Study: Online trolls are genuinely sick, sad individuals, and there are some people with whom you should never engage

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of reading anonymous comments in a blog or news article, this probably isn’t too much of a surprise:

An online survey by a group of Canadian researchers suggests that Internet trolls are more likely than others to show signs of sadism, psychopathy and “Machiavellianism”: a disregard for morality and tendency to manipulate or exploit others.

The study also noted that, of all the various personality traits, online trolls have the highest correlation with sadism.  This is not to say that trolling causes sadism, or visa versa, but it is certainly no surprise that the two personality measures go hand in hand.

If you are a public official, odds are you have had been the target of these types of trolls.  I’ve lost track of the amount of things that I have been called during my public life…heck, I even had the type of wedding I had attacked (I wish I was joking, but I’m not).  

Interaction, of course, is largely what makes social media different than the internet in general.  However, in its best form, this type of debate and discussion is intelligent, coherent and leaves both parties feeling like they learned something…and really, when was the last time you saw this in an online debate, particularly with an anonymous commenter?  

So, what’s the takeaway for elected officials? Two points:

  • Never engage with anonymous commenters:` My honest feeling is that if someone isn’t willing to sign their name to a comment, they aren’t worth having a conversation with.  I’ll only have a conversation with someone who is willing to match their name with their voice.  On Facebook this is required; on Twitter, it is possible to be anonymous, though more difficult then some think.  Anyway, don’t debate these people if they aren’t wiling to state their name: that person has nothing to lose by acting like a jerk, and you certainly have nothing to gain.
  • If you engage, do so carefully:  There are times where a discussion/debate on Twitter or Facebook are perfectly acceptable.  Frankly, I think that an elected who actively uses social media but never has anything but nice, fluffy things to say is doing a disservice to their constituents.  It is totally appropriate to have a respectful disagreement with someone on Social Media.  However, you never want to engage with a troll, or someone who isn’t willing to show you a level of respect in the course of a discussion.  If someone is being vulgar, rude or insulting, I’d let the comment go.  If someone insults me in an online comment, generally speaking, I don’t delete it – I let it sit there so the world can see their stupidity.  


  1. Great points. I’d also suggestion having a policy or guidelines in place, so that would be trolls know what’s unacceptable, say personal attacks, and how you will respond, perhaps deleting the comment or post.

    I forget the exact context, but I heard of a troll who took a screenshot immediately following their inappropriate remark, their comment was removed, the troll took another screenshot… He, then, had ‘evidence’ that he was being censored. He would have gotten less traction concerning his claim of censorship if there was a policy in place that the Facebook page owner could have pointed to that the troll violated.


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