Skip to main content

Sometimes people ask me why I'm not on Twitter. The answer is easy. One, I have a life. Two, who needs the abuse? I get enough of that already. It's an occupational hazard.

Ever since the Internet arrived, women in the media have endured a steady, brutal online hazing. "You're fat and stupid and you perform unprintable sex acts with Conrad Black," is one of the nicer things trolls have said to me, or about me. Media outfits employ small armies of watchdogs to keep this smelly effluent from polluting their online comments sections. Others have just given up and dropped online comments entirely. If comments were allowed to go their own way, they'd mostly consist of insults and potty talk.

Female politicians have it even worse than we do. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley gets death threats. Iqra Khalid, the Liberal MP who sponsored a controversial anti-Islamophobia motion in Parliament, was deluged with racist and misogynist bile. "No need to debate her," one message said. "Simply remind her that she is merely a woman and she needs to sit the [blank] down and shut the [blank] up."

Sure, men have to put up with plenty of harassment too. But generally they are not told that they deserve to be [blanked] through their [blank] with a [blank]. The coarse talk and threats of sexual violence get more creative all the time.

Who are these juvenile delinquents, and what do they want? I phoned Erin Buckels, one of the world's leading troll-ologists, to find out.

"They're sadists," she said cheerfully. "They like inflicting pain."

Ms. Buckels, now a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, co-authored a seminal research study on the psychology of trolls. It's called "Trolls just want to have fun." It found that the more their victims suffer, the more fun they have.

Are trolls just hardcore misogynists?

Not quite. "They're like schoolyard bullies. They seek out people they think are weaker than themselves. They're looking for someone who's more submissive and maybe they feel deserves to be degraded in some way. I think a lot of them have problems with women."

In case you haven't guessed, the online world is highly gendered. Most online comments made on news sites come from men. Men are far more likely to be heavy Twitter users and engage in Twitter wars. Why? Because men are far more interested in competition and public display – i.e., showing off. "Women are more likely to share their opinions privately," Ms. Buckels says. (Personally, I think Twitter wars are like peeing in the snow – a silly demonstration of male prowess.)

So it's not surprising that trolls are mostly men (although women can get pretty vicious too, as many mommy-bloggers can attest). Troll behaviour is highly associated with what are known as the "dark" personality traits, which are also far more common in men. The big four are psychopathy (which describes people who are impulsive, reckless, and lacking empathy), narcissism (people who are grandiose, have a high opinion of themselves, react badly to insults), Machiavellianism (people who will scheme, lie and trample over others for personal gain), and sadism. Together, these traits are known as the Dark Tetrad. They drive an awful lot of criminal behaviour – and also a fair amount of male success, as demonstrated by the current occupant of the White House.

Research on the Dark Tetrad suggests that these traits are confined to a relatively small minority of males – maybe 10 or 15 per cent, according to Ms. Buckels. But those guys spend an awful lot of time online – and they can wreak an awful lot of havoc.

"Trolls can be incredibly obsessive," Ms. Buckels says. "It makes me wonder – do they have jobs?" The image you have of trolls as anti-social misfits living in their mothers' basements is not too far off the mark.

As for whether trolls are born or made, Ms. Buckels is decidedly on the side of nature. "The big behavioural traits have a big genetic component," she says. "I don't think we can change them."

Personally, I'm consoled by that. Troll behaviour is vile, upsetting, inexcusable and probably unstoppable – but it doesn't mean the world is full of misogyny and hate. It just means that certain people (more men than women, as it happens) are hardwired to be twisted losers. Most of them are unlikely to turn hate talk into deeds because that would mean getting off the couch.

Ms. Buckels says she knows how it feels to be trolled. After her research hit the big time, she was trashed on the Internet by someone who claimed she'd stolen his work. She didn't let it flap her – much. Remember, she says, they like to make you cry. And if you don't – well, they'll find another victim.

Interact with The Globe