It’s easy to think of Internet trolls as lonely creatures, tapping out their deep-seated inferiority complex from their mother’s basement. But according to a new study, many of us could become a troll – all it takes is a bad mood.
Researchers from Stanford University and Cornell University set out to find why some people engage in abusive or disruptive online behavior. Over 650 individuals were asked to fill out a test that was designed to alter their mood, either by being frustratingly difficult or positively easy. Following that, they were asked to answer a detailed questionnaire about their current mood.
They were then asked to enter the realm of the troll: the online comment sections.
After reading the same news article, they were instructed to engage in the comment section. Different people saw different comment sections, with varying degrees of more neutral views or more provocative views. Two “independent experts” then evaluated the participants' responses to see if it could be considered trolling, such as personal attacks, name calling, or cursing.
Only 35 percent of those who got the easy test and saw a neutral post went on to troll. However, that figure rose to 50 percent for those who had the hard test or saw trolling comments, and nearly 68 percent for those who saw both negative comments and had the difficult test.
A second part of the study looked at a dataset of 1,158,947 users and 26,552,104 posts on CNN’s comment section in 2012. They looked at what time and day of the week the posts occurred to try to give an insight into mood. Trolling activity tended to be higher late at night and early in the week, which is also when people are most likely to be in a bad mood. It also showed that people who had been down-voted tended to down-vote others in turn.
“It’s a spiral of negativity,” lead author Jure Leskovec explained 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.”
Many media outlets have chosen to remove their comment sections over the past few years. VICE recently justified their choice to do so by saying "the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top."
The researchers hope the study could go on to prevent trolling by informing social media platforms on how to create better spaces for discussion. At a time when divisive news stories are everywhere, understanding behavior in online spaces is going to become all the more important.