Most people are quick to dismiss internet trolls as completely unlike themselves ― the fabled 400-pound guy sitting on his bed, for instance.
And with partisan rage taking over Twitter alongside the election of a troller in chief, it can feel like we’re living in the golden age of internet trolling: Posting inflammatory and offensive comments online for the purpose of provoking others has become a sadly common phenomenon.
Thanks to a new study from computer scientists at Stanford and Cornell, we now have a better understanding of how ordinary people easily adopt this antisocial and damaging behavior.
The truth is, under the right circumstances, anyone can become a troll, posting comments or updates that are intended to be provocative, offensive and insulting.
The findings, which will be presented at the 2017 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, suggest that trolling isn’t an innate characteristic, but rather a behavior that can be stimulated.
“Certainly the sociopaths exist, but understanding that ordinary people aren’t completely innocent, and can be susceptible to trolling too, can help explain how trolling might spread through a community and become prevalent,” Justin Cheng, a Stanford computer scientist and one of the study’s lead authors, told The Huffington Post.
How to build a troll in two steps
For the experiment, the researchers recruited 667 people through a crowdsourcing platform. The participants were given a test that was either simple or very difficult, and then were asked to answer questions about their mood. As predicted, people who took the difficult test were in a worse mood.
Then, the participants were told to read an article online (which had been created specifically for the experiment) and to participate in the comments. They were asked to leave at least one comment, and were given the option to leave more comments, reply to other comments, and up- or down-vote other comments. Some participants saw three troll posts at the top of the comment section, while others saw three neutral comments.
Those who took the tough test and saw the trolling comments acted as trolls themselves 68 percent of the time. About half of the participants who either had taken the hard test or saw the trolling comments engaged in trolling of their own, compared with 35 percent of the people who completed the easy test and saw neutral comments.
In a separate experiment, the researchers analyzed over 26 million anonymous comments from over 1.1 million users posted on CNN.com in 2012, including users that were banned and posts that were deleted by moderators. Troll posts were defined as those that were flagged for abuse.
They found that trolling comments were the most common late at night and early on in the week ― which is when research has shown that people are typically in the worst mood. Of course, we can’t know for sure whether the postings were related to a bad mood.
Trolling might be contagious
The researchers also found that people were more likely to write a flagged post if they had recently been flagged ― or simply if they had recently taken part in a conversation in which another user’s post was flagged. This suggests that mere exposure to trolling can make people more likely to behave the same way themselves.
“It’s a spiral of negativity,” Jure Leskovec, a computer scientist at Stanford and senior author of the study, said in a statement. “Just one person waking up cranky can create a spark and, because of discussion context and voting, these sparks can spiral out into cascades of bad behavior. Bad conversations lead to bad conversations. People who get down-voted come back more, comment more and comment even worse.”
The researchers hope that the findings can be applied to prevent trolling and creating more civil online spaces.
“At the end of the day, what this research is really suggesting is that it’s us who are causing these breakdowns in discussion,” Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford and study co-author, said in the statement. “A lot of news sites have removed their comments systems because they think it’s counter to actual debate and discussion. Understanding our own best and worst selves here is key to bringing those back.”