Milo Yiannopoulos: Psychology of an Internet Troll

Weighing in somewhat belatedly on the Milo Yiannopoulos / Leslie Jones feud, and Milo’s subsequent banishment from the Twittersphere, I thought it worth hammering out my view, although it seems the dust from this particular twister has largely settled.

For the sensible ones who are unaware of any of this: Leslie Jones is a black American actress who stars in the latest, all-female Ghostbusters film. Milo Yiannopoulos is a conservative Greek-British journalist, Breitbart contributor, entrepreneur, and self-described ‘most fabulous super-villain on the internet’,1 who regularly takes to social media to air grotesquely

offensive views, on virtually any subject and demographic it’s possible to be grotesquely offensive about.

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Milo availed himself of Twitter earlier this month to slate not only the Ghostbusters film, but to directly attack Leslie Jones, in the best tradition of the gratuitous ad hominem, deploying racist and misogynistic tweets, and going so far as to manufacture counterfeit tweets, allegedly from Leslie Jones, in his efforts to discredit and distress. The Tech Insider‘s Steve Kovach kindly gives us an abridged and approximate flavour of Milo’s nastiness, without overly sullying the visual cortex:

[Leslie Jones] was called an ape. She had photos of her with semen on her face tweeted at her. Yiannopoulos called her a black man. Yiannopoulos even posted screenshots of doctored tweets from Jones in a sorry attempt trying to paint her as a white-hating racist, prompting even more disgusting tweets directed at Jones.2

The wider question is not, as has been suggested in various online discussion forums, one of freedom of speech. Twitter is not a public space or an organ of the government, as much as we like to think it is (or as much as it may aspire to that status). It is a company, and like any company worth its salt, has a set of terms and conditions governing its use, although, as we are seeing, they have yet to apply them with any systematic rigour.

Even if it were a public space, that would in no way exonerate his behaviour, or cast into doubt the fall-out from it. As journalist Shaun King put it:

Bigots like Yiannopoulos do have the protected right to say what they want without being arrested for it – but freedom of speech is not freedom from all consequences.3

From the point of view of those who find him offensive, this may be an unpopular view to take, but here goes: I genuinely don’t consider Milo Yiannopoulos a true bigot – although I’ll concede that the net effect is likely the same, through a type of loathsome convergent evolution. I’ll explain why later on.

Many maintain that Milo should be entitled to vent his base invective and that we should equally be entitled to call him out on it, calling for his account to be reinstated on Twitter. This conveniently ignores the fact that he is not merely opining, but deliberately, perhaps even sadistically, targeting an individual, with no objective other than to cause distress and to gain notoriety. There are rules and regulations in most, if not all, major companies, regarding interpersonal behaviour, and they exist precisely to prevent individuals with antisocial proclivities from projecting their internalised misery or deficiencies onto others.

Elsewhere, there have been suggestions that the target of his campaign, Leslie Jones, should essentially ‘grow a pair’, and simply ignore the filth cluttering her message box; that she is basically playing the ‘victim card’; or that there is a type of hypocrisy at work, in that Twitter sees fit to ban Milo, but does nothing to deter the legions of trolls active in other areas of topical interest.

To that, I would say (apart from being incredulous that anyone could defend let alone condone trolling) that if you are being victimised, you don’t actually need to play the victim card. You could ignore the attacks, but why have your use and enjoyment of a platform limited by someone who is flouting the rules? And as noted above, since Twitter is being quite ineffectual at enforcing their own rules, absent a system of automatically banning offenders, it may as well be high-profile offenders who get the chop. Let them serve as deterrents. Defence of Milo’s actions on anything other than the shaky grounds of freedom of speech should be met with suspicion, not unlike the suspicion in which we hold those fire-and-brimstone preachers who harangue their flocks with tales of eternal damnation for homosexuals, but whose sermons generally feature levels of homosexual imagery and a fixation on the male genitalia, the details of which border on the photographic. Doth they protest too much? Methinks they be part of the problem, then.

A fair amount of literature has sprung up together with the rise of the online troll, seeking to explain the phenomenon. Interestingly, a cursory search of troll-related articles turns up some related keywords very quickly: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Together, these are referred to as the ‘dark triad‘ of personality traits (or, with the addition of sadism, as the ‘dark tetrad’),4 although unlike Dr. Golbeck in Psychology Today, referring to trolls as ‘horrible people’ seems to me somewhat simplistic. It’s tempting to play the diagnostician, having googled strangely satisfying and exotic-sounding dysfunctions for all of ten minutes, so I should state for the record that this is a job best left to the qualified psychiatrists and psychologists. Be that as it may (why would I be writing this, if not to pass summary judgement), it is certainly the case that narcissism and psychopathy, in the sense of personality disorders (narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder, respectively), are recognised conditions in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and their documentation suggests high levels of correlation to related disorders in that group (cf. Cluster B personality disorders).

The second interesting thing is that many of the pieces that discuss online trolling link back to the same 2014 scholarly article by Canadian researchers Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, and Delroy L. Paulhus, entitled Trolls Just Want To Have Fun. The website Psychologia.co also links to the study,5 highlighting the aforementioned ‘dark’ personality traits, while the cyber-harassment specialist blog Darkpsychology.co provides a more detailed list of the traits of online trolls, as well as pointers in how to deal with them.

Trolls typically seem to manufacture a whole framework of apologetics with which to justify and rationalise their actions, as evidenced in an article in the UK’s Telegraph online edition concerning trolls and their victims,6 and which, incidentally, does a good job of demonstrating how disturbed these individuals are. These rationalisations tend to take the form of a minimisation or deflection of their trolling activities (‘I’m just telling the truth’, ‘Offence is taken, not given’, ‘It’s my duty as a citizen to provoke a debate’, and so forth), but none of this detracts from the fact that these are no more than a set of pretexts for being an unfiltered, unfettered psychopath. There is no getting away from them, so the sooner people wise up to their existence, their signs and symptoms, and how to deal with them, the better. This is not to absolve corporations of their duty to ensure their policies regarding harassment and hateful conduct are respected, but ‘normal’ users have a duty to arm themselves too, with information, for their own well-being.

A person can be a psychopath but choose not to act on their destructive and antisocial impulses, as was shown in a fascinating documentary on the subject of neuroscientist, Dr. James Fallon. It may take less or more work, but it is apparently doable. So I do not consider Milo a bigot, which relates to people with unpleasant beliefs and unpleasant attitudes with which to back them up. We are not talking about beliefs, so much as we are gazing at an assortment of dysfunctions. In my view, Milo is an undoubtably talented and glibly articulate, but desperately messed up individual, who lacks the strength of character – or possibly the self-awareness – to sort out his own issues, instead both relying and capitalising on the fickle stimulus of the increased attention he gets from his saprophytic fan base, once he’s had a bowel movement on someone’s self-esteem.

Shortly after his permanent booting from the avian microblog, Milo called Twitter ‘cowardly’ for banning him, accusing the site of becoming ‘a no-go zone for conservatives’.

No, Milo, not for conservatives. Just for transparently self-aggrandising, narcissistic trolls who have less business in media than they do in sustained psychotherapy.

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1 Reilly, Claire. “Twitter Admits Dragging Feet On Trolls, Bans Milo Yiannopoulos.” Cnet.com. CBS Interactive, 19 Jul. 2016. Web. 25 Jul. 2016
2 Kovach, Steve. “Milo Yiannopoulos Deserved To Be Booted Off Twitter For Life.” Techinsider.io. Business Insider, Inc., 23 Jul. 2016. Web. 25 Jul. 2016.
3 King, Shaun. “Twitter Is Right To Permanently Ban Bigots Who Target And Harass Its Users.” Nydailynews.com. Mortimer Zuckerman/Daily News LP, 20 Jul. 2016. Web. 24 Jul. 2016.
4 Golbeck, Jennifer. “Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, And Sadists.” Psychologytoday.com. Sussex Publishers, 18 Sep. 2014. Web. 24 Jul. 2016.
5 Buckels, E. E., et al. “Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences” (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.016
6 Curtis, Sophie. “Psychology Of A Troll: Free Speech Or Pure Sadism?” Telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group, 26 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Jul. 2016.
7 Stromberg, Joseph. “The Neuroscientist Who Discovered He Was A Psychopath.” Smithsonianmag.com. Smithsonian Institution, 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Jul. 2016.
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