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If everyone on the internet shows psychopathic traits, what should we do next?

Those of us who frequent forums or venture to scroll down and read the comments on a YouTube video know exactly how to pinpoint an internet troll. Trolls keep their identities completely anonymous, and the only comment they leave on a thread is almost always followed by a lengthy chain of heated replies and retorts. They never respond to any of these, and in the bottom of the reply chain the profiles who originally directed their snappy post at the troll have ended up fighting with each other.

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By Ashley Mussbacher (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 5, 2014

“These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants.” (Image:  Oiliver Huffschir/ flickr)

“These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants.” (Image: Oiliver Huffschir/ flickr)

Those of us who frequent forums or venture to scroll down and read the comments on a YouTube video know exactly how to pinpoint an internet troll. Trolls keep their identities completely anonymous, and the only comment they leave on a thread is almost always followed by a lengthy chain of heated replies and retorts. They never respond to any of these, and in the bottom of the reply chain the profiles who originally directed their snappy post at the troll have ended up fighting with each other.

Hilarious, right?

If you think so, you may show signs of sadism, psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, according to a new study done by Dr. Erin E. Buckels (UBC) called “Trolls just want to have fun.” In her study, she explores internet behaviour of cyber trolls, calling these personality traits a “dark tetrad.”

When I hear words like sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy, I think of a serial killer or a white-padded room. The scary thing is, there’s a thin line separating a normal individual from an everyday sadist.

In an interview, Buckels explains the line between the two is sometimes blurred and must be acknowledged.

“Some find it hard to reconcile sadism with the concept of ‘normal’ psychological functioning, but our findings show that sadistic tendencies among otherwise well-adjusted people must be acknowledged,” she said. “These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”

In my hopefully-not-too-sadistic mind, there’s a clear difference between a cyber-troll who leaves one baiting post on a controversial forum or YouTube thread, and an internet bully who constantly bombards an individual with abusive comments.

Take, for example, the suicide of Hannah Smith in 2013. Smith hung herself in her bedroom in Leicestershire, because she was being cyber-bullied on a question-and-answer website. According to the press release by The Guardian, anonymous members of the website tormented her with insults and asked, “Can you kill yourself already?”

I am not condoning the behaviour of the cyber-bullies, only pointing out that the use of the terms “troll” and “bullies” should not be used interchangeably. Bullying, through the internet or otherwise, is a targeted and sometimes premeditative offence. Trolling is opportunistic and often random.

Cyber-bullying is an increasing problem, but when it comes to the internet we are typically at a loss for a solution. This stems from the fact that most of us don’t understand how the internet works.

In response to the death of Smith, for instance, parents rallied to “tackle websites like Ask.fm,” according to The Guardian. Ask.fm is not the problem. It’s a basic question-and-answer website people sign up with to meet people, like every other social networking environment. The closure of a single social networking site (or many for that matter), only treats the symptom — not the cause.

People are the cause. In a country where free speech is valued and social networking is abundantly popular, silencing an internet audience would be as easy as trapping smoke in a fist.

I think we’re starting to grasp that idea as we trek into 2014. Unfortunately, we don’t focus our attention on building a strategy to protect victims; instead we point fingers at everyone who we suspect fits Buckels’ everyday sadist model.

On February 18, 2014, the Globe and Mail published a story which recapped the study’s findings. Pulling a quote from “Trolls just want to have fun,” they ended on a bit of a sour note:

“Consequently, antisocial individuals have greater opportunities to connect with similar others, and to pursue their personal brand of ‘self exploration’ than they did before the advent of the internet.”

I’m starting to see flashbacks of the witch-hunts from the Medieval era here. Since when did “antisocial individuals” become the targeted potential everyday sadists? It’s the ages-old war between extroverts and introverts again. I thought that division was a myth. Then again, I also thought we were in 2014.

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