Cape Town - Not all internet trolls are psychopaths who delight in the pain of others but they love to get a reaction from their victims, experts say.
"An internet troll is someone who posts hateful or very provocative comments to get an angry reaction," Dr Amelia Kleijn told Fin24.
Kleijn is an independent social worker and researcher in private practice who has extensive experience in dealing with disturbed individuals.
While there is little consensus on the exact definition of an internet troll, it is widely accepted that those who go beyond the line of fair comment to bully people online can be classified as trolls.
"Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behaviour. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism. Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an internet manifestation of everyday sadism," suggests the Dark Triad of Personality paper by Canadian researchers Erin E Buckelsa, Paul D Trapnellb and Delroy L Paulhusc.
Social media growth
"Trolls' deliberately inflammatory comments, hidden behind false identities, can be extremely hurtful and disruptive for the person or group receiving their vitriol and that is what makes them hateful: Their comments," said Kleijn.
The explosion of social media growth has opened the door for people to use the medium to advance a particular agenda and internet trolls often patrol their favoured topic to push their opinion.
"A troll can be anyone who is purposefully disruptive to a conversation - this can fit with a personality type that just likes to cause trouble. Or it can actually be a paid role - where trolls are paid to influence particular conversations," social media consultant for Afrosocialmedia Samantha Fleming told Fin24.
Research Facebook is the most popular social network. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
A Pew Centre report found that in the US, 72% of online adults use Facebook, with 70% of those classified as "highly engaged" because they log on daily.
Facebook has emerged as a social media giant, reporting in July that its audience has grown to 1.49 billion users.
But it has also proved a hotbed of hurtful comments as users exploit the reach of the platform to attack others.
"Many trolls' comments would suggest a lack of empathy, a lack of remorse, and even border on the sadistic, where the pleasure of one is at the pain of others. There is some research that supports this," said Kleijn.
She added that the relative anonymity of the internet made it easy for trolls to engage in "nasty" behaviour.
"As trolls hid behind anonymity, this intensifies their dis-inhibition so it becomes even easier to be particularly nasty. Empathy means you can put yourself in the emotional space of the other. When derogatory or other highly inappropriate comments are made, without apparent forethought about the effect on the individual or group, it does suggest a profound lack of empathy."
Fleming suggested that trolls are cowards because they don't generally face up to the consequences of their actions.
"They don't see a physical response (such as someone bursting into tears), so they are not held responsible for what happens after they make a nasty comment. They can just log off or disappear from the conversation, no apologies necessary."
Watch this online video on the psychology of internet trolls:
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