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With his belittling epithets, his late-night Twitter-lurking, his predatory remarks about women framed as "locker-room talk," Donald Trump could be considered the first troll to run for U.S. president.

For those unfamiliar with the dank underbelly of the Web, a troll is an online trickster who hijacks a debate by saying something inflammatory to upset the virtual community or incite anger. Maybe he means it, maybe he doesn't. It's impossible to know. The troll, usually anonymous, is ostensibly just out to get some lulz (a term derived from the acronym lol, for laugh out loud); if blamed, he might just say it was a joke.

Unlike lols, lulz are amusement at the expense of someone else, "humour" laced with menace. So when the GOP presidential candidate promises to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as he did during Sunday night's debate, his campaign warns us that we should not take him "literally." We're supposed to feel gullible, and absolve Mr. Trump of his intemperate remarks.

The culture of online trolling has undeniably infected the body politic – replacing political earnestness with entertainment, and accountability with impunity.

Its proponents, though, defend it as a more engaging and economical way to communicate than taking out ads and attending baking contests. Some strategists even see it as the future of campaigning.

"The Internet is about sensationalism, entertainment, and sound bites, and we've never had a candidate who's won on sound bites until now," says Vincent Harris, who ran the social-media-savvy digital campaign for Republican candidate Rand Paul.

"Mr. Trump beat out very organized and professional campaigns with Facebook and trolling, his message was so widely seen. Our base just eats it up."

Why raise money to fund for those blanket, 30-second attack ads when you can Tweet attacks every 30 seconds instead? The more outrageous, in fact, the more likely that the Twitterati and the media will disseminate them. "You're shocking and aweing. That's entertaining," says Paul Trapnell, a University of Winnipeg psychology professor who has written on the topic."It has a cathartic value. People have always enjoyed cruelty."

Some of Mr. Trump's biggest supporters are the "alt-right" trolls who post racist, sexist and anti-Semitic memes to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These are the same kinds of groups who recreated Pepe the Frog, a cartoon meme, into a white supremacist, surrounding him with Nazi symbolism; they also created a meme of Pepe with a Trump hairdo.

Of course, we were later told these were simply pranks, but Ms. Clinton's campaign took aim at the frog, bringing even greater infamy to Pepe, and giving his creators something to lulz about. "Now we have MSNBC and the Clinton campaign citing a troll story about a meme," gloated its creator to the news site The Daily Caller.

Mr. Trump seems to have absorbed the same approach: Stoke outrage, gobble up the lulz like Pac-Man, and deny responsibility.

Remember when he suggested that the Russians hack Ms. Clinton? Or that the former Secretary of State and President Barack Obama founded ISIS? Mr. Trump was either joking, he later insisted, or we should not take him literally.

Trolling can get physical, too. Rather than returning to his seat after responding to questions in Sunday's debate, Mr. Trump would often hover behind his opponent like Archie Bunker without his recliner, glowering, pacing and pouting. It was trolling of a different kind: Twitter performed on live TV.

To penetrate this darkness hovering over the U.S. political horizon, The Globe and Mail travelled to Winnipeg. Far-fetched as it may sound, it is at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Young Street where one of the world's foremost experts on troll psychology is now studying. That's where Erin E. Buckels, a 33-year-old PhD student from the University of British Columbia, is working with Dr. Trapnell on what they call "the dark tetrad" of personality traits.

Along with UBC psychology professor Delroy Paulhus, the pair co-authored a 2014 paper, called Trolls Just Want to Have Fun, that garnered international attention. Far from their oft-stated intention of teaching people a corrective lesson about their own failures or biases, maintains Ms. Buckels, trolls just want to humiliate. At least, that's the fun part for them.

Published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, the trio's paper describes the pathologies of the dark tetrad: narcissism, Machiavellianism (a willingness to deceive), psychopathy (no remorse or empathy) and sadism, the last of which turned out to be the strongest motivation for those who troll. "People who are high in dark-tetrad traits are very extroverted, dominant and more active online than others," says Ms. Buckels, a quiet, self-effacing woman for someone who delves into such dank corners of the Web.

When I first sat down with Ms. Buckels and Dr. Trapnell in the latter's crowded U of W office on a September afternoon, he asked that, for the purpose of good conversation, we turn off the lights. "It's more relaxing to talk like this," Dr. Trapnell said, offering his visitor a burrito and small carton of 2-per-cent milk from the school cafeteria.

Ms. Buckels said she came up with the idea of a study while sitting around in the cafeteria at UBC's psychology building. She and several others were describing trolling to Dr. Paulhus, who has been studying "dark personalities" for 15 years. He saw a possible online analogue in trolling: a need for cruelty. So did Ms. Buckels. "Being a nerdy computer person, it just seemed obvious to me that trolls might be high in sadistic traits," she says.

As part of their study, they engaged random users of Mechanical Turk, an Amazon Web service through which workers are hired to perform tasks that computers cannot. Mechanical Turk provides a more demographically diverse survey group, than, say, university students. To assess those who use the chat boards at Mechanical Turk, they came up with a test called GAIT, the Global Assessment of Internet Trolling.

Participants were asked to rate several statements. Among them:

  • I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz.
  • I like to troll people in forums or the comments section of websites.
  • I enjoy griefing other players in multiplayer games.
  • The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.

Of the four dark-tetrad traits, sadism was determined to be the overwhelming impulse among respondents. While that result isn't surprising, only about 6 per cent of those surveyed said they actually enjoyed baiting and humiliating others.

Which raises a larger question: Why is so much attention paid to the actions of so few? While these researchers say that they have not studied trolls' audience appeal, they attribute it to a kind of virtual rubbernecking. "It's a kind of schadenfreude," says Dr. Trapnell. "It's motivated by a downward comparison."

The other dominant voice in this prickly field is Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. For years, Ms. Phillips plumbed the murky depths of this subculture – and groups such as 4chan, the troll-infested message board best known for its cyberbullying, and for leaking nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence. This week, it was speculated that its users had hacked into the e-mail and Twitter accounts of Ms. Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta. (It is also reportedly on the shopping block. So, for that matter, is Twitter.)

"Trolling means you never have to take responsibility when you hurt someone," says Ms. Phillips, who is co-authoring an upcoming book about trolling and the U.S. election. "It also perpetuates a victim-blaming logic. They can say, 'Don't you know how the Internet works? How can you allow yourself to be fooled?'"

(Among the ironies here is that many Trump followers were quick this week to recycle the campaign's coded, anti-Semitic theories which name his sexual-assault accusers of belonging to a global banking conspiracy to end U.S. dominance.)

Ms. Phillips says that the reason trolls and the alt-right have such an outsized presence is that journalists, authors (herself included, she says) and politicians amplify the hate by using it as a form of entertainment or as a punching bag of outrage. Even retweeting, or hate-posting on Facebook, are acts of complicity giving the trolls asymmetrical force.

The bigots found on some of these alt-right chat boards are what she calls "hipster Nazis" – people who are hurtful but in a throwaway manner. Commenting on the trolls study, she says she believes that the behaviour is more symptomatic of "unchecked privilege" than sadistic tendencies.

Trolling, she adds, has been a term in flux for decades, at one time attributed to deliberate online disruption, and later extended to the provoking of a strong negative reaction in any forum. Ms. Phillips says that there is a danger to attaching the term to Mr. Trump.

"It attributes to a lot of harassing and bigoted behaviour a kind of playfulness – and a rhetorical way out," she says, allowing the Republican presidential candidate "to say that he is not a racist," for example, "and he was just playing around."

Labelling someone a troll allows them to shirk responsibility, she says, a confusing proposition in politics, where truth – or at least truthiness – has been the norm. When a candidate hides behind a claim of irony, their rhetoric gets lost in a hall of mirrors. "The big deal is that we don't have a framework or blueprint of how to respond to this culturally," she says. "When people are coming at you with genuine bigotry and intolerance, it's easier. You can take them at their word."

Craig Offman is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.