You’ve read the out-of-control arguments, vicious name-calling and conspiracy theories – the comments section of any given story is home to some of the darkest corners of the Internet.
The online world has made it very easy to throw words and opinions around anonymously. It was only a matter of time before users would take advantage of that anonymity and post anything they wish – including malicious content.
Enter a relatively new label for these users: the Internet troll.
But who are these people who feel the need to attack others online? According to a new study, it could be anyone – even you.
According to researchers out of Stanford and Cornell universities, the common assumption that Internet trolls are a certain type of people with characteristics different than the rest of us is wrong. They say that, ultimately, anyone can become a troll under the right circumstances.
“We wanted to understand why trolling is so prevalent today,” lead author, Justin Cheng, said in a statement. He’s a computer science researcher at Stanford.
“While the common knowledge is that trolls are particularly sociopathic individuals that occasionally appear in conversations, is it really just these people who are trolling others?”
With a combination of experimentation, data analysis and machine learning, Cheng and his team were able to determine the certain factors that could lead people to troll. About 660 people took part in his study.
First, the participants were given a test that was either very easy or very difficult. After the tests, the subjects filled out a questionnaire that evaluated their mood. As they predicted, the people who took the difficult test were in a worse mood than those who took the easy test.
The participants were then asked to read an article and then post comments in the comment section. They were instructed to leave at least one comment, but could leave multiple comments, up- and down-votes and reply to other comments. They read the same article across the board as it was created for the experiment, however some participants were given a forum with three troll posts at the top of the comment section. Others saw three neutral posts.
Afterwards, two independent experts were asked to evaluate the posts left by the participants to see if they qualified as trolling.
They found that about 35 per cent of people who completed the easy test and saw the new neutral posts took to making trolling comments. But when it came to the people who took the difficult test or read trolling comments, they were 50 per cent more likely to post a trolling comment of their own.
That number rose to 68 per cent for people who had both taken the difficult test and read trolling comments.
The researchers then analyzed data of over a million users, 200,000 discussions and over 26 million posts in comments section on CNN (this included comments by banned users or users deleted by moderators).
They recorded the times when the worst comments were posted because, they say, previous research has shown that the time of day and the day of the week correspond with people’s moods.
That’s when researchers found that trolling comments were more likely to be posted early in the week and late at night – times when people are most likely to be in poor moods.
Next, researchers found that people were more likely to produce a trolling post if they had recently been flagged or if they were involved in another discussion that included flagged posts written by other users.
“It’s a spiral of negativity,” says Jure Leskovec, co-author of the study, 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 more come back more, comment more and comment even worse.”
These findings contradict a previous study by researchers at the University of Manitoba in 2014.
As reported in their findings, people who troll the internet are more likely to be narcissists, psychopaths and sadists.
“…the associations between sadism and GAIT (Global Assessment of Internet Trolling) scores were so strong that it might be said that online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists,” the paper reads. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others.”
According to a 2014 survey by YouGov, almost one-third of millennials in the U.S. admit to being trolls online. In fact, 12 per cent of posters admit to leaving a comment so malicious that their comment was removed by a moderator.