Why It’s So Important to Remember That Online Trolls Are Lonely Weirdos

They're desperate to steal your mental health. Don't let them.

A man typing in the dark.
The behavior of trolls has been closely linked with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, sadism, and narcissism
Michael Marais/Unsplash

Last summer, after writing an article asking why star athletes couldn’t give a semi-honest answer on why they were refusing to take the vaccine, I received a day’s worth of hate e-mails from a variety of people I’d never met. The most concise response had only a subject line, with no text in the body. It read: “chickenshit little bitch.”

This is a common occurrence for writers, particularly if you deign to write about the pandemic, social issues, climate change, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, or a sports team that a random reader hates with a burning passion. It’s exhausting to receive these sorts of emails, and extremely tempting to “ether” the sender with a patient, witty, well-punctuated reply, but over time, I’ve found that any engagement is an utter waste of time. I’ve also discovered that I’m not special — and neither are any of my colleagues at this company, or in the industry at-large — in receiving vitriol from strangers online. In the social media era, everyone is publishing or engaging with some sort of content. Which means everyone is at the mercy of a minority of lonely, deranged losers.

Which, I’m sorry, is what trolls are. In a recent column for The Atlantic, social scientist Arthur C. Brooks wrote about the bizarre ability online haters have to kidnap our mental health, and why it’s so important to A) understand that these people have issues, and B) they’re not worth your time. He invokes a 2019 study in which scientists studied 26 forms of internet “trolling,” and discovered “significant associations with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, sadism, and narcissism, in that order.” Brooks points out: “In other words, just as you would conclude that a stranger attacking you in person is badly damaged, you can conclude the same about a stranger attacking you on social media.”

He’s right. IRL, it’s pretty obvious when someone’s interactions with you are in bad faith, unstable, duplicitous, or even dangerous. Everyone has a different capacity for toxicity, but chances are, you try to limit your interactions with these anti-cheerleaders. And if you see one approaching you on the street, at a certain time of night, you’re almost definitely running in the other direction.

So why do we invest so much mental energy into the misanthropic musings of bad actors online? For one, they’re often commenting in response to something we’ve posted, or written about, or care about. Their intrusion feels personal, and all the more so, because their take on the media is at the very least negative, and at the most, in odious opposition to your opinion. If I stayed up late working on an article, for instance, and then it’s published the next day, maybe I’ll get a “great job” from an editor, or a nice text from a family member or friend. But it’s far too easy to fixate on all the hate mail.

According to Brooks, a phenomenon called solipsistic introjection plays a destabilizing role here. “[It’s] the tendency to internalize trollish insults…reading written communication can feel like hearing a voice inside our own head. As such, a troll’s insults can be experienced as a form of self-criticism, which is hard to ignore.”

Reaching a zen state where another’s criticism doesn’t manifest as self-criticism takes some doing. It’ll likely intersect with your larger mental health journey. (Which is irrevocably linked to social media these days, whether we like it or not. That’s the world we live in.) That said, ignoring the emails, comments and clap backs is the best way forward. That’s a superpower. Conversing with a troll assumes that your anonymous counterpart is going to follow the rules of war. They have zero intention of doing so. They’re guerrilla insurgents in your brain, determined to unseat you by any means necessary. They’re not interested in negotiating a truce. Simply getting you to sit down at the table, knowing you’ve taken some losses, knowing they bothered you…that’s their Super Bowl.

So stop throwing them parades. No more circular fights in Twitter threads. You’re not going to get them to see reason. Think about it: trolls likely engage with dozens (maybe hundreds) of other human beings a day. You’re going to be the one to turn their life around? Of course not. And even if you could, what do you owe this stranger who goes around making horrible first impressions? Your first and final allegiance needs to be to your mental health. Leave the trolls to their madness.

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