There has been a series of articles on a recent study showing self-proclaimed internet trolls score high in dark triad traits. From the abstract:

Trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores. Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior. Enjoyment of other online activities, such as chatting and debating, was unrelated to sadism. Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.

While the study is legitimate, virtually every response to it has contained dangerous and false assumptions that threaten free speech and public discourse on the internet.

1. Seeking An Emotional Reaction Is Not Trolling

Let’s define what trolling is. Trolling is when someone expresses a belief or takes action they do not genuinely agree for the sole purpose of the negative reaction it will create. Trolling is not expressing a genuine belief or conviction. This is key, because defining trolling as anything that creates a strong emotional reaction puts all great art in the category of trolling.

That moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when a menacing swordsman prepares faces off against Indiana Jones – only to be shot in the face? Trolling. Great storytellers frequently consciously manipulate their audiences emotions to get their viewers to clap, laugh, or jump all at the same time.

The distinction between what a great artist does and what a troll does is authenticity and intention. Art and trolling may both provoke, but art does so for a message or purpose.

Return of Kings is often incorrectly called a “troll site” by those who don’t realize our writers genuinely hold the beliefs we express. We write our ideas in a way that draws attention to our work and entertains our audience, because we believe our perspective has value and is worth spreading. Do not confuse provocative art with trolling.

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2. Your Reaction Does Not Make Someone Else A Troll

When I see articles telling women that making money is better than creating a loving family, I have the same reaction a feminist might have to a Return of Kings article, but I don’t accuse those authors of trolling because I understand they genuinely hold the beliefs they express.

Merely because an article creates strong emotional reactions does not mean the author is trolling. It may simply mean that you feel triggered by a different viewpoint. Writing “are you serious?” in response to rationally argued beliefs shows an inability to empathize with or seek to understand the perspectives of others. Labeling someone else a troll is a tool the ego uses to protect itself, and avoid change. People comfortable with their own beliefs are capable of rationally confronting the writings of those who disagree with them.

3. Dissent Is Not Trolling

Labeling dissenters as “trolls” allows powerholders to dismiss criticism without addressing the merits of opposing arguments. This new study correlating trolling with sociopathy, allows powerholders not only to dismiss dissent, but label it as a mental illness and forcibly medicate those who disagree with them.

Climate change critics have frequently been labeled trolls, despite the fact in An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore predicted the polar ice caps would fully melt by 2014. The polar ice caps have actually grown since his prediction. Though Gore’s 2009 global warming hypothesis has been proven false, many scientists continue to label any criticism of his apocalyptic claims as unscientific trolling, and ban dissent from their publications.

Asserting that a black man could one day be President in the early 1800s would have been considered trolling. Had pre-Civil War America had modern social attitudes around public speech, slavery might never have ended, and America would have silenced some of it’s greatest social movements.

The tactic of labeling social change as trolling is being used to silence modern human rights movements. A recent Slate article dismissed the entire Intactivist movement against circumcision as trolls, despite major European medical groups publicly campaigning against the practice. The idea that men have the right to their own bodies and sexual choices is a legitimate human rights claim, and a sincere view held by many Americans and most Europeans.

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Labeling the opposition as “trolls” shows an unwillingness to debate, and that the person hurling ad hominen attacks is more interested in maintaining power than pursuing the truth. In the long run, this tactic could be used to forcibly drug those who disagree with government policies based on the claim they are “sociopathic trolls.”

4. Dark Triad Traits Are Not Entirely Bad

The word psychopath typical conjurers images of basement dwelling serial killers, but it really describes a set of personality characteristics not behaviors. Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Pscyhopaths, argues fearlessness, mental toughness, charm, and ability to approach challenges with cold rationality are desirable characteristics for leaders.

He cites Winston Churchill’s willingness to sacrifice men’s lives defending Britain from Adolf Hitler as evidence of psychopathy on Churchill’s part. Churchill could not have been the heroic leader he was during WWII, without the sociopathic ability to emotionally detach himself from decisions that required sending young men to their death to preserve British freedom.

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Mental illness and leadership often go hand in hand. According the book A First Rate Madness, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Lincoln all suffered from various forms of mental illness. If we dismissed men merely because of their flaws, we might never benefit from their strengths.

5. Trolling Can Contribute To Our Culture

Arguably, the Orson Welles War Of The Worlds radio broadcast was the first mass media act of trolling. Welles convinced hundred of Americans that a real alien invasion was occurring, by presenting H. G. Well’s science fiction novel as a genuine news report.

Though his performance fits every available definition of trolling, we would never have had Citizen Kane, one of the greatest films ever made, if we were to write his early work off as mere trolling. Welles broadcast revealed Americans fears about foreign invasion and showed how gullible the public was in the hands of mass media.

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Trolling can actually contribute to our culture by revealing our societal triggers and emotional weaknesses. By noticing what topics or views easily set us off, we can see where we can to grow as a culture and individually. Emotionally secure people are not harmed by others perspectives, genuine or trolling.

Pranks, satire, and April fool’s jokes all contain an element of trolling. The only difference is intent. Trolls seek a negative response, but the best revenge is living well. By responding to their attacks as if it was for your benefit, and you can use the experience to learn about yourself and your emotional triggers.

If you feel like you are being trolled or become angry at something you read online, see if there is a way you can learn from the experience and be grateful for it. Be thankful we live in a free society, because the same freedom that protects trolls also protects all great works of art and social movements. The same traits found our worst trolls can be found in our greatest leaders. The answer to trolls isn’t to ban them, label them, or fear them, but to meet all things with understanding and gratitude.

 Read More: Are Men Just A Bunch Of Misogynistic Gaslighters?