Internet trolls teach us something inconvenient about Millennial outrage. The answer might surprise you. 

One of the defining, if not most controversial, aspects of the internet is the phenomenon termed ‘trolling’. Defined by their thirst for casting indiscriminate and often wily aspersions on the Internet, trolls have become a symbol of bullying in the 21st century.

When we think of an internet troll, we might typically envisage a spotty teenager ensconced in his room who finds it gratifying to attack the vulnerable online to compensate for his own physical and social shortfalls. However, trolls are found in a diverse range of demographics and are all defined by their mutual desire to sow discord through the posting of inflammatory and provocative messages and comments, especially on social media.

Millennials are far more likely to be internet trolls, with data showing 1/3 of them have trolled (and this number is only those who will admit to having trolled).

Notwithstanding said annoyances, there is a more important point to raise: internet trolls spread spurious accusations, ruin reputations, and have even caused cases of suicide.

Regrettably, trolling is something we all have to deal with as the Internet becomes more social. But what causes people to become ‘trolls’?

To understand how people become trolls, we have to look at the mind. In cyberspace, people do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. People loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more freely. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “online disinhibition effect”. This effect claims that social barriers to harmful behavior are decreasing owing to the way the internet provides anonymity to users.

The online disinhibition effect can work in two seemingly opposing directions. People can feel brave enough to share deep emotions, fears, and wishes. Moreover, they are oft to show acts of kindness and generosity. However, this disinhibition effect is not always salutary. People voice inflammatory remarks, harsh criticism, anger, hatred, and even threats.

But why are people so willing to say such cruel and often hateful things? Disassociative anonymity (“you don’t know me”), an essential part of the online disinhibition effect, is critical. Studies show that when provided the chance of separating their actions online from their in-person lifestyles, people feel at liberty to reveal aspects of their personalities that are otherwise curbed by social rules and proprieties.

Worryingly, studies show that Machiavellianism (willingness to manipulate and deceive others), narcissism (egotism and self-obsession), psychopathy (the lack of remorse and empathy), and sadism (pleasure in the suffering of others) have become reified owing to the internet, particularly social media, traits Canadian psychologists Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus discovered in their study “Trolls just want to have fun”.

What all of this means is that the internet is increasingly enabling those with ‘dark personality traits’ to find expression and arguably crystallizing the very mechanism underpinning sadistic behavior. Unsurprisingly, it is the sadism component that is particularly jeopardous, given that the practice of sadism releases endorphins, the brain’s morphine-like molecules, and endorphins can activate dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area. The result is that there is an innate rewarding component to trolling.

Even a modicum of introspection will beget the question concerning the extent to which those more villainous traits of someone’s personality during a trolling “session” is the ‘real’ them. Perhaps Oscar Wilde is to the point here when he says that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

My view agrees with Dr. John Suler, who argues that rather than thinking of disinhibition as the revealing of an underlying “true self,” we can conceptualize it as a shift to a constellation within self-structure, involving clusters of affect and cognition that differ from the in-person constellation.

The implication is that for the first time, a generation of people, especially young people, have lifestyles in which disassociative anonymity is a mainstay. In particular, given that young people are far more likely to use social media than any other generation, there is a good reason to assume they have become conditioned to lifestyles in which they don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within a full context. In the case of trolling, which Millennials are far more willing to engage in, they don’t have to recognize their behavior in a comprehensive context – an integrated online/offline identity.

It appears that this can help to explain, at least to some extent, other phenomena unique to Millennials. An example, which I have written about before, is contemporary campus behavior, especially the modern campus protest, which has become a cesspool of inflammatory comments, intimidation, and violence.

It is my view that dissociative anonymity becomes hardwired to the extent that people naturally gravitate towards things that also provide the same positive effects that the online disinhibition effect causes, particularly if instrumental to broader social goals.

Many have enquired into why young people are far more collectivist in terms of their identity and politics, increasingly bearing abhorrence towards individualism concerning said fields. Particularly, young people are known to be far more likely to adopt a collectivist attitude, with a political and civic insistence that their identity is bound up with their classified gender, race, and sexuality. This fact probably explains why the majority of Millennials show disproportionate support for socialism, communism, and fascism.

Not only are Millennials more likely to be collectivist, but there are also worrying figures concerning the degree to which they either commit or have sympathy for anti-social behavior to achieve their collectivist goals. Indeed, in the US, a staggering one in five US college students say it’s acceptable to use violence against an “offensive” speaker. In the UK, Antifa, the left-wing militants who are known to use force and other intimidating behaviors to shut down lecturers, are on the rise. The key is dissociative anonymity.

Psychologists such as Gustave Le Bon and Philip Zimbardo have investigated group membership, particularly how individual personalities become dominated by the mindset of the crowd. What they have found is that individuals often feel anonymous in groups, in which attention is shifted from the self to the more stimulating, external qualities of the group’s action (which may be extreme). The anonymity from group membership reduces accountability, removing the impact these actions might otherwise have on the reputation of individuals.

According to Le Bon and Zimbardo, unique of group membership is that anonymity has the effect of reducing inner restraints and increasing behavior that is usually inhibited. They term this ‘deindividuation’.

Leon Festinger also argues that the loss of individuality leads to a loss of control over internal or moral constraints. For example, someone who is an anonymous member of a mob will be more likely to act violently toward a police officer than a known individual. In one sense, a deindividuated state may be considered appealing if someone is affected such that he or she feels free to behave impulsively without mind to potential consequences.

Just like internet trolls, anonymity in group membership means that an individual doesn’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of an integrated in-group/out-group identity. The in-group self becomes a compartmentalized self, a deindividuated self. Moreover, it is well documented that deindividuation predisposes individuals to aggressive behavior in situations that contributes to disassociation.

While I am not willing to go so far as to declare that all those who, for example, protest to shut down a speaker at some university have ‘dark personality traits’, I do think that dissociative anonymity goes some of the ways to explain the disproportionate rise of collectivist politics and identities and membership of radical groups.

It’s likely that the internet has the effect, probably influenced by the degree to which social media is a mainstay of one’s leisurely activities, of conditioning people to disassociative anonymity to the extent that they seek out other mediums by which dissociative anonymity finds expression. This position is equally true of those who use social media for positive reasons – helping others, helping themselves, etc., and those who use the internet for sadistic purposes, such as trolling.

While many reasons explain the behaviors of Millennials, such as increased accessibility to information and having more involved parents, looking into the effects of the Internet is urgent. This view is especially true when 29% of 18 to 24-year-olds spend a whopping 3 to 5 hours a day on social media and 9% 5 to 10 hours.

We need to be cognizant of the precariousness of dissociative anonymity and acknowledge that the internet is causing a sweeping incursion that spreads beyond the world-wide-web.