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

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 make fun of them?
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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.