A new study shows that, while some people are born trolls, others contract it. Researchers at Stanford and Cornell found that ordinary people started engaging in troll-like behavior by simply encountering negativity in their online communities. So if negativity creates more trolling, which creates more negativity, could trolling be spreading online like a disease?
According to the report:
“The proportion of flagged posts and proportion of users with flagged posts are rising over time. These upward trends suggest that trolling behavior is becoming more common, and that a growing fraction of users are engaging in such behavior…There may be several explanations for this….but our findings, together with prior work showing that negative norms can be reinforced and that downvoted users go on to downvote others, suggest that negative behavior can persist in and permeate a community when left unchecked.”
The good news is, by understanding what causes and influences trolling behavior, we can work to decrease it over time.
The following are the two key issues they found that increased trolling. Let’s take a look at both and discuss ways we can proactively protect our newsfeeds.
First, the researchers hypothesized that negative feelings would more likely cause trolling behavior. To test this, they designed activities to put one group in a negative mood, while the other group was encouraged to think positively. Then they had them comment on a CNN.com post to measure the resulting online behavior.
I bet you can guess what happened. Those in a negative mood were more likely to leave a comment that would be flagged for trolling. However, if they had time to calm down, for even as little as 10 minutes, their likelihood to leave a second trolling post decreased. Meanwhile, among the positive group, trolling comments were far less common.
Thus you can see how the seed of trolling can be planted in a negative environment. It’s also easier to understand why sometimes trolling behavior arises when it seems otherwise unrelated or unprovoked.
“Trolling in a past discussion, as well as participating in a discussion where trolling occurred, can affect whether a user trolls in the future discussion. These results suggest that negative mood can persist and transmit trolling norms and behavior across multiple discussions, where there is no similar context to draw on.”
Context of Discussions
Exposure to trolling can cause that behavior in people who otherwise wouldn’t react in such a way. That’s not too surprising. Humans pay close attention to environment cues to tell us what’s acceptable behavior in different contexts.
“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. Negative surrounding context provides evidence that others had similar reactions, making it more acceptable to also express them.”
The researches go on to say:
“This suggests that while some users are inherently more likely to troll, the context of a discussion plays a greater role in whether trolling actually occurs…That people can be influenced by environmental factors suggests that trolling could be contagious–a single user’s outburst might lead to multiple users participating in a flame war.”
You may not be able to change the behaviors of a natural troll, but you can direct the context of your posts in a less troll-inducing direction. If you allow trolling behavior to happen on your page, it will keep happening and, as the study shows, risk growing out of control.
Like most diseases, it’s best to catch it early on. It will only become more difficult to treat with time.
How Mood and Context Work Together
The following table shows how mood and context affect community reaction, both as separate influences and when those influences are combined. As you may have guessed, when the commenter has both a negative mood and negative context, the likelihood of trolling behavior doubles.
While it’s hard to control for someone’s mood, you can make it a point to create positive context in your online communities. Unfortunately, positivity typically isn’t as contagious as negativity, but at least you’re moving the ball in the right direction.
This idea is often referred to as the “Broken Windows” hypothesis:
“Untended behavior can lead to the breakdown of a community. As an unfixed broken window may create a perception of unruliness, comments made in poor taste may invite worse comments. If antisocial behavior becomes the norm, this can lead a community to further perpetuate it despite its undesirability.”
Therefore, cleaning your Facebook page of trolls and their posts—and keeping it clean—will lead to a healthier, more productive community over time.
As we explored above, environmental factors clearly affect people’s behavior. By building and maintaining the desired environment, you create a space more immune to the spread of troll disease.
Tips for Troll Protection
As G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” Now that you have a better understanding of what creates trolling behavior, it’s time to use that knowledge toward the good of your page.
The following are three key ways you can put these findings into practice, starting today.
Set the tone. Quickly hide comments that seem troll-y. As this study shows, previous trolling behavior on the post will encourage additional trolling behavior. Don’t let that snowball get on a roll.
Outline your standards ahead of time. Without community rules to guide you, moderating such posts can quickly feel overwhelming. You’ll likely end up hiding comments that simply challenge your position, but are otherwise healthy, constructive comments. Don’t be that Facebook page either. Instead, decide as a team where you draw the line. This will help you act calmly in the moment, not based on hurt feelings.
When in doubt, go with your gut. Yes, the last point just said not to be lead by your emotions, but also keep in mind that, though it’s hard to define trolling, we know it when we see it. For certain types of trolls, community rules will never be enough. Trolls can be creative and spin their comments “as following the rules.” Don’t be fooled. If the comment includes flaming, griefing, swearing, personal attacks, or some other intentional attempt to disrupt the conversation, it’s trolling. Sadly, people take pleasure from upsetting others more often than we care to think. No matter how “polite” and “logical” they may want to seem, hurting others for the sake of enjoyment is never okay.
Let’s be honest. There’s no magic cure for trolling, or the internet would’ve taken it already. It’s unpleasant, but it exists and shows no signs of going away. Your best line of defense is understanding how it spreads and creating an environment that makes your community less vulnerable.
Now, get on your page and cultivate some protective positivity!