Trolling and Disinhibition - Have We Got It Wrong?

29/04/2015 19:11 BST | Updated 29/06/2015 10:59 BST

Twitter's recent policies and services update to better combat abuse was timely and necessary. When certain lines are crossed, whatever the underlying meaning of the behaviour, a response is required to ensure a safe and secure service, fit for wider public use. Yet why do so many transgressions occur in the digital world, whether sexual or aggressive and how can we manage them better?

The history of trolling, as described by Jamie Bartlett in The Dark Net, is a long one and apparently something of a gift from the academic community to the wider culture. Starting in the 1970s, when only governments and universities achieved a decent level of connectivity, online sparring eventually morphed in the early 1980s into 'flaming', where individuals would go online with the sole purpose of starting an argument. Well before Berners-Lee or Zuckerberg, provocative and anti-social acts happened, although intelligence and subtlety were the tools used to challenge norms and expectations. One of the great disadvantages of the current day is that diverse behaviours are often aggregated under overused terms like trolling or bullying when the motives for the action, if properly examined, might give us a better grasp of what is going on.

Like many, I had understood that trolling, and its later forms was driven by a process of disinhibition. When individuals feel they are anonymous or invisible, they start to act as if concern for others or guilt were no longer a problem. The 'online disinhibition effect', as described by John Suler, allowed people, when online, to confide in strangers, or act in more aggressive or sexual ways than they would if observed in the external world. As a theory, it seemed to be hugely illuminating of what could occur online, and there was little else in terms of theory to offer an alternative view. In one sense, it appeared to be the 21st century equivalent of Freud's account of the unconscious, of the reservoir of primitive drives within the mind, which was held in check by civilization or that organ of conscience that he called the Super-Ego. When order in a person or culture breaks down, through illness or civil unrest, seething desires, whether aggressive or sexual, burst forth with no thought of consequence. For Suler, the ecosystem of the online world allowed unconscious desires to find expression, with none of the apparent consequences or behavioural checks and balances of the offline world. Further, the impact on others was minimised, which facilitated the continued disinhibition. Trolling, sexting, or bullying could all be understood better in light of this theory; or could they?

Whilst reading the history of flaming and trolling, and whilst listening to young people share their stories of digital life today, I felt uneasy about the focus on secondary behaviours that followed on from the earlier desire to connect. The need was to understand better that innate, inner drive to seek out and form relationships with people, and this echoed the shift in focus over the history of psychoanalysis, from instinctual drives to our relations with others. But what if the limitations of the connection, and the restrictions imposed by the technology created within us a side-effect that then sought to intensify and thus improve the social or emotional connection? How would we do that? As any infant soon learns, if your first attempt does not elicit the desired response from your mother, scream louder.

This tentative hypothesis recently found further support, which might at least question the online disinhibition theory, via the ongoing and pioneering work of Professor Mark Griffiths and colleagues. Professor Griffiths' early research on gambling allowed him to develop the concept of Behavioural Addiction, where the relationship to the activity (gambling) is very similar to that of someone's addictive relationship to a chemical, such as alcohol. In recent ground-breaking, crucial research (, he tries to understand the behaviours of a particular group of modern day gamblers; online poker players. There is much to glean from this research that can be applied to trolling; indeed there seem to be many parallels between trolling and the behaviours revealed in the studies of poker players. What is utterly fascinating about taking poker online, is that many of the cues that a player would use in an offline game of poker are just not possible online. Griffiths writes "a very useful psychological tool in poker is to 'read' a player through their body language and their verbalisations. When playing online poker, a gambler is denied this advantage." Given the popularity of online poker, the question then becomes, how do the players manage without sight of the 'poker face' or other gestures? Griffiths continues "The key to winning on a psychological level is by inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it is possible to 'tailor' interactions to induce the desired response." So knocking the other players off-balance appears to be the goal, yet as with trolling, there is also a gratifying, intimate interaction, in which the intensity of the attention and engagement offered fills some of the gaps that the technology creates. There are other aspects to this, including pride and self-esteem "At a basic level, what separates professional gamblers and novice (or problem) gamblers is the factor of self-control."

It will be clear that these techniques used by online poker players are very similar to those used by trolls and certain types of groomer. And core to all is the desire to provoke an emotional response that, at least in some ways, is gratifying.

There appears to be a paradox, at least at this time, in our use of digital technologies: the promise of a social or more intimate connection simultaneously deprives us important aspects of a relationship that are there when in the presence of someone. Does this combination of connection and absence online drive much of our online behaviours and technological developments? Certainly the move from text, to photos, to videos and now streaming and ephemerality reflects our need for more live and immediate contact. And it may even be that the very context of microblogging through Apps such as Twitter creates an even greater sense of deprivation for some, which leads them to amplify their behaviours further?

Whilst still speculative and no doubt flawed a hypothesis, our need to keep thinking about our relationship to digital technologies has never been greater, especially if we are to understand the side-effects of their use. In that sense we need to move beyond the excitement and marketing, even of the Apple Watch, and beyond the criticisms, to think about the use of devices today. As Sherry Turkle suggested in The Inner History of Devices:

"We approach our technologies through a battery of advertising and media narratives; it is hard to think above the din. In contrast, the inner history of devices is about stories not heard unless one begins with quiet".

And we might add to this, we need thoughtful research that reveals better our engagement with devices and Apps, to clarify the opportunities and the motives for their use, so that we can develop better responses for their negative aspects.