Psychopathy and the Dark Side of Facebook Comments

December 6, 2017

New research sheds light on the profile of the psychopathic Facebook troll.

If you’ve been the target of malicious Facebook comments, it’s possible you’re traveling in the wrong circle of online friends. You may be doing everything you can to curate your Facebook friends and maintain your privacy settings to ensure that you’ll have nothing but an enjoyable time while connecting with your own personal community.

Nevertheless, a newly formed Facebook friend, who’s the friend of a cousin, pokes a jab at what you thought was a harmless, if not entertaining, post about the fun you had at a recent family gathering. It hurts to read that someone in your social media circle regarded your outfit as outlandish and even silly. A few days later, you get another obnoxious comment from this same person, also about an event you attended where you were having a great time. Blocking this person seems like the obvious solution, but even as you do so, you’re left with questions and doubts about yourself.

Social media trolls are definitely out there, lurking in the recesses of the thousands who have liked a particular page so that they can post to it, or in Facebook groups with people who don’t know each other but who share similar interests or live in the same community. Psychologists who study personality have used this phenomenon as an opportunity to investigate whether trolls are more likely to have psychopathic tendencies.

Do they sit out there waiting to bring down people with certain profiles, just as in face-to-face interactions they behave in a bullying and sadistic fashion? Universidade de Coimbra’s (Portugal) Barbara Lopes teamed up with De Montfort University’s (Leicester, UK) Hui Yu (2017) to examine whether people high in psychopathy would be more likely to prey on Facebook users they regarded as popular and successful.

The theory behind this study of personality and Internet trolling is that people high in psychopathy have the “inherent belief that it is acceptable for others to be manipulated and hurt for the individual’s own benefit and by an underlying sadistic motivation to cause harm to others.” They see popular individuals as desirable targets in order to use them for social connections and gains.

They fulfill their sadistic desires by “provoking harm to people that are … socially salient and attractive” (p. 70).  On the other hand, when encountering profiles of people lower in status, those high in psychopathy may enjoy the occasional jab, just for the fun of it, but they won’t regard it as much of a challenge. Far better, according to this view, to bring down the high and mighty.

The second component of the so-called Dark Triad of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, narcissism should also relate to Facebook behavior, according to Lopes and Yu. People high in narcissism would have their false sense of superiority challenged when encountering a popular and socially successful individual, at least as revealed on Facebook. On the other hand, to help them advance in the eyes of others, they may try to befriend the person who could potentially help them gain popularity.

Machiavellianism, which also involves a tendency to manipulate and exploit people should also, the authors proposed, lead people high in this quality to view Facebook users in terms of whether they represented either a threat to their self-esteem or a route to their self-advancement.

The study’s critical tests involved determining whether individuals differing in Dark Triad traits would respond differently to the Facebook profiles of people high or low in popularity. A sample of 135 British undergraduates participated in the online study in which they completed a Dark Triad questionnaire and then proceeded to read the fabricated Facebook profiles of a same-sex peer. The popular Facebook profiles showed people with many online friends and extroverted personalities.

The low-status Facebook profiles depicted individuals with few online friends who seemed to have low self-esteem, evidence of excessive online gaming activity, and posts suggesting they were seeking reassurance from others due to their lack of social connection and feelings of misfortune. Participants were asked to compare themselves to these Facebook users to find out if the profiles stimulated upward or downward social comparison.

The research team measured trolling by asking participants to rate their agreement to comments following posts that referred to an accomplishment in the areas of education and personal success. The popular Facebook users reported on receiving high grades, and the unpopular ones reported on their disappointment in not receiving a higher one. In the area of personal success, the popular Facebook users reported getting a flashy new car, and the less popular ones reported that they had come down with a cold.

Among the comments that participants read regarding each post were some that qualified as trolling such as “No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get a good grade coz you’re an idiot” (to the less popular profile) and “Which lecturer did you sleep with to get that grade?” to the popular one. Participants rated the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with these posts.

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