There is a distinct difference between a troll and a cyber bully and the motivations behind why each of those types of people perpetuates digital harassment.
A cyberbully is someone who has, typically, zeroed in on a target, often someone they know offline, and will repeatedly harass that one person. A troll on the other hand typically requires an audience and attention from other viewers. There is usually no personal or offline connection to their victim.
Though there is very (very) little research on trolls, two Australian researchers conducted a study on the personality traits of those who troll. Essentially,
Trolling is an online antisocial behavior that leads to negative psychological outcomes;
Trolls ‘troll’ in part because of their gender and personality;
Trolls are more likely to be male;
Trolls tend to have high levels of trait psychopathy and sadism; and
Trolls tend to have lower affective empathy, and psychopathy that moderates cognitive empathy.
The researchers, Natalie Sest and Evita March, discovered this by conducting a survey in which they gave statements and asked respondents to answer somewhere along a five-point scale, where 1 = Strongly Disagree and 5 = Strongly Agree. Some of the statements include:
“Although some people think my posts/comments are offensive, I think they are funny.”
“Payback needs to be quick and nasty”
“People would enjoy hurting others if they gave it a go.”
“I am good at predicting how someone will feel,”
“I get upset if I see people suffering on news programs.”
“I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation.”
Basically, the results showed that when respondents/trolls scored high for psychopathy, they, “employ an empathic strategy of predicting and recognizing the emotional suffering of their victims while abstaining from the experience of these negative emotions. Thus, trolls appear to be master manipulators of both cyber-settings and their victims’ emotions.” In other words, Instead, trolls aren’t entirely unempathetic, but they have high levels of cognitive empathy or understanding the emotions of others, but far less affective empathy, or internalizing those emotions, sort of feeling them for yourself.
The most surprising part of the research, in my opinion, was one of the conclusions that the researchers drew: “Rather than act as an outlet for pent-up frustration, trolling actually ended in negative psychological outcomes for the troll, even though they were the perpetrator.”
Trolling didn’t actually soothe or comfort the perpetrators. It made them feel worse. So I am left wondering, what’s the point of it all, anyway?
Perry, Philip. “Who Are Internet Trolls? Psychologists Build a Profile.” Big Think, Big Think, 14 July 2017, bigthink.com/philip-perry/who-are-internet-trolls-psychologists-build-a-profile.
Sest, Natalie, and Evita March. “Constructing the Cyber-Troll: Psychopathy, Sadism, and Empathy.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 119, 1 Dec. 2017, pp. 69–72., doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.06.038.