What is trolling, and why do we behave so differently online?

Our life on the internet consists of games, rules and norms that do not apply in real life

This week, Chloe Madeley, the daughter of TV presenter Judy Finnigan was subjected to threats of rape by a complete stranger online. Last week, we heard the tragic story about the vile messages directed at the McCann family. You can't escape the modern phenomenon of 'trolling'.

What is perhaps most shocking about these cases is that the perpetrators are more often than not ordinary people, behaving in a way on social media that is out of character with the way they behave offline. How do we know this?  Well, it would undoubtedly be tricky to regularly give people this type of personally abusive feedback offline and still be able to function in society. So what exactly is going on and what can be done about it?   

A different set of rules and norms 

Although trolling is a relatively new phenomenon, there is a growing body of evidence about the 'online disinhibition effect’ – features of the internet that can support antisocial behaviour online. John Suler, Professor of Psychology and an expert in cyber behaviour, describes online disinhibition as a detachment from reality, with some people living a life that they perceive is wholly distinct from the demands and responsibilities of their offline world. This ‘dissociative identity’ links to feelings of ‘invisibility’, giving people the courage to go to places and do things online that they otherwise would not.

Another part of the online disinhibition effect, that may explain some trolls’ behaviour is a dissociative imagination. Here, individuals dissociate online fiction from offline fact, whereby online life consists of games, rules and norms that do not apply in actual living. As such, Suler suggests that once the computer is turned off and daily life returned to, individuals believe they can leave that online game behaviour and their game-identity behind.

It could be that some trolls see their online activity in a similar way to how another person might view playing a game that glamourises offending behaviour on their Playstation or X-Box – it’s not real life, so it’s ok.

The influence of the group

There can be a mob mentality that comes with the trolling territory, too. The power and influence of the group is well documented in social psychology research and it seems reasonable to suggest that these features of group influence offline may have exactly the same effect online.

Unpleasant messages, or the kind that would be screened out of real life with a frown or raised brow at least, are quickly linked to each other through hashtags, specific online forums and communities. Seeing other people behaving in the same way may help to normalise and maintain what is unpleasant behaviour - so it’s cognitive dissonance in action.

In my work looking at online child sexual abuse I have found some support for the online disinhibition effect maintaining offender behaviour. Men convicted of online grooming talked about how some sexual conversations with young people online did not feel real in relation to their offline identity. In addition, seeing men with a similar sexual interest openly discuss this on forums helped some people feel normal about their own sexual interest in young people.   

I am not suggesting that the online environment causes harmful online actions – people can still make choices about what is acceptable and lawful. But far more research is needed in this area to understand why people seem to feel that they can behave differently online and what maintains or supports their abusive online behaviour.

More research will also help us develop the most effective prevention messages and hopefully further promote digital citizenship. One such established message from esafety campaigns pertinent to these recent cases is the concept of the digital footprint. And it is surely this message that is most likely to make people think twice about trolling - that is, once you post a message or image online it is out there forever. There are consequences to online behaviour, and in reality there is very little if any anonymity on the internet.

Stephen Webster is a Research Psychologist at NatCen Social Research. @StephenWNatCen http://www.natcen.ac.uk/

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