Anyone can be an internet troll if the situation is right

The picture you have of an internet troll may not be as accurate as you think. In fact, new research finds that a troll could be anyone if the circumstances are right.

Someone's mood and how a discussion is viewed impacts online posting

Research conducted by Stanford and Cornell universities found that circumstances and mood play a role in trolling behaviour on the internet. (CBC)

The picture you have of an internet troll may not be as accurate as you think. In fact, new research finds that a troll could be anyone if the circumstances are right.

Researchers at Stanford University and Cornell University recently looked into what creates internet trolls. 

"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?" lead author of the paper Justin Chong said. 

The goal of the research was to determine whether trolling is an innate characteristic or if situational factors impact behaviour.

The experiment found that someone's mood, or being classified as a troll, can both lead to trolling behaviour. 

For the research, 667 participants took a test, which was either very easy or very difficult. After taking the test, participants filled out a questionnaire about their mood, such as anger, depression and tension. The people who took the difficult test were found to be in a worse mood than those who took the easy test. 

Then the participants had to read an article and post in the comment section. 

All participants read the same article, but saw different comments. Some people saw three neutral comments and others saw three troll posts. 

'Spiral of negativity'

Researchers found that 35 per cent of participants who took the easy test and saw neutral comments made troll comments. Fifty per cent of participants who took the hard test or saw trolling comments, posted trolling comments of their own. Those who were exposed to trolling comments and took the difficult test made trolling comments 68 per cent of the time. 

The researchers also analyzed data from 26,552,104 posts in CNN's comment section. The researchers couldn't directly evaluate the mood of those commenting, so they looked at when the posts were made and used previous data that found correlation between time of day, day of the week and mood. 

Posts that were flagged by moderators or the community, increased late at night and early in the week, which data showed was also when people are more likely to be in a bad mood. 

The study also found that if someone posted something that was flagged as trolling, it was more likely their next post would also be trolling.

"It's a spiral of negativity," the study's senior author Jure Leskovec said. "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 behaviour. Bad conversations lead to bad conversations." 

The researchers also used an algorithm to try and predict whether someone's next post would be flagged as trolling. They found that if one post was flagged, the next post was more likely to be flagged. 

"Understanding what actually determines somebody to behave antisocially is essential if we want to improve the quality of online discussions," co-author Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil said. "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." 

Some ways the researchers said could improve online forums include a cooling-off period for commenters who've had a post flagged, systems that alert moderators to a post that's likely trolling or "shadow banning," which is when troll posts are hidden from non-troll users without the troll knowing. 

"At the end of the day, what this research is really suggesting is that it's us who are causing these breakdowns in discussions," co-author Michael Bernstein said.