If Trolls Are Actually Mentally Ill People, What Do We Do About It?

FILED TO: Media and Entertainment

As a 20-something living in the real estate disaster of Washington DC, I’ve lived in my fair share of “up and coming” neighborhoods. For the most part they’ve been wonderful experiences, and I’ve only really feared for my personal safety on a few random occasions. Honestly, it was mostly just people trying live their lives as they hovered a few inches above the poverty line.

In fact, only a couple of weeks after moving into one of those neighborhoods, I was already waving to neighbors on the way to work and sharing the occasional beer with the family that lived across the street from me. They told me about the best secret places to eat, what streets to avoid,  etc, but one thing that I remember them specifically warning me about were the occasional mentally ill homeless people that would wonder through the neighborhood every now and again, usually quite inebriated.

“If one starts harassing you, don’t be afraid to call the cops,” they said, “You don’t know what they’re capable of, and they’re best off getting help anyway.”

Now fortunately that kind of thing only happened once and a neighbor took care of if, but that advice popped back in my head when I read about a recent study which argues that those that engage in trolling behavior online are significantly more likely to be characterized by personality traits like Machiavellianism, narcism, psychopathy, and sadism.

Why is that offline we understand the need to reach out and help those that are mentally ill, but online we not only ignore those that exhibit disturbing behavior, but leave them to their own devices and occasionally deride them right back?

We all know how rampant cyber-bullying is and how damaging it can be, but this goes far beyond kids getting bullied online.

It’s been proven that trolling behavior on an article’s comment section will actually shape how a reader feels about the subject of the article, regardless of their age. And this is just the tip of the anonymous, hate-filled iceberg.

So what do we do?

In real life, we create organizations and dedicate resources and spend large amounts of money trying to wrap our heads around mental health issues.

But online, we’re stuck.

Some websites, like Popular Science, have given up and scorched the earth when it comes to commenting. Daily Banter editor-in-chief Ben Cohen tells me that at one point we had such a bad problem with trolls on the site that he had to completely change their commenting platform.

But these are all stop-gaps.

Trolls exist. And the anonymity of the internet breeds more every day (see The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory for proof). And unless we start doing the internet version of Elaine Benes’ name-tag idea from that one Seinfeld episode, this isn’t going to change.

So what do we do?

We turn to Louis CK, duh:

These things are toxic, especially for kids. They don’t look at people and they don’t build empathy. Kids are mean because they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go ‘You’re fat’ and they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go ‘oh that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that,’ but they have to start with the mean thing. But when they just write ‘You’re fat,’ they go ‘Mmm that was fun. I like that.’

Maybe, like parents, we have to start proactively teaching would-be trolls that it’s not fun to make peoples faces scrunch up and then just wait until our current lost generation of assholes dies out. Maybe this is the big difference between offline and on.

In the real world, we believe we can reactively help people no matter their age or situation. Online, it takes a professional boxer showing up at a troll’s doorstep to get him to apologize.

Maybe in the internet era we have to intervene before kids ever go online, and teach them that their actions have consequences, even if they can’t physically see the other person. Maybe we have to realize that these people, like the guy that threw a bottle at my housemate as we stood on our front porch, are sick and need help, not apathy or reciprocated hate, sooner rather than later.


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  • Olav

    What do we do, you ask? Well that’s easy. Hunt down said trolls, arrest them SWAT-team style, and have judges give them humiliatingly long prison terms followed by a literal thrown book at their heads to satiate my primitive desire for revenge because they made me angry on the Internet one too many times. Or for “rehabilitation”. Yes, that’s the ticket.

  • Mickey Bitsko

    How’s about we just the internet back to the scientists?

  • condew

    Trolling is in the eye of the beholder. If I said the same things I say here on redstate, I’d be a troll. I did say the same things I say here about Snowden on Americablog, and I got banned rather quickly.

    The other side of the coin is growing intolerance. We can all choose the media we like and hum along happily in our own little world, and it’s jarring when somebody brings in ideas from outside that happy little world. The more we get to select what we like, the more we hate it when we encounter stuff we don’t like.

    I like anonymity. It’s an opportunity to know what people are really thinking, just like when they go into the voting booth. It’s also an antidote to the constant blackmail we each endure every day to conform to the common assumptions. In an anonymous forum you can discuss why white men are the only minority it’s still OK to dump on, or how the minorities and feminists of half a century ago fought discrimination of every kind, but the new generation actually thinks discrimination is pretty cool when they get the choice of whether to discriminate. So we have feminist hackerspaces where men are not welcome, and organizations that make no bones about offering their services only to “people of color”, women, and each individual flavor of gay — and quite deliberately and maliciously not including white men.

    I’ll have to admit, though, when we get people like Jason who logs in from Australia and cannot just express his position and move on; who spends his entire day arguing about the politics of a country he does not live in. That sure sounds like “doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome”.

  • David L.

    Ah yes, who could forget the fucking indecipherable ramblings of manbearpig/ samiam a little over a year ago… good times, man. Anyways, my sympathy for trolls only goes so far, even if I try to see the whole deal through the lens of a mental illness (and aren’t we all a bit crazy anyways, as that snail-eating lunatic Foucault tries to convince us in Madness and Civilization?). I think one key aspect is that online trolls can be (and usually are, I guess) pretty subdued in real life, and that they only give in to the dark recesses of their souls under the cloak of anonymity and through the interface of a keyboard and screen, conveniently avoiding all possible repercussion, human interaction and social faux pas. I also think Louis, as usual, nails it. Lastly, the one and only proven method to deal with trolls without feeding their egos and narcissistic-sadistic streaks: ignore them like you’d ignore a gnat. At least gnats are morally pretty neutral; cyber-bullying is definitely harmful and there should be effective ways for law enforcement to monitor social media for sustained and extreme hate-spewing, especially with the slew of teenage suicides lately that are a direct consequence of online assholism, assholedom and assholery. But for the lesser trolls, just pretend they don’t exist and chances are they won’t waste so much of their own time talking to themselves like the pathetic little jackasses they usually turn out to be.

    • Dennis

      Oliver worked pretty hard to attract trolls and drive-by’s, DL. Over a period of years, both on his blog and on Twitter. When most of them stopped posting, he ran a headline asking where they were at. DA and others even resorted to stalking Frank DiSalle’s FB page. Now a newbie blogger comes on here and acts shocked that trolling went on here.

      You’re a hypocrite, my friend. Ufb. Oliver’s blog existed because of the ‘trolls’.

      • David L.

        Aren’t you quite the expert. Jeez man, get over your obsession with Oliver already.

        • Dennis

          You brought up trolling on his blog.

  • feloniousgrammar

    Psychiatry doesn’t do shit about Machiavellianism, narcism, psychopathy, and sadism. They just label the disturbed and traumatized victims of narcissists and psychopaths with a “biological illness” while promoting the narcissists and psychopaths in their ranks to the positions of Key Opinion Leaders who shill for drug companies, make millions of dollars, and put their name on more (rigged) studies that any human could possibly work on in a lifetime, much less a year.

    The too often floridly psychotic persons have been shown to do well with housing and care that doesn’t require them to be treated like prisoners. Social support and counselors who listen helps immensely. There’s something about being put into a system in which everything you do, need, and want is seen through a lens of “mental illness” — that requires people to allow themselves to be objectified and treated as if they were innately troublesome that doesn’t make it worthwhile for a lot of people to get “help”.

    Hopefully, the ACA will eventually change the treatment of mental/emotional disturbance in evidence-based ways that would allow people to stay in a safe environment as long as they need to while they’re out of mind or too overwhelmed to take care of themselves. Then the insurance companies would no longer determine what care people get. Drugs could be used more judiciously and doctors could practice informed consent instead of babbling on about “chemical imbalances” that the field has finally admitted is not true, yet continue to push it because it makes it easier for their patients and loved ones to “understand”.

    Psychotic people on illicit drugs are as dangerous as non-psychotic people on illicit drugs. It’s not accurate or necessary to portray people who are psychotic at times as inherently dangerous people. When confronted with one, try relaxing instead of behaving as if they’re a bomb about to go off. In other words, try to be more sane than they are— paranoia is a dangerous and threatening state.

    • angry_pickle

      “natural predators” … this isn’t the 1980s or 1990s. Aren’t we over with such silly and nonconstructive euphemisms?

  • Jason E

    I recently got into a little back and forth with frequent banter commenter. This commenter eventually called me a troll. It felt like I’d been called the “N-word”.

  • Christopher Foxx

    Maybe in the internet era we have to intervene before kids ever go online, and teach them that their actions have consequences, even if they can’t physically see the other person.

    Yes. Parenting is a good idea.

  • Christopher Foxx

    Why is that offline we understand the need to reach out and help those that are mentally ill,

    I’m not sure that’s true. Mental illness still lags far behind physical ailments in terms of being recognized as an illness and receiving treatment. The other day I saw a man who had collapsed on the street. He was surrounded by half a dozen people, most of who had their cell phones out and a couple minutes later an ambulance pulled up. Meanwhile, half a block away, a man holding a fervent and animated conversation with himself was pointedly ignored by passersby.

    • Bryce Taylor Rudow

      No one wants to interrupt someone when they’re mid-conversation. It’s called manners.

      • Christopher Foxx

        And the rest of those people, disturbing that man during his nap. How rude!

    • angry_pickle

      Because weird people are generally harmless. And if the person is mentally ill, would a rational discourse convince him to go to the hospital? Unlikely. And we have laws against coercing people into mental hospitals especially considering the primitive state the field is in.

  • conect2u

    A bit emotionally confused & stuck between the seriousness of Joker’s face representing the depth of mental illness trolls may endure & Louie CK’s interview on Conan. Laughing and concerned at the relevant points about our need to connect w/each other even if that communication is rife w/negative consequences…do another piece on the connection to mental illness since this is a rampant cyclical problem across the web and society…


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