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What Makes an Online Troll?

Even you – the sensible, respectful online commenter – are capable of morphing into a troll. This is the overarching finding from a Stanford-Cornell team whose paper is rippling around the web this month. Our own Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil along with three Stanford colleagues set out with the ambitious goal to discover the motivating factors that push online commenters toward verbal abuse and trolling. 

After leading their own field experiments, the team found that the highest number of abusive posts occurred when people were in a negative mood and saw other vitriolic comments online. If you’ve had a bad day, you are 89 percent more likely to lay into someone online. Reading abusive comments can also up your chances of being mean online by 68 percent, researchers found. 

The team also combed some 16 million comments on CNN’s website. Here’s what the team found, via MIT Technology Review:

“[A] quarter of the posts flagged as abusive were written by people who hadn’t done that kind of thing in the past, and once a negative post appeared on an article, more negative posts tended to follow. They also found that the most negative behavior occurred in the evenings, and on Mondays—both times when research has already indicated that people’s moods may be worse.”

As Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil tells The Times (log-in required): “Is it really true what we tend to think when we think about trolls, that they are sociopaths who just want to harm?” he asked. “We found that there’s actually a troll in each of us. 

“If you think about online discourse, it’s so vitriolic, and it’s easy for us to blame the others, but maybe it’s not just the others — it’s us, too. Everybody has their role to play and everybody contributes to the discourse.”

The team’s paper received Best Paper recognition at this year’s Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW) conference, the leading event for researchers specializing in the design and use of technology that affects groups and networks.  Additional media coverage on the team’s findings can be found at CBC News and The Verge.

(Image via MIT Technology Review)