The Enemy Agents, The Psychopaths, and the Cult of the Camera

The Enemy Agents, The Psychopaths, and the Cult of the Camera

Nasty comments get posted in the online photographic communities, so I researched the driving forces behind the trolls and what we should do about them. Who they are and their motivations are not as obvious as you may think.

Trolls Are Terrifying

I work with many talented photographers. Some of them have faced mental health problems, usually depression and anxiety. Photography is a great way of helping tackle that.

Having long held the belief that art should be seen, I was encouraging some clients to share their images online. But a couple said that they would never share their images publicly because of the nasty comments they sometimes get.

I’ve read a lot about online rage, hate speech, and trolling, and following two other recent posts on this site, (like this one by Nicco Valenzuela), I realized that internet trolls are indeed active.

The Naming of Trolls

There is no legal definition of "troll". The word in this context derives originally not from the Scandinavian mythological creature, but from the fishing technique of dragging a baited hook behind a boat. Although there are some differences in behaviors, for clarity of writing, in this article I am lumping online bullies, flamers, hate-mongers, and exhibitors of other sociopathic behavior under the same heading.

Trolling Attacks Democracy

There are, of course, those who deliberately use trolling tactics to spread dissent and undermine democratic societies. The RAND Corporation published a report warning that many trolling comments originate from fake accounts generated by the Russian government's "Troll Army." That then implies that the actions of trolls living in democratic countries are, albeit inadvertently, furthering the aims of undemocratic and oppressive regimes and undermining their own society.

Furthermore, trolling is a bullying behavior aimed at stopping people with opposing views from expressing them. It is an attack on freedom of speech.

Catching Trolls

In his fascinating report, Adam P. Stern, MD of Harvard, says that internet content most likely to elicit impassioned responses is that which people feel affect them personally. Of course, websites like this one are solely the domain of photographers, and photographers are passionate about their photographs and about the gear choices they have made.

The traps were set for the trolls

The Science Behind Trolling

Comments can be split into three groups. The first, and by far the fewest, are the reasoned debates either in favor or against what was said. These had, on the whole, read what was said carefully and come to their conclusions, some agreeing with what was written and others disagreeing.

The second and largest group are the least imaginative. They resort to dismissal without any reasoning. Many of these use banal clichés: "that was a waste of 10 minutes of my life," etc. Some of these state reasons, but as Stern's report suggests, most people do not read fully, take one piece of information out of context, and attack based on that.

The third group (although there was some overlap with the second) are raging and personal attacks.


In reply to Tom Anderson's article, "Hey Photographers! Why Are You so Mean Online?" psychologists call the trolls' behavior deindividuation. That is the phenomenon where people scream, shout and become abusive when they are separated from the social norms and are hidden by anonymity.

Have you ever shouted abuse at another driver from the anonymous confines of your car? Perhaps you used racist, ageist, or sexist terms that you would not otherwise use. Or, maybe you screamed obscenities at a referee at a sports event from the safety of the crowd. Those are examples of deindividuation.

On a website, when everyone else around them is strangers, individuals might use words or phrases that they would never say face to face. In this digital world, this deindividuation is also known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

Most people now recognize this as cowardly trolling behavior and ignore it, but it does still sometimes feed hatred.

Researching the Trolls

In an article published 10 years ago, Tom Postmes, a professor of social and organizational psychology at the universities of Exeter (UK) and Groningen in his native Netherlands, reported that those who partake in trolling behavior fit into no particular social group. However, later research by the UK Government identified what they call the Dark Tetrad of the following sociopathic traits of trolls:

  • Narcissism: an excessive sense of self-love and self-admiration
  • Psychopathy: absence of empathy, lacking the emotional aspects of a conscience
  • Machiavellianism: a detached, calculating attitude regarding manipulativeness
  • Everyday sadism: refers to an enjoyment of cruelty in everyday culture

The government report also said that trolls are typically male, which matches abusive comments I have endured.

I then spoke with a retired police detective inspector. He said there was a definite correlation between those who perform real-world criminally abusive acts and online trolls:

Not all abusers are trolls and not all trolls are abusers, but there is a much higher chance of a troll also being someone who abuses vulnerable people, adults, or children in real life.

On the BBC website, Professor of Behavioral Addiction at Nottingham Trent University Dr. Mark Griffiths says that most people troll others for either revenge, attention-seeking, boredom, and personal amusement.

The Cult of the Camera

The outrage exhibited by some of those who attack those they disagree with is similar to that of extreme fundamentalists objecting to people challenging aspects of their belief system. In photography, it seems odd that such depth of feeling should be aroused by criticism of a lump of plastic, metal, and glass. But the camera, like many material goods of the modern age, has become an idol to worship. Prayers to them take the form of advertising slogans. Curses are cast upon anyone who dares to challenge that belief or suggests a different material god is in some way better. Of course, all the Abrahamic religions warn against this worshipping of these false gods, and in Eastern faiths, idols are just a representation of their gods, not a god itself. In the Cult of the Camera, the DSLRs have become gods.

The cult of cameras reaches religious furvor

Trolls Become Unstuck


Sadly, trolls and online bullies don’t realize that they could make a much bigger positive impact on a debate if they made an intelligent comment as part of a discussion, even if they disagree. They might even change someone's mind. But, being violently aggressive in comments not only reinforces the beliefs of their opposition, it is bad for the troll's own mental health.

Furthermore, it can damage their own future. When people make disparaging comments in public forums, those are seen by potential employers, their universities, as well as their friends and family. In a previous role, I used to dig deeply into the web to find what potential job interviewees said on social media, and existing employees there lost their jobs because of aggressive online behavior. Additionally, when derogatory comments are libelous, trolls do face prosecution and hefty compensation claims. Attacking people based on a protected status (e.g. age, disability, race, gender, etc) is also a criminal offense in many countries.

Worse than that, attacking people online has led to suicides. That's not something anyone wants on their conscience. If that isn't deterrent enough, in many US states, causing death by cyberbullying is classified as involuntary manslaughter or manslaughter in the second degree, which can lead to up to 10 years in prison.  

The Godfather

As criminal organizations can and do illegally access personal data, I do wonder how long it will be before a troll insults the 21st century real-life equivalent of a member of the Corleone family.

I don't have a photo of a horse's head in a bed to accompany this section

I spoke with an ethical hacker and asked her how easy it would be for a criminal to find out who is behind a false persona.

Dead easy! Most [computer] users' security is crap. If they tighten up now, stuff they have posted in the past is still accessible. There are lots of ways in. Example? It only takes one [website] admin to have weak security and a cracker is in, and [they can] grab the IP addresses or login details of anyone. I could ID most people online in under five minutes.

Weak security can be an employee. Offer money to the right telecoms or ISP worker, and they will access someone's data.

She went on to say that this was just touching the surface of what was possible.

'I Fought the Law and the Law Won'

More realistically, it will be the criminal justice system hunting down the trolls, and they have far greater facilities for doing so. Despite hiding behind their avatars, posting online leaves footprints, no matter how careful you are. Websites and ISPs can be forced by courts to give up the IP addresses of those who post. Even VPNs are not a surefire way of protecting identity, as you are still connecting to your ISP.

Also, the metadata buried in photographs can identify a camera and, subsequently, its owner. So, if you have ever posted an image online, you are forever identifiable.

Given that many trolls are agents of belligerent foreign states, there is a good chance that all trolls are investigated.

If you threaten someone or cause death through bullying, do you think you can hide your online activities from your law enforcement agencies?

The long arm of the law

Why Can't We Just Agree to Disagree?

At school, we were taught to debate. It was perfectly acceptable to have differing views. Society has since changed for the worse. Despite screaming about freedom of speech, individuals try threatening tactics to stop people from expressing opposing views, even over innocuous subjects such as what camera to buy. It's actually healthy for a society to have opposing opinions and healthy debate.

What If You Witness Trolling?

If you witness trolling anywhere online, don't respond to it. Do offer support for the target of the bullying; a few kind words in a message can make a big difference. I have been hugely grateful to receive such messages before; not everyone in the world is bad. 

Do report it to the admins of the group or the platform. They have a duty of care and responsibility to protect those that use their services. Social media providers are not perfect, but they are tightening up on this kind of behavior.

If threats are being made or the offensive comments are potentially illegal (hate speech is a criminal offense in the UK and Europe), take screenshots, copy the URL of where the offense happened, as well as the URL of the perpetrator's and the victim's profiles. Then, report it to the police.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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wow this was a good read.

That's very kind. Thank you.

Very well done. I'm glad that you had the guts to post this. Hopefully, it will lead to introspection by some posters on this site.

"Sadly, trolls and online bullies don’t realize that they could make a much bigger positive impact on a debate if they made an intelligent comment as part of a discussion, even if they disagree."


Thank you!

Thanks for an interesting article.

On Forums, it is all down to the moderation and degree of anonymity. One forum I know has few problems because users know bad behaviour is not tolerated and users are requested at least to provide a first name. It is alll quite civil debating there.

On that big photo site we all know, the moderation seems all about keeping the fans of this or that brand happy and insults towards users of other brands seems to be tolerated.

On a personal note. I replied to a guy who complained that his camera broke down after taking18000 frames in an afternoon. I just said he might like to take more care with his shot discipline and take less shots. After a couple of backwards and forwards replies, where I was studiously polite, he gently told me he would love to watch me dying of cancer.

The post got removed, but the guy was left to carry on posting. I asked the Mods why after a post like that, he was not banned. I was told to mind my own business. He often replied to others in this manner. He was always whining about his ill health and the work he did for his church and charity. Perhaps this is what saved this nutcase.

One of the big problems is that many seem to be emotionally invested with their chosen brand of camera gear. God help you if you say some other brand is better. I quess social media is a perfect hiding place for the inadequate individuals who have big problems socially in real life.

"On Forums, it is all down to the moderation and degree of anonymity. One forum I know has few problems because users know bad behaviour is not tolerated..."

This!!! Want to rid a site of trolls? Just set up the Terms of Service that specify trolling, in all its forms, will not be tolerated. Alas, it seems that sites are afraid that members might rebel or be offended if the moderating seems a bit much. That's why the ToS is so important. When someone signs up for a site, especially a free site, that person, by default, has agreed to the ToS, which few members read.

I was a moderator and admin on the largest astronomy site on the 'net. Discussion of politics or religion are forbidden. The 'net nanny' is set up to delete a set of words that are specified by the admin staff. Curse words are deleted via the software. Vendors are held to a higher standard than regular members.

It may sound oppressive, but the site continues to grow. Members can go there and pretty much have a pleasant experience discussing all things astronomy.

I do agree with you both that sites have a responsibility to protect the majority from the trolls.

It's important to remember that the vast majority of people don't comment on articles or join in discussions. Then, thankfully, it is only a tiny number of them that viciously attack. I've lived in a few countries around the globe and virtually everyone I've met in this world are nice. I hope more people will be prepared to stand up against them.

Your post brings to mine the undercurrent of rage, hatred, and resentments. I suppose the downside of the internet access is anyone can voice their own inner demons; to shout out, in the cloak of anonymity.

It is a shame that it happens. I do wonder whether there in an underlying cause that society could fix.

Ivor, great article. I think I see the reason for this post. I have been online since the early eighties. I had my "social net experience" in the nineties. What I learned: Trolling has always existed, much less of course in the beginning (Usenet), but it increased rapidly. It was always about blocking out the other person, suppressing their meaning, showing off or just being violent. So it's a good thing to be exposed to it and learn what it's about.

Thank you for commenting, Jan. I do hope for the day when the majority can stand up and say they don't accept it.

"Sadly, trolls and online bullies don’t realize that they could make a much bigger positive impact on a debate if they made an intelligent comment as part of a discussion, even if they disagree. They might even change someone's mind. But, being violently aggressive in comments not only reinforces the beliefs of their opposition, it is bad for the troll's own mental health."
I agree with most of your article, here you propose that a troll has the self-awareness to choose between the two actions, being helpful or troll. I do believe trolling is much more about unconscious reaction and unloading of personal stuff, being frustrations, abuses, anger, depression, etc. I think anyone that does troll, and does not do it for specific reason, doesn't have awareness to choose between being good or bad. It is definitely something much more primal and reactionary. I would bet that most wouldn't even say they're trolling, just expressing their opinion.
There is also the difference on intent, someone can say something with a different intent than someone can perceive it, specially if it's sarcasm and irony. Writing on the internet is a poor way to communicate, specially when you use these styles that work much better when talking face to face, where you have intonation, body language, facial expressions.
But this is my experience. as I see it there is many ways of being a troll, some worst than others.

I agree, Carlos. Communicating by writing doesn't show the spirit intended in the same way as talking face-to-face.

People should express opinions, and I am a great believer in societies having people with different belief then sharing and discussing them. But, sadly, instead of expressing why they disagree, trolls just fire off insults either at the writing or at the writer. This is often aggressive and will stop balanced conversation.

Sure. It just seemed to me that you were describing trolls as a binary thing, and I think is much more complex than that. Cheers

Not really my intention to explain them away as that. The behavior they exhibit is unpleasant. But, that behavior is quite different from the various sociopathic states that cause people to troll, and I am sure they have different motivations too.

I still think that if you're going to write an article and include The science behind Trolling and Researching the trolls, then this distinction might be important. Maybe the scope of your article wasn't suppose to go that deep in that direction. But that's ok, thank you for hearing me and responding, I appreciate it very much.

By the way, there's an argument that can be made that I have been trolling you, and without using any aggressiveness or other points you mentioned. You can troll by using argumentation and facts, and not be nasty at all. That's another dimensions of trolling, winning using your intelligence, and that one is quite intentional, sociopathic almost. Now I find me in the situation of defending myself as not being the thing I described... :/ Anyway, just wanted to point that out.

Don't let negative comments, remarks or statements take control of your personal or professional life, it is easier said than done but who said life is fair to everyone, just work to make yourself stronger and immune to this type of comments.

I agree, Celso. Having a negative emotional response to unkind comments is human. Sadly, 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health issues, mostly depression and anxiety, and are more prone to be adversely affected by meanness.

I am one of them, I do suffer from mental health, and I understand what a mean comment can do, however because of my condition I have learned to deal with things I cannot control, and focus on the things I can, and since there will always be bad comments and I cannot control with people think or say, neither I want that, I control my reaction to it, which is indifference. I suggest to all that work on this instead of keep vilifying the people that make a bad comment.

Great article. I would slightly disagree with a few of your analogies like cursing in traffic - which obviously isn't a good thing, but there is often an adrenaline fueled fight or flight aspect to those kind of outbursts. Online trolls have all the time in the world to consider whether their statements are helpful or needlessly hurtful before actually posting them. In my opinion, that makes the trolls more responsible for their deindividulization than the driver who just had to slam on their brakes to avoid a wreck. But the sense of escapability to avoid consequences of what you say is certainly similar.

Insecurity and relative anonymity are typically the common factors I see from these kinds of trolls you are discussing. A simple rule of thumb for me has always been, don't say something online that you would feel uncomfortable saying to someone's face. Be direct and offer constructive criticism IF it's being asked for, sure. But if what you are typing would be considered a provocative insult in person, and you still hit "post" - you almost certainly are an insecure jerk who views the internet as a consequence-free way to say all the things you would never say in person. I see people saying things all the time that would straight up start a fist fight in a different proximal context. That always, 100% of the time reflects poorly on the troll.

You can do that because you are a self-aware person that is emphatic towards other people. I argue that are many hurt people that don't have, or can't have that view about themselves, and much less about other people. So I don't think that is really a choice, if they don't even know that they're doing it, or that there's even a choice.
But I wish more people would, like you.

Good article, Ivor.

I will simply say I regret it every time I try to become involved in this community, and copy and paste the last comment I made (January 4, 2021)

"Seriously, WTF is wrong with you people?

This whole place is a toxic dumpster fire."

ah, trolls! the most serious menace of democracy and free societies? :))
dear fstoppers, may I suggest a very simple means of defense against that incredible threat to your common happiness& self-esteem? BLOCK TROLLS! don't feed them... it's that easy...
nevermind, I would regard official fake-news and lies (which abounded especially during the trump administration - in his favour and against him) as a far bigger menace to civilization and society... and 'viral advertising/marketing' for the most divese brands & companies.