By John Gloster-Smith
There’s apparently been an increase in the activity of Internet “trolls” in recent years, people who are very abusive online in under-moderated forums, Facebook, comment spaces, etc., usually acting under a pseudonym. There was a BBC TV programme about it this week, which gave examples of, among others, trolls posting on RIP pages on Facebook after someone had died.

Being on the receiving end of it is very much the experience of being bullied and can be a very upsetting and painful experience. So what does it say about people in general that this can occur? It’s an interesting, if rather nasty issue. Of course one might suggest that in some cases the behaviour is pathological and obsessive, a bit reminiscent of stalking, and so I’ll keep my comments to a more broad issue of how people’s covert behaviour towards others is not how it might be when you meet them face-to-face, as was clear in the TV programme, and hence raises a much broader issue for our society.

It might be worth therefore thinking about another situation, driving a car. Have you noticed how people can adopt another set of behaviours when behind the driving wheel to meeting people say at a meeting or even passing people in the street (and the latter can sometimes be similar)? It is striking how people get engaged in all sorts of very un-adult behaviours, such as driving “on the bumper” of the car in front for many miles, racing them, flashing headlights at others, “cutting people up”, gesticulating in an angry or rude fashion, etc, all things we’d be very unlikely to do if we met the other person face to face. In fact have you noticed how, if one driver is likely to draw up next to the other after one of these incidents, they avoid eye-contact?

There is something about the car that insulates people from having to take full responsibility for their actions in relation to another. The more normal agencies of social disapproval are absent. Plus, behind the driving wheel they acquire a power they don’t otherwise possess, or would feel constrained from using by social norms. It can even seem almost like fun – and trollers describe it as fun. Remember how in the Milgram electric torture experiment, once some of the torturers got to administering apparently death-level shocks, they even started to laugh.

It’s like another side comes out, one otherwise kept firmly in control and out of sight. What can be useful is to explore what your fantasies can be in relation to another whom you get angry with. Because trollers seem to be living in a fantasy world, and one which can be really obsessive – one called it “addictive” in the programme.

So with trolling. The medium of the internet insulates one from actual contact with the “victim” and one is free to indulge in one’s fantasies, especially if one lives alone and lacks any other way to mix the fantasy life with the reality of getting on with others, winning friends and influencing people as they say. The more the other party is outraged and behaves the “victim”, the more it happens, a bit like bullying. They say, don’t feed the trolls. There is no need to take responsibility, to be accountable. One can act out one’s power fantasies or one’s desire to harm another in a way that doesn’t, generally, actually result in physical conflict and physical hurt. Often the bully lacks the power and strength and melts away rapidly when confronted by determined superior force. The internet gives a great sense of power to some people, without any moderating force in certain situations.

Of course we can go on from this point and speculate on human nature and whether it is fundamentally potentially evil and, as Hobbes in Leviathan argued has to be constrained in a civil society. Do we have to learn self-restaint and moderation as the price of being social beings? Was Golding right about his portrayal of humans in “Lord of the Flies“, in which children marooned without adults on a desert island revert to “savages”? With the TV programme, I was reminded of adults behaving like nasty children, bullies in the playground. What does all this say about our essential nature?

My response to this is to point out the phenomenon of the Shadow, referred to before in this blog. The disowned shadow side of the ego self can include qualities we aren’t consciously aware of but which we can project on to others, or which can leak out at times. These unintegrated aspects of the self are in principle invaluable to our growth if we become aware of them, explore what they are about and why they are there, and learn to moderate, let go of or utilise them to our benefit in some form. So the “troll” aspect, while very extreme, is a shadow manifestation which needs looking at, were such people to do that of course! So, it is to have compassion, as well as taking necessary action to protect ourselves against such behaviour.

Such manifestations are expressions of pain, and also, according to the Shadow, also a mirror of an aspect of the rest of us. How much, for example, have we as a society in the past bullied and persecuted others? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Christ said. Or too, before casting out the speck from your brother’s eye, first remove the plank from your own (he was a carpenter!). The essence of Who we Are is love; our Shadow is an aspect of the ego self and in this case reflects ego pain.

About the Author
John Gloster-Smith facilitates people’s personal and professional development, through group facilitation, coaching, mentoring, teaching, writing and blogging. He works from a Humanistic and Transpersonal perspective.  He holds a Post-graduate Certificate in Education and BA (2:1) from Oxford University, and is an NLP Master Practitioner and a member of the Association for Coaching. He provides Executive Coaching services.

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