There’s no escaping the brutality of online trolls, unrelenting and incapacitating in equal measure. The one thing about for sure about trolling is that you’d never stoop that low yourself…

Or so you thought. Researchers at Cornell and Stanford have published a study suggesting that anyone can become an online troll if the circumstances are right. The teams conducted an experiment in which they primed the moods of 667 participants by making them sit either a very simple or a very difficult test – the idea being that the latter category are put into a worse mood than the former.

The primed candidates were then told to read an article, and engage in its comments section. Whilst all participants saw the same article, some were given a version in which three trolls had posted in the comments section. Others viewed the article with three neutral, inoffensive comments.

The results were startling. Only about 35% of people who completed the simple test and viewed the article unsullied by trolls went on to post troll comments of their own. Of the participants who either endured the difficult test or viewed the trolls’ comments, however, 50% went on to post their own trolling comments. Subjects exposed to both the difficult test and the hateful posts went on to troll 68% of the time.

Not content with their findings, the researchers went off in search of greater empirical evidence, taking to CNN’s formidable comments section. The team analysed the data of over one million users, 200,000 discussions, and over 26 million posts. Incidents of flagged posts aligned with established weekly patterns of negative mood – so that trolling comments proliferated during times when people were more likely to be in a bad mood, such as early in the week and late at night (nobody’s feeling their finest at 11pm on a Monday).

Moreover, researchers investigated the effects that pre-existing flagged comments had on users, whether they had written the remarks themselves, or simply observed them. They indeed found that it was far more likely for a person to troll if their posts had been flagged, or if they had been exposed to trolls’ comments.

It’s a similar phenomenon to the “Broken Windows Theory”, which argues that well-groomed neighbourhoods attract less crime, whereas run-down neighbourhoods practically invite crime, eliciting a “jump on the bandwagon” mentality; if everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t you?

In the words of Jure Leskovec, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and senior author of the study, “It’s a spiral of negativity. 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.”

So, it seems in the cesspit of darkness that is the world of online comments, it’s a victory of nurture over nature; no matter how outwardly mild-mannered a person may be, given the right stimuli (a parking ticket, a row with a spouse, a good ol’ scroll through the The Australian), he or she may be capable of virtual atrocity.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d be the last advocate for “turning that frown upside down” (putrid saying), but a little bit of online humanity could go a long way in preventing the wildfire spread of vitriol. It might seem like a drop in the ocean, but if everyone channelled the Pay It Forward vibe, we could see the internet become a nicer place to interact. However incrementally.



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