Trolling, the disruptive and inflammatory behavior we witness more or less in online forums and the comment sections of websites, is an antisocial act which consists in posting derogatory and deceptive comments or replies in online communities, with the apparent objective of turning an otherwise normal discussion into destructive and unhealthy quarrels, which are driven by the users' emotional reactions to the initial trolling attempt.

While previous studies have shown that Internet trolls often exhibit traits commonly associated with psychopaths and narcissists, a recent study from Stanford University and Cornell University suggests that, under the right circumstances, even ordinary people can become trolls.

As the Internet continues to become affordable and thus accessible to more people around the globe, trolling has been on the rise for as long as the world wide web itself has existed, and with the advance of social media, it is reasonable to think that this phenomenon will maintain its upward trend. While the anonymity offered by the Internet might have contributed to the prevalence of trolling as portrayed by the online disinhibition effect, the truth is that its origins were hinted at as early as the fourth century B.C. In his Socratic dialogue "The Republic", Plato broached the relationship between morality and unaccountability or anonymity through the famous Ring of Gyges thought experiment. The Ring of Gyges is a mythical product that allows its bearer to become invisible whenever he so desires. Through this example, Plato discussed the idea of whether a person would behave morally if he had the option to avoid getting caught. 

In a broader context, people usually associate trolling with narcissism and egocentrism. Unsurprisingly, this was further supported by Buckels, E. E., et al. research which revealed a correlation between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. However, the study entitled  "Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions" from Stanford University and Cornell University, showed that mood and context can turn even normal people into trolls. The researchers used a variety of tools such as data analysis and machine learning to design an experiment whose goal is to determine whether trolling is an intrinsic characteristic, or if it is rather triggered by other circumstantial factors like context and emotions.

The experiment was split into two parts. In the first part, participants were either given an easy or a difficult test. They were then instructed to take part in a quiz based on the Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire, which is designed to assess their mood using a set of criteria like anger and fatigue. As you might have guessed, participants who took the easy test were feeling much better than their counterparts who answered the hard one. Moreover, the second part of the test consisted in presenting the participants with an online article, and then inviting them to leave at least one comment in the discussion section of the website. To understand the role of context in trolling behavior, the first three posts in the comment section shown to some participants were troll posts. The other participants saw neutral comments only.

The researchers found that the likelihood of a normal user engaging in trolling behavior increased with the presence of a negative discussion context and the user being in a bad mood. To supplement their findings, they analysed over 16 million posts on The results showed that one out of four flagged posts came from users with no trolling history, supporting the idea that even ordinary users are susceptible to trolling. Additionally, those results further reinforced the experimental findings by emphasizing that trolling can mainly be influenced by the discussion context, as well as the the mood of the user, which varies throughout the day, and tends to go down in the night where the frequency of flagged posts and downvotes was high according to the analysis.

So what is the solution? The old-school advice "don't feed the troll" might be a start. However, developing long-term approaches to the trolling problem might require some time as studies dealing with this subject are very scarce. In the meantime, and as the study suggested, trolling behavior likely unfold as a chain reaction starting with the first troll comment. So by preventing that first spark from being exposed to other users, we might be able to reduce the amount of trolling in online communities. 

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