Nurture, not nature, explains Internet trolling

"While prior work suggests that trolling behavior is confined to a vocal and anti-social minority, ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, behave like trolls," said researcher Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil.
By Brooks Hays   |   May 5, 2017 at 12:17 PM
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May 5 (UPI) -- New research suggests Internet trolls are the product of nurture, not nature. In other words, they're made, not born.

The term Internet troll refers to an online commenter who appears to be motivated by a desire to incite others. They typically deal in inflammatory -- often offensive, as well as racist and sexist -- language.

But new research out of Cornell University suggests the wrong combination of emotion, or mood, and social cues can explain the behavior of an Internet troll.

The research suggests, deep down, not all trolls are trolls.

"While prior work suggests that trolling behavior is confined to a vocal and anti-social minority, ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, behave like trolls," Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, an assistant professor of computational social science at Cornell, said in a news release.

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and his colleagues used an online social experiment to better understand the conditions that encourage trolling. They used a freelance work forum called Amazon Mechanical Turk service to recruit a group of online users to participate in a message board about current events.

First, recruits were tasked with completing on online quiz featuring logic, math and word problems. After the quiz, users were directed to read and comment on a news item. To generate differences in mood, some participants were given harder or easier questions than others.

Some were told they performed poorly on the quiz, and some participants were also funneled onto a message board featuring negative comments copied from CNN comment threads.

Participants were more likely to troll when they were put in a negative mood and exposed to the behavior of other trollers.

When researchers analyzed CNN comment threads, they found a string of negative comments increased the likelihood that the next comment would also be negative. Their analysis showed trolls are most active late at night and on Mondays and Fridays.

Some social scientists and online moderators are currently considering strategies for reducing the level of trolling on message boards and online forums.

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