The New Phenomena of Political Trolls

Television news and political programmes are producing fascinating footage of politicians in action. They are now turning their tactics to using all forms of social media to attack their opponents often with potential for inflicting emotional hurt and demolishing the other’s self-esteem and character. Here are my responses to a high profile German journalist who like many others, has raised salient questions about the Trump V Clinton debate and campaign. There are many others like it, so have a read and gain some insight into their political character and personalities.

Are we witnessing a rise in the number of trolls, their visibility or their influence on key issues? If so, what caused it?

The scientific literature on trolls is still sparse in Europe, UK and North America due to the covert nature of anonymous trolls who are normal teenagers or young adults and difficulty in gathering objective data. Political trolling falls into a radically different category of trolling as its usually very public although not exclusively, and in many ways has become much more widespread and salient and is highly unlikely to go away. Those politicians who deliberately troll do so for several reasons. Some primary evidence shows us that it is normally associated with Machiavellian personality traits with those scoring high on Mach gaining high emotional payoffs the more intense is the reaction from their political opponent. In the Trump V Clinton scenario, we can see a significant rise in the frequency and intensity of disparaging remarks, insults, biased towards Trump with the aim of fuelling his ego identity and narcissistic charismatic personality type. The revenge motive is evident in both Clinton and Trump but female politicians are more likely to utilize other motives such as the political power motive to assert themselves against online or offline abuse.

What makes political trolling different from other kinds of trolling? Is there a difference?

Yes, Political trolling is a relatively new phenomenon, radically different from classical teenage trolls who are anonymous, but with the same ubiquitous aims to destroy one’s opponent. It’s a form of overt and highly manipulative political dialogue with underlying sinister motives to increase one’s political status across the wider community by using all forms of social media especially tweets, to wage psychological warfare incessantly against their opponent. An important element is the skillful use of political rhetoric associated with historic sexual demeanors to break down their political opponent emotionally. We see much evidence of this against Trump primarily with copious reports of his misogynist attitudes towards women especially younger women and his self-reports of sexual prowess in his younger days. Clinton is a knowledgeable and shrewd lawyer and international diplomat whose ability to troll Trump has more intellectual diversity in that she can use social media in all its fullness to expose his profound lack of international politics and diplomatic relations. Political trolling is moving fast forward and enormous speed even is seen in the UK with post-Brexit attitudes and strategies. The term we psychologists give to this new phenomena is “Strategic trolls”.

Do you believe political parties intentionally weaponize their (non-paid) trolls, for example, to attack their enemies, change the conversation, or discredit them?

My own view is that any political party are now aware of the huge psychological potential of social media to radically change international opinion and decision-making to attack their enemies online in particular. There is growing evidence of the highly covert nature of political trolling utilizing anonymity and constructed false email accounts etc to intensify the intrigue and reinforce the enigma between both opponents. Another clever ploy of political parties is to upset online forums with the motive to destroy the content of high-level political dialogue and cause mayhem by introducing radically provocative political agendas into the online debate. The overall aim is to produce political instability and persuade members to change their attitudes. Politicians now use what we call strategic rolls and can operate in groups rather than as lone politicians. They can create “multiple personalities” in that each created personality may have different political tactics to win over the electorate. Their onscreen “friendly” presence will always have hidden motives.

A lot of times, looking at comments online, you can get the impression that the whole world is made up out of closeted racists, women-haters, extremists, and xenophobes. How reflective are such comments of author’s character, and of audience and community in general?

Psychological research findings to date have shown that trolls normally hold extreme views mostly politically or economically. Their aim is to cause irritation to others, steal money, build false hopes, deceive others and cause widespread sexual or political abuse by skillful use of Twitter, Instagram and so on. Those individuals who perpetrate these hideous online crimes differ in terms of their personalities form teenage trolls to leading politicians.

What do trolls get out of it, what is the payoff?

See my previous references above. It is the high emotional payoffs the political troll achieves by getting a reaction from the opponent. Some politicians use tactical trolling. These take more time and effort to construct the persona. They usually have the support of party members who endorse the nature and content of the tactical trolls. They use humor and appear friendly on stage to put viewers at ease with their power and self-styled charisma. Their story is well sculptured to score political points but to maintain as far as possible a level of political integrity. They will use gimmicks to win sympathy and bring out the “nurturing” aspect of who they wish other delegates to know who they really are.

Where do we draw the line (Facebook, news sites, regulators)? Many argue we should keep the Internet wild in order to keep free speech, but it often makes reasonable conversation impossible. So when should we delete, ban, or prosecute?

Free speech is psychologically important to all nations. We must adopt moral and personal responsibility for what information we put online. In the UK we have various forms of legislation to bring trolls to court if they are traced by police and seen to have intentionally damaged vulnerable others online. Such examples are the Defamation Act, The Misuse of Communications Act. Politicians need to have a common European policy that makes Internet trolling a punishable crime as trolls have been associated in the UK for several years with suicides and rise in self-harming. No easy answer as the giant Americans like Google, Facebook, etc have taken some steps to deal with trolls but is far from adequate due to changes in the UK, American, and European Legislation.

It’s a form of overt and highly manipulative political dialogue with underlying sinister motives to increase one’s political status across the wider community by using all forms of social media especially tweets, to wage psychological warfare incessantly against their opponent. An important element is the skillful use of political rhetoric associated with historic sexual demeanors to break down their political opponent emotionally. Another clever ploy of political parties is to upset online forums with the motive to destroy the content of high-level political dialogue and cause mayhem by introducing radically provocative political agendas into the online debate. It is the high emotional payoffs the political troll achieves by getting a reaction from the opponent. Their story is well sculptured to score political points but to maintain as far as possible a level of political integrity.