escape the abuse, only to find themselves bombarded with traumatizing e-mails, messages or comments which ensnare them back into the vicious cycle.
According to a recent NPR investigation, cyberstalking has become a common part of domestic violence cases. Not only is social media a hunting ground for psychopathic individuals, technology can be a way for abusive partners to actually locate their victims. Abusers are known to track their victims using GPS on devices, eavesdrop on the victim through the use of remote tools via hidden mobile apps, and even install spyware to keep track of their victims’ online activities.
The impact of chronic cyberbullying can be lethal, leading to depression, anxiety, and even suicide. It can take a toll on the mental health and psychological well-being of victims. Cyberbullying does not occur in a vacuum, but rather, adds onto previous traumatic experiences, existing symptoms of PTSD or Complex PTSD, as well as prior incidents of abuse, especially for survivors who are being stalked by their former partners.
What To Do If You’re Being Trolled, Stalked Or Cyberbullied
If you suspect the perpetrator is someone you know or have an active case against, it’s important to document every single incident of cyberbullying. Screenshot everything. You may want to investigate the cyberbullying laws in your state and if you wish to do so, file a report with local law enforcement.
If you’re being bullied online and the bully is not someone you know, it is still important to document the abuse. Aside from blocking the perpetrator’s accounts on the platform you’re using, you may also want to file a report to the service provider or local law enforcement, especially if the cyberbully is threatening you in any way. Serial trolls or stalkers tend to create multiple accounts to create a rampage of harassment on their targets. If you can build the evidence that it is the same person behind these trolling accounts, legal action may be feasible.
Knowing what you know about how sadistic some of these people are, it’s important to keep track of every account, every message, every username or e-mail used and every incident of digital abuse. Each can provide an essential clue to the puzzle of their identity and some victims are even able to figure out the cyberbully’s identity with some simple online research.
Remember: you don’t deserve any form of abuse, stalking, or harassment, online or in real life. Regardless of the medium, cyberbullying has serious consequences for the victim. It’s time to ensure it also has serious consequences for the perpetrators.
Buckels, E., Trapnell, P., & Paulhus, D. (2014). Trolls Just Want to Have Fun. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e520722015-006
Sest, N., & March, E. (2017). Constructing the cyber-troll: Psychopathy, sadism, and empathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 119, 69-72. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.038
Shahani, A. (2014, September 15). Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims. Retrieved August 19, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/09/15/346149979/smartphones-are-used-to-stalk-control-domestic-abuse-victims
Wai, M., & Tiliopoulos, N. (2012). The affective and cognitive empathic nature of the dark triad of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(7), 794-799. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.01.008
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