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Are internet trolls psychopaths? It's more complicated than that

Actress Leslie Jones attends the Premiere of Sony Pictures'
Actress Leslie Jones attends the Premiere of Sony Pictures' "Ghostbusters" at TCL Chinese Theatre on July 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

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For months now, comedian Leslie Jones has been harassed online with racist and sexist comments- so many, she left Twitter temporarily. 

This week, she was hacked. Private information, including her driver's license, passport, and explicit and racist photos were posted online.

This is a very high-profile case of cyberbullying and trolling, but ... what makes a troll a troll? 

"The way the term is used these days is sort of a catch-all descriptor of behavior that people deem problematic," says Whitney Phillips, Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University and author of  This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture.

She says because the definition is so broad and unwieldy, it can cause problems contextualizing troll-ish behavior. "These days I don't even like using the word troll, I like referring to the behaviors based on what the accomplish. So if it's racist expression, I call it racist expression."

Phillips also says that behavior online that folks perceive as sadistic may be viewed as harmless to the person doing it because that person may not be aware of the wide-ranging implications. 

Daniel Jones, professor of Psychology at University of Texas El Paso and expert on so-called "dark" personality traits explains, in real life, an individual expressing troll-ish behavior might be labeled a psychopath. "Engaging in this type of behavior," posits Jones in reference to online harassment of Leslie Jones, "requires a certain level of interpersonal malevolence."

"There's a cluster of personalities we study called the 'dark tetrad.' The personality types that are most likely to engage in this level of interpersonal harm are individuals who are high in levels of psychopathy, Machiavelianism, narcissism, and sub-clinical sadism," he adds. "So the people with these personalities would engage in troll-isn behavior for different reasons."

So, what to do if someone trolls you? "It depends on the nature of the individual and what they're after," says Jones. "There are sometimes when the individual thinks they're engaging in a harmless type of activity, but when you're dealing with somebody who's more sadistic, engaging may lead to a snowball effect."