Are people born Internet trolls or does the Internet turn them into horrible people? New research from Stanford University and Cornell University suggests that it's the latter.
The research, published as part of the upcoming 2017 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, offers evidence that anyone has the potential to become a troll.
"We wanted to understand why trolling is so prevalent today," Stanford computer science researcher and lead author of the paper Justin Cheng said in a statement. "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?"
Cheng and his team set up an experiment with 667 subjects recruited via a crowdsourcing platform to investigate whether trolling is an innate character flaw or if situational factors can influence people to act like trolls. In the first part of the experiment, participants were given a test, which was either very easy or very difficult. After the test, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire assessing their mood. As you might have guessed, those who took the hard test were in a worse mood than those who took the easy one.
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Next, subjects were asked to read an article and engage in the comment section. They were instructed to leave at least one comment, but could engage beyond that as they saw fit. Everyone saw the same article on the same platform, created just for the experiment, with one exception: some were given a forum with three toll posts (defined in the research as those containing personal attacks or curse words) at the top, while others saw three neutral posts.
Here's what the researchers found, according to the news release:
"About 35 percent of people who completed the easy test and saw neutral posts then posted troll comments of their own. That percentage jumped to 50 percent if the subject either took the hard test or saw trolling comments. People exposed to both the difficult test and the troll posts trolled approximately 68 percent of the time."
The researchers also analyzed anonymized data from CNN's comment section from throughout 2012. The data set consisted of more than 1.1 million users, more than 200,000 discussions, and more than 25 million posts.
While it wasn't possible to evaluate commenters' moods, the researchers looked at the time stamp of posts. Previous research suggests that the time of day and day of the week have an effect on peoples' moods (think Monday morning versus Friday afternoon).
"Incidents of down-votes and flagged posts lined up closely with established patterns of negative mood," the researchers found. "Such incidents tend to increase late at night and early in the week, which is also when people are most likely to be in a bad mood."
Finally, the researchers created an algorithm that aimed to predict bad behavior, based on a number of factors, including whether the previous post in the discussion was flagged and the author's overall history of writing flagged posts. They found that the flag status of the previous post in the discussion was "the strongest predictor" of whether or not someone would troll.
So basically, bad moods breed trolling and trolling leads to more trolling.