Our Experiments Taught Us Why People Troll
Justin Cheng, Michael Bernstein, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, 6 Mar 17
       

Trolling can spread from person to person. Cropped from Ayana T. Miller/flickr, CC BY-ND

“Fail at life. Go bomb yourself.”

Comments like this one, found on a CNN article about how women perceive themselves, are prevalent today across the internet, whether it’s Facebook, Reddit or a news website. Such behavior can range from profanity and name-calling to personal attacks, sexual harassment or hate speech.

A recent Pew Internet Survey found that four out of 10 people online have been harassed online, with far more having witnessed such behavior. Trolling has become so rampant that several websites have even resorted to completely removing comments.

Many believe that trolling is done by a small, vocal minority of sociopathic individuals. This belief has been reinforced not only in the media, but also in past research on trolling, which focused on interviewing these individuals. Some studies even showed that trolls have predisposing personal and biological traits, such as sadism and a propensity to seek excessive stimulation.

But what if all trolls aren’t born trolls? What if they are ordinary people like you and me? In our research, we found that people can be influenced to troll others under the right circumstances in an online community. By analyzing 16 million comments made on CNN.com and conducting an online controlled experiment, we identified two key factors that can lead ordinary people to troll.

What makes a troll?

We recruited 667 participants through an online crowdsourcing platform and asked them to first take a quiz, then read an article and engage in discussion. Every participant saw the same article, but some were given a discussion that had started with comments by trolls, where others saw neutral comments instead. Here, trolling was defined using standard community guidelines – for example, name-calling, profanity, racism or harassment. The quiz given beforehand was also varied to either be easy or difficult.

Our analysis of comments on CNN.com helped to verify and extend these experimental observations.

The first factor that seems to influence trolling is a person’s mood. In our experiment, people put into negative moods were much more likely to start trolling. We also discovered that trolling ebbs and flows with the time of day and day of week, in sync with natural human mood patterns. Trolling is most frequent late at night, and least frequent in the morning. Trolling also peaks on Monday, at the beginning of the work week.

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