Anyone (even you) can become a troll

(Credit: Getty Images)

Internet trolls, by definition, are disruptive, combative, and often unpleasant with their offensive or provocative online posts designed to disturb and upset.

The common assumption is that people who troll are different from the rest of us, giving us the freedom to dismiss them and their behavior. But a new study suggests otherwise—under the right circumstances, anyone can become a troll.

“We wanted to understand why trolling is so prevalent today,” says Justin Cheng, a computer science researcher at Stanford University and lead author of the new paper. “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?”

Bad moods

Is trolling behavior an innate characteristic or can situational factors influence people to act like trolls? To find out, researchers used a combination of experimentation, data analysis, and machine learning—and homed in on some simple factors that make the average person more likely to troll.

Following previous research on antisocial behavior, researchers decided to focus on how mood and context affect what people write on a discussion forum. They set up a two-part experiment with 667 subjects recruited through a crowdsourcing platform.

In the first part of the experiment, participants were given a test, which was either very easy or very difficult. After taking the tests, all subjects filled out a questionnaire that evaluated various facets of their mood, including anger, fatigue, depression, and tension. As expected, the people who completed the difficult test were in a worse mood than those who had the easy test.

Diaries show teens take online risks in stride

All participants were then instructed to read an article and engage in its comment section. They had to leave at least one comment, but could leave multiple comments and up-votes and down-votes and could reply to other comments. All participants saw the same article on the same platform, created solely for the experiment, but some participants were given a forum with three troll posts at the top of the comment section. Others saw three neutral posts.

Two independent experts evaluated whether the posts left by subjects qualified as trolling, defined generally in this research by a combination of posting guidelines taken from several discussion forums. For example, personal attacks and cursing were indicative of troll posts.

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.

To relate these experimental insights to the real world, the researchers also analyzed anonymized data from CNN’s comment section from throughout 2012. The data consisted of 1,158,947 users, 200,576 discussions, and 26,552,104 posts and included banned users and posts that were deleted by moderators. In this part of the research, the team defined troll posts as those that were flagged by members of the community for abuse.

‘Spiral of negativity’

It wasn’t possible to directly evaluate the mood of the commenters, but researchers looked at the time stamp of posts because previous research has shown that time of day and day of week correspond with mood. Incidents of down-votes and flagged posts lined up closely with established patterns of negative mood. 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.

“Just one person waking up cranky can create a spark and…these sparks can spiral out into cascades of bad behavior.”

The researchers investigated the effects of mood further and found that people were more likely to produce a flagged post if they had recently been flagged or if they had taken part in a separate discussion that merely included flagged posts written by others. These findings held true no matter what article was associated with the discussion.

“It’s a spiral of negativity,” says Jure Leskovec, associate professor of computer science and senior author of the paper. “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.”

Predicting flagged posts

As a final step in their research, the team created a machine-learning algorithm tasked with predicting whether the next post an author wrote would be flagged.

4 reasons people can’t quite quit Facebook

The information fed to the algorithm included the time stamp of the author’s last post, whether the last post was flagged, whether the previous post in the discussion was flagged, the author’s overall history of writing flagged posts, and the anonymized user ID of the author.

The findings showed that the flag status of the previous post in the discussion was the strongest predictor of whether the next post would be flagged. Mood-related features, such as timing and previous flagging of the commenter, were far less predictive. The user’s history and user ID, although somewhat predictive, were still significantly less informative than discussion context. This implies that, while some people may be consistently more prone to trolling, the context in which we post is more likely to lead to trolling.

Shadow bans and cool-off periods?

Between the real-life, large-scale data analysis, the experiment and the predictive task, the findings were strong and consistent. The researchers suggest that conversation context and mood can lead to trolling. They believe this could inform the creation of better online discussion spaces.

Why news editors can’t ignore online comments

“Understanding what actually determines somebody to behave antisocially is essential if we want to improve the quality of online discussions,” says Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, assistant professor of information science at Cornell University and coauthor of the paper. “Insight into the underlying causal mechanisms could inform the design of systems that encourage a more civil online discussion and could help moderators mitigate trolling more effectively.”

Interventions to prevent trolling could include discussion forums that recommend a cooling-off period to commenters who have just had a post flagged, systems that automatically alert moderators to a post that’s likely to be a troll post or “shadow banning,”—hiding troll posts from non-troll users without notifying the troll.

The researchers believe studies like this are only the beginning of work that’s been needed for some time, since the internet is far from being the worldwide village of cordial debate and discussion people once thought it would become.

“At the end of the day, what this research is really suggesting is that it’s us who are causing these breakdowns in discussion,” says coauthor Michael Bernstein, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford. “A lot of news sites have removed their comments systems because they think it’s counter to actual debate and discussion. Understanding our own best and worst selves here is key to bringing those back.”

The paper was published as part of the upcoming 2017 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

Source: Stanford University