Sunday, April 26, 2020

Are trolls born or can we all be one?

Social media are the hunting grounds of trolls and few news media comments sections escape their attention, leading in many cases to the withdrawal of such sections. There are of course different degrees of trolldom from the infamous troll factories who make money deliberately sabotaging political discussion to individuals with anger management issues. I often wonder how people can thrive on such negativity and enjoy insulting, threatening and winding up other people, but it seems they do. But is there a little troll inside us all, waiting for the right cues to rise to the surface?

There is of course research on troll behaviour and I can recommend this article from researchers at Stanford and Cornell Universities, Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions. They carried out an extensive survey of comments on CNN news stories as well as conducting a simulated online discussion to see what patterns of troll behaviour emerged and whether such behaviour is infectious. It seems that trolls are not just born, we all risk getting sucked into a certain element of trolling if the right conditions are met.
While prior work suggests that trolling behavior is confined to a vocal and antisocial minority, we demonstrate that ordinary people can engage in such behavior as well. We propose two primary trigger mechanisms: the individual’s mood, and the surrounding context of a discussion (e.g., exposure to prior trolling behavior). Through an experiment simulating an online discussion, we find that both negative mood and seeing troll posts by others significantly increases the probability of a user trolling, and together double this probability.
I think many of us will admit to firing off the occasional sarcastic retort on Twitter or Facebook especially when someone has made an unfair or abusive comment. We might even get involved in a mud slinging session that we later regret. However for me a troll is someone who joins a discussion with the deliberate intent to sabotage a discussion or to bully particular members of the group. For me, trolling is bullying, taking pleasure in hurting others. In many online communities there are volunteers who devote their evenings and even nights to patrolling the digital streets and trying to defuse potentially dangerous situations. By immediately intervening in a thread that is going out of control they can defuse the situation but only when they are dealing with people who are simply overreacting or in a foul mood. The genuine trolls are almost impossible to stop since they thrive on confrontation and the only way to deal with them is by ejecting them from the community.

In such well-managed discussion groups with clear guidelines, timely moderation and real name policy, trolling can be kept at a minimum and this leads to a supportive and tolerant community. It requires great sensitivity on the part of the administrators to be able to distinguish between people who are just having a bad day and go too far once in a while and genuinely malevolent trolls. In many groups an administrator will try to reason with the offender, preferably in a private chat, and this often results in that person deleting their offensive comments and agreeing to abide by the group rules in the future. Many have a policy of three strikes and you're out, giving warnings and then if the abuse continues the offender is ejected. In some cases instant ejection is the only way to deal with abuse but for many a certain amount of leeway might help. The article ends by warning against simply banning everyone who steps out of line and recommends greater flexibility.
Trolling stems from both innate and situational factors – where prior work has discussed the former, this work focuses on the latter, and reveals that both mood and discussion context affect trolling behavior. This suggests the importance of different design affordances to manage either type of trolling. Rather than banning all users who troll and violate community norms, also considering measures that mitigate the situational factors that lead to trolling may better reflect the reality of how trolling occurs.
Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., Leskovec, J. (2017) Anyone Can Become a Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions. CSCW '17: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, February 2017. Pages 1217–1230

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