STANFORD, Calif. — You don’t have to be an angry, anti-social pariah to master the art of trolling, or posting inflammatory content about another person. A study conducted by researchers at Stanford and Cornell universities claims that internet trolls aren’t necessarily that different from the rest of us.
“We wanted to understand why trolling is so prevalent today,” lead author Justin Cheng, a computer science researcher, says in a release. “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?”
The first part of this intricate study looked at 667 participants, all of whom were instructed to take a test of either very easy or very hard difficulty. Following the test, participants were instructed to report how they felt— e.g. angry, tired, depressed, stressed. As expected, those who took the more difficult test were more likely to express negative emotions.
Next, participants were asked to read a sample article and take a look at its comment section. Some participants saw a comment section headlined by three troll posts, while others saw a comment section with three neutral comments as its top three posts. After reading the article and comment section, the participants were asked to post a comment of their own.
Of those who took the easy test and saw neutral comments, only 35% posted what could be defined as a troll comment. This percentage jumped up to 50% for those who saw either troll comments or took the difficult test, and 68% for those who encountered both.
Looking at trolls on CNN
To take it a step further, the researchers also looked at comments posted to CNN’s website throughout 2012. The goal was to better understand what factors motivated troll behavior.
It was found that the day and time of the week played a big role in the prevalence of trolling. Bad moods tend to flare at night and early in the week, and this corresponded with the highest rates of trolling on CNN.com.
Lastly, the researchers used an algorithm to determine the strongest predictor of someone posting a troll comment. They found that troll comments from previous users were most predictive, while factors such as user history and mood were less of an indicator.
Overall, this study suggests that under certain circumstances, almost anyone can behave like a troll.
‘Just one person waking up cranky can create a spark’
“It’s a spiral of negativity,” Jure Leskovec, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and senior author of the study, says in the study’s release. “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.”
In addition, with many comment sections being abolished due to abuse, this research could provide insight into how to effectively manage and patrol comment sections.
“At the end of the day, what this research is really suggesting is that it’s us who are causing these breakdowns in discussion,” adds Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford and co-author of the paper. “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.”