Internet trolls can seem like dark masters of their art, placing a precisely worded (if grammatically awkward) comment meant to infuriate good-hearted online citizens while derailing any kind of a productive conversation. Our only consolation is that the trolls are few in number. Tucked away in their parents' basement, we assume, they spread an outsized swath of misery across the web.
All those assumptions might be wrong. New research from Stanford University and Cornell University has found that just about anyone will post a vile comment on the internet, under the right conditions. "Ordinary users will also troll when mood and discussion context prompt such behaviors," the researchers write in their study being presented later this month at the Association for Computing Machinery's conference on social computing in Portland.
The computer scientists took a deep dive into anti-social online behavior to better understand what makes a troll tick. The study combined an experiment on 667 participants, who created a total of 791 comment posts, along with an analysis of more than 16 million comments on CNN.com from a period of several months. What they found could be considered a set of five red flags that you should take into account the next time you start angrily typing in a comment box:
You're in a bad mood
In the study, the researchers gave half the participants an easy 15-question quiz about logic, math, and word scrambles, then gave the other half an exceedingly difficult version of the quiz (the average score was only 2 correct out of the 15). Next, the participants had to read a short news item about Hillary Clinton—this was a few months before the 2016 election—and participate in a discussion thread below the article, either leaving an anonymous comment, replying to comments, or upvoting or downvoting comments. People whose day was already ruined by taking that impossible quiz were 89 percent more likely to post a trolling comment, the study found. (Personal politics alone didn't account for the negativity—more than half the study participants identified as Democrats, and only 21 percent were Republican, not surprising in the college town setting.)
Another troll posts first
One of the most frustrating aspects of trolling is how it can transform a civil discussion into strangers hurling insults and accusations at each other. The study confirmed how easy it is to manipulate commenters: When researchers planted a trolling comment in a discussion thread, participants were 68 percent more likely to follow with a negative comment of their own. "Participants may have an initial negative reaction to reading the article, but are unlikely to bluntly externalize them because of self-control or environmental cues," the researchers write. But once you see that someone has already unleashed their anger, it gives you tacit permission to match that tone or take it farther.
You're up past your bedtime
No one's happy when they're exhausted, and staying up too late can make a bad mood even worse. The researchers analyzed a trove of 16.5 million posts on CNN.com from December 2012 to August 2013, of which more than 500,000 had been flagged as abusive or violating community guidelines. After sifting through all that data, they found that posts made between 11 a.m. and 5 a.m. were more likely to be flagged. Perhaps not surprisingly, commenters were more likely to have a post flagged after heading back to work on Monday than ahead of the weekend on Friday or Saturday.
You tried to reason with a troll
A troll's twisted logic sticks with you, even if you managed not to stoop to their level the first time around. The analysis of CNN posts revealed that when someone participates in a discussion that had at least one flagged post—even if they didn't reply with a trolling comment at the time—they were more likely to write a flagged post in a later discussion. And instead of discouraging bad behavior, having a post flagged and removed seemed to actually increase the odds that person would post another comment that would be flagged for abuse.
You jump on replies
If you keep hitting F5 to refresh the screen and see who replied to your post, chances are you're going to escalate the discussion in a bad way. People who only waited five minutes before making another post in the same thread were more likely to post a flagged comment than people who waited for 10 minutes. It's not entirely clear yet, however, whether waiting simply lets your temper cool, or people who wait longer between posts are already more level-headed. "Users with better impulse control may wait longer before posting again if they are angry," the researchers write.