Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser has received death threats. How does the mind of a troll work?
There was already trepidation among liberals around the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, but after Christine Blasey Ford came forward with allegations of sexual assault, his conservative agenda seemingly took on a misogynistic pall.
Ford alleges that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, and she said she came forward all these years later because she felt “guilty and compelled as a citizen about the idea of not saying anything,” in an anonymous letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein that later became public.
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The resulting reactions from both camps have been predictable: Democrats believe her and are eager to open an investigation, while Republicans think her story has been fabricated to derail the judiciary hearings.
Of course, the court of public opinion (read: social media) has its own hearing going on, with the two distinct camps mimicking their political parties of choice, albeit in a much more fevered way. In its most vehement iteration, however, Ford has been subjected to “vicious harassment and even death threats.” She and her family have also had to relocate from their home.
In fact, the death threats have gotten so severe that Heide Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown Law set up a GoFundMe page to cover the costs of Ford’s security.
Just how menacing are these death threats? One message reportedly read that Ford has “6 months to live, you disgusting slime.”
Taking a political side and being passionate about it is nothing new, nor is it wrong, but death threats aren’t about politics; they’re about trolls.
“This speaks to the online disinhibition effect,” says Erin Buckels, a postdoctoral psychology scholar at the University of British Columbia, who has studied online trolling extensively. “It’s a theory that identifies that the features of online context make it easier for people to behave almost immorally without any concern for others.”
The theory of online disinhibition was brought to light by John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, and it describes the loosening of social restrictions and inhibitions that are normally present in face-to-face interactions. He says the behaviour falls into two main categories: benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition.
The former describes behaviours of too much self-disclosure (sometimes to the point of regret) or going out of your way to show kindness to someone online, while the latter refers to aggressive behaviour including rude language and threats. Suler attributes six factors to online disinhibition (both benign and toxic), including dissociative anonymity and invisibility (in other words, you don’t know me and you can’t see me, therefore I feel protected), among others.
But for trolls, in particular, Buckels says, the traits speak to a “dark personality,” and they’re almost always anchored in sadism.
“In our research, we’ve looked at four different traits that are predictors of anti-social behaviour: subclinical psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism and subclinical sadism,” she says. “We see a strong positive association with everyday sadism and trolling tendencies. People who like to troll also like to behave cruelly to others in different contexts and it extends to face-to-face contact.”
She says these people also endorse physically hurting others in real life and verbally humiliating people in face-to-face interactions.
“It’s a pervasive tendency to enjoy cruelty across many contexts.”
But why do they seem to proliferate online? Buckels says it’s because of the anonymity afforded by the internet and the dearth of consequences since there’s less chance of the comments or threats being traced back to them. Inherently, online interaction just makes it easier to be cruel to others.
It may seem what’s truly at play is a lack of empathy, but she says that’s actually not the case.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and say something mean, but if you actually go to the extreme and send a death threat, that crosses a line into antisocial behaviour that’s in an entirely different category [from empathy]. You would need to have dark personality traits to go there because a death threat is pretty extreme.”
In the event that you’re on the receiving end of trolls, Buckels says the best defence is to just walk away. By expressing any suffering, it just feeds their appetite for cruelty.
“If you continue to engage, you’re giving them another opportunity to be cruel to you.”
And if her latest paper, which was released in April, shows anything, it’s that trolls enjoy other people’s suffering while also underestimating how much pain they’re experiencing.
“Trolls both express pleasure towards images of physical and emotional suffering as well as a tendency to underestimate the amount of pain people are in,” she says. “There’s a pleasure and harm minimization associated with online trolling. It’s best to disengage with trolls.”
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