One of the best pieces of advice to give anyone who wants to engage on the internet is "don't feed the trolls". Admittedly, it isn't always easy to detect trolls, as there are those who define 'troll' as 'anyone who doesn't agree with me', but the general rule is still a wise one to adhere to.
And it now appears that the theory that such people are merely firestarters has some basis to it. Research done in Canada suggests that Internet trolls are more likely than others to show signs of sadism, psychopathy and "Machiavellianism": a disregard for morality and tendency to manipulate or exploit others.
Now, one does need to be cautious, and this was an online survey, but as someone who has occasionally mused out loud on the tendency for an online minority to behave in a manner that they would surely never replicate in 'real life', it does appeal as a possible theory, and offers a means of dealing with them, or an excuse not to tolerate their behaviour.
Apparently, sadism is the most prevalent influence causing trolls to behave as they do, and as most of us don't knowingly interact with sadists in real life, it's little wonder that we struggle with such behaviour online. And for those of us who take the view that, as reasonable people, we're willing to engage in rational debate, the notion that there are people out there who simply prefer to abuse allcomers is a trying, and ultimately depressing one.
So, the advice holds - don't feed the trolls - and, if in doubt, stick to fora where moderation is effective and complaints about conduct taken seriously.