We’re all aware of internet trolls. Those anonymous people who hide behind their keyboards and post nasty comments. But who are they in real life? More to the point, how do we deal with them?

Before we go into detail about the personality types of internet trolls, let’s just quickly examine who they are likely to target.

By and large, internet trolls are happy to upset anyone. In fact, they don’t care if you are famous or an ordinary person who is not in the limelight. There are many examples of trolling on social media.

In reality, however, research suggests that the main targets of internet trolls are women and ethnic minorities. Not only that, but this abuse includes threats of sexual violence or death.

Examples of Internet Trolling

To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, let’s take black female MP Diane Abbott as an example. She alone received almost half of all the abusive tweets sent to female MP’s, This was during the run-up to the 2017 General Election.

Furthermore, this is not an isolated statistic. What happens when you take Diane Abbott out of the previous equation? Research showed black and Asian female MP’s received on average 35% more abuse online than their white colleagues.

“Online abuse does damage you, it damages your confidence and it corrodes your self-esteem”. Diane Abbott – MP

It’s not just the world of politics that gets people hot over their keyboards. University Professor Mary Beard received a torrent of abuse in 2018. Her crime? She implied that she condoned the actions (hiring sex workers) of the aid workers from Oxfam in Haiti.

You could argue that my two examples are strong, independent women of a certain age. But internet trolls will target young and old alike. To demonstrate, young, US singer Ariana Grande was put on a pedestal after her reaction to the Manchester bombing.

Fast forward 12 months. Now she is being blamed for the death of her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller. Miller struggled with substance abuse after his split from Grande. Internet trolls believe that Grande should have helped him with his problem, and stayed with him.

So we know the type of person who is likely to be trolled, but who is doing the trolling?

Who Are Internet Trolls?

Surprisingly, despite the frequency and amount of internet abuse on social media, there is little to no research about it. However, one study does shed some light on the type of person that will engage in trolling. Although the study was relatively small (only 415 participants), it did throw up some interesting details.

Research suggests that three main factors stand out amongst internet trolls:

  1. Trolls are more likely to be male and score highly on the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) personality test.
  2. Trolls have little affective empathy (they can’t feel the suffering of others) but high cognitive empathy (they can understand what makes people suffer).
  3. Trolls are very likely to suffer from poor social skills.

In other words, trolls have a dark side to their personality. They are also good at working out who is most likely to get upset. This is despite them having no empathy for their victims.

“Trolls employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognizing the emotional suffering of their victims while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions.” Sest, et al.

Two Kinds of Internet Trolls

The Vindictive Troll

I believe there are two kinds of trolls. The first is the vindictive, nasty types that enjoy the suffering they cause. The second types are loners with poor social skills. These types feel powerful behind the safety of a keyboard.

Further studies confirm the first type, the vindictive troll. Canadian researchers conducted personality tests on over 1,200 people. Participants were asked about their internet behaviour. In particular, in regard to comments they had made online.

Results showed that those people who admitted to enjoying internet trolling also scored highly on the Dark Triad personality tests. Not only that, but they also scored highly on sadism. Sadism is the enjoyment of causing psychological or physical pain to others. Coupled with psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellism, sadism is certainly another one of the dark sides of our behaviours.

“Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behaviour.” Buckels, et al.

However, one study was based on Facebook trolling. It discovered that although participants did have high scores for psychopathy and sadism, scores for narcissism and Machiavellism were relatively low.

It is believed that narcissists are too self-absorbed to spend time trolling. Whereas the fast-paced environment of Facebook was not ideal for Machiavellians. These types of people like time to plot and execute their devious plans.

The Socially-Inept Troll

What makes internet trolls continue their cruel behaviour? There must be some sort of reward for them. For psychopaths and sadists, the reward is obvious – it’s the suffering they cause. But what about those people that do not score highly on these dark triad traits?

Social activity is generally rewarding. Spending time with friends or family makes us feel good. Research shows that social stimuli can also reward us. For instance, simply looking at smiling faces on the internet increases activity in the brain’s reward centre. Typically, people feel rewarded when they are in, or create a positive social environment.

However, there are two kinds of social reward:

  1. Typical social rewards
  2. Atypical social rewards

Typical social rewards are the positive feelings of pleasure we get from affirmative behaviours. Behaviours such as kindness and being thoughtful lead to typical social rewards.

By contrast, atypical social rewards come from negative behaviours such as cruelty, causing distress or embarrassment.

Positive social environments are places where people feel supported and loved. They can trust one another. They are free to make mistakes without ridicule. These will contribute to typical social rewards.

Trolls are motivated by these atypical social rewards. They thrive in causing negative environments. In fact, it is this kind of ‘negative social potency’ that is a huge indicator of trolling behaviour.

Negative social potency is a measure of how far someone will go to cause distress to others. It is done so that they feel good about themselves. These kinds of internet trolls are motivated because they feel powerful from the chaos and suffering they’ve caused.

How to deal with Internet Trolls

There are several ways to deal with internet trolls. Internet trolls feed on your discomfort and distress. The more upset you are, the more enjoyment they’ll get out of trolling you. Therefore, if you want to know how to deal with trolls, here are some tips:

  • Ignore them – Trolls want to know they’ve upset you. Or they want to feel as if they have one over you to make themselves feel powerful. Ignore them and they’ll not get that reward.
  • Use humour or love – Trolls are in the business of upsetting people. If you feel strongly enough to respond, then do so. But do it with humour or love. In other words, kill them with kindness or laughter.
  • Unmask them – Trolls love the anonymity of the internet. By unmasking them and showing the world who they are, you take their power away.
  • Use facts to correct them – If someone is posting lies about you, then respond with the facts.
  • Contact a moderator – For those who don’t want to get involved in a battle with trolls, contact the moderator for the website where the abuse is taking place. Remember, you don’t have to put up with this type of behaviour.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with internet trolls? You know what to do!


  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Sylvia Stungo

    Fascinating post..I had never considered the variants of trolls before.
    Some very valid points here.

  2. Ming on Mongo

    Also they often seem to be sorta ‘obsessive’ about it and reasonably bright, which along with being ‘socially-challenged, highly defensive, and lacking ‘affective’ empathy, kinda sounds like someone on the autistic/aspergers spectrum… who perhaps not coincidentally, are also attracted to tech, the interwebs, and have quirky ‘tastes’.

  3. Dead Woman Walking

    Lies, lies, LIES. Always targeting autistic people you neurotypicals, huh? People like this guy with a nonsensical username are one of the reasons we get so much hate everywhere we go. We don’t lack empathy, our empathy is just selective and not easily “triggered”. Not every autistic/aspie is a tech nerd (I am not, sadly), and our tastes aren’t “quirky”. And every autistic is different from another, people aren’t cookie-cutter made. Some autistics may be trolls, I don’t deny it, but I have more important things to think about.
    But if someone will ever read this comment, they’ll probably believe to Ming on Mongo’s evil lies and not to me and they’ll think that I’m a troll. XD Whatever, neurotypical society is falling apart and mankind is doomed… My time is coming, but yours too… Tic-tac, tic-tac… 🙂

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