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Understanding the Trolling Virus

The dreaded Comment section is a notorious wasteland for trolls and miscommunication, where any chance for civil discourse is promptly squashed by disagreements giving way to personal insults. Who are these trolls, and what drives them? As Info Sci’s Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil tells the Innovation Hub, who we define as trolls are often people who have no history of lashing out online. 

The Cornell-Stanford research into trolling has been cited often since it was first presented at CSCW earlier this year. Winner of a Best Paper Award, the team’s paper, “Anyone Can Become a Troll” set out with the goal to discover the factors that turned average internet commenters into abusive trolls. 

The team found trolls are no different from you, the level-headed, responsible commenter. 

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, a member of the research team, tells the NPR-affiliated radio show and podcast that many abusive comments come on Mondays or late at night, when people are typically fried from a long day and when patience is thin. Furthering the problem, trolling is contagious, meaning somebody’s bad mood can quickly turn a comment section into chaos. 

“The internet gives us the opportunity for engagement with each other,” he said, “but we don’t really know yet how to harness this potential. Our communication techniques have developed in the offline world for thousands of years; [while] we have had internet discussions for 20 years or so. We need to understand what is the better way to communicate. How should we act? What is the right design for these mediums?”

Read the team's paper here.