When the trolls come out to play on the net
The online comments box seem to bring out the worst in us. But are we all trolls at heart?
David Maxfield: “A troll will eat any little lamb that is crossing the bridge. A cyberstalker will decide that you, specifically, are the lamb they want and this is far more dangerous.” Photograph: Getty Images
“I hope you drink rat poison and die,” says Prof Steven Knowlton. We are having a conversation about the often negative and often abusive comments below the line of online news stories.
Knowlton, a professor of journalism at Dublin City University, is simply giving me an example of the kind of thing most readers stumble upon on a daily basis. Another day, another dinger for your garden variety internet troll.
“These kinds of comments may or may not be amusing, depending on how coarse my sense of humour is, but it does not add to my understanding [of a news story], it does not enable democracy, and it does not enable a free people to make rational decisions in order to govern their own lives,” he says.
It is tempting to conclude that social media is a portal to evil and the internet is filled with bile-spewing trolls (who live in their parents’ basements, naturally) and these horrible people are in no way like us because we are bastions of logical, measured and reflective thought. It’s not that simple, however, and you’re not that blameless.
Nasty exchanges tend to happen on Facebook, Twitter or the comments section more so than in real life because humans are conservative by nature and tend to assume the worst of other people, especially when confronted with limited information.
“Our evolution has prepared us to expect for and prepare for the worst. When we don’t know someone on the internet, we tend to guess what their intent is and we tend to guess their intent is bad,” says David Maxfield, social scientist and co-author of several New York Times best-sellers on behavioural and organisational psychology.
“In Jamaica, they have a saying that if you don’t know a man, you will invent him. What you’re really doing is inventing an ogre. This strategy is part of what kept us alive in our past, but it creates problems because when we assume the worst, we may behave rudely or abruptly. The other person responds in kind and pretty soon we’re off to the races.”
Maxfield compares face-to-face communication to getting full bandwidth information: chatting with a friend over lunch is full-colour, high definition and you’re seeing it live.
“Whenever we move to a technology it is as though we’re degrading the bandwidth,” he says. “It’s like we’re talking through a pipe: a lot less information is getting through so the person at the other end is having to guess our meaning and our motives. “Things like sarcasm and tonal inflection are lost but we try to read between the lines. We guess and say, ‘Oh, that sounds sarcastic’.
“Maybe if we were face-to-face we would know that the intention was genuine, but online we’re taking a guess and we might guess wrong,” he adds.
Taking offence is one thing but acting on it is an entirely different matter. When the Caps Lock comes off, spellcheck is three sheets to the wind and you certainly wouldn’t kiss your mother with that mouth, something else is happening. This may be explained by what is known as the Online Disinhibition Effect, coined over a decade ago by US psychologist Prof John Suler.
“The Online Disinhibition Effect dictates that people may do things in a cyber context that they would not do in the real world,” explains Prof Mary Aiken, director of the CyberPsychology Research Centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
In summary, this is a combination of factors: you don’t know me (anonymity); you cannot see me; I don’t have to stick around for your response; it’s not real if it’s online; and, unlike screaming at a co-worker, there isn’t any immediate threat of disciplinary action from a higher authority.
“This, coupled with powerful cyberpsychological forces such as anonymity and immersion online means that many social conventions such as respect or consideration for the feelings of others can be abandoned in cyberspace,” says Aiken.
The web is a “lean medium” where feedback, for example, a recipient’s horrified face as you joyfully inform them that they are a genetic cul-de-sac, is sadly lacking. “In the real world we are taught to think before we speak. Perhaps online, people should try and think before they tweet,” she adds.
When talking about rude tweets and snarky comments, it is important to make the distinction between this kind of mild anti-social behaviour and “trolling”. Although the term is bandied about and used interchangeably with any disagreeable online interaction, trolling is a specific act that can be linked to certain unsavoury personality traits.
A recent academic paper, entitled Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun, provides a good definition: “The practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.” I know – it sounds like every comment ever on YouTube.
“This study found a relationship between those who like to troll and noxious personality variables known as ‘the Dark Tetrad of Personality’ that is, narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and a sadistic personality,” explains Aiken.
“In particular, sadism showed the most robust, or strongest, relationship with those who engage in trolling. The researchers behind the study argued that cyber-trolling appears to be ‘an internet manifestation of everyday sadism’.”
When I asked Aiken whether she thinks the average social media user has the potential to become a troll when they get carried away in the comments section, she says most definitely not: “I don’t think many people want to be considered as everyday sadists.” And if you think that sounds unsavoury, trolls aren’t the worst of internet commenters, according to Maxfield: “A troll will eat any little lamb that is crossing the bridge. A cyberstalker, however, will decide that you, specifically, are the lamb they want and this is far more dangerous,” he says, referring to Gamergate.
The recent #Gamergate controversy that raged across Twitter was ostensibly a debate on sexism in the gaming industry but early on lost all semblance of a balanced discussion when several prominent female journalists and game developers received rape and death threats. Fittingly, affixing a gate to a social media hashtag seems to guarantee shutting out any balanced conversation.
Another trending “gate” causing equal controversy was #Shirtgate where Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor was filmed wearing a distasteful shirt depicting scantily-clad women. While most right-thinking people would acknowledge that the shirt was a bad choice and he was right to apologise, the insulting comments slung en masse at him (and the subsequent icky responses from his “defenders”) seemed excessive.
“[Social media] allows you to organise an effort around public shaming. If you look at the history of political cartoons, ridicule and shame have always been powerful tools to sanction someone and social media gives you greater leverage in doing that. You can reach more people quicker,” observes Maxfield.
Is social media turning us into a mobocracy, waving our cyber pitchforks as we mete out punishment at the click of a button?
“The problem here is one of amplification online. Yes, the shirt was distasteful and clearly was not appropriate attire, particularly against a background of trying to attract women into Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] disciplines, but the problem is that technology is not a passive medium, events can quickly escalate, and feedback can be overwhelming,” says Aiken.
In the 1990s, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar came up with a number for the maximum of social relationships the average human can maintain before reaching their cognitive limit: 150. When we go beyond this, which is par for the course on social media, the relationships become unstable. This may go a ways towards explaining the mobocracy.
“Anything beyond  can lead to social stress. In an era where the average number of friends online runs into hundreds, and connections via various platforms runs into thousands we are in fact making ourselves quite vulnerable.”
Thousands of people having direct access to you online may be manageable when everything is going well but when someone makes a mistake, it can quickly escalate and spiral out of control, according to Aiken.
Keep the peace
This control is a tricky thing to maintain as an individual but even more difficult to balance for the average online publication that needs its readers’ patronage but must keep the peace below the line.
“[Maintaining a comments section] is expensive to do well. It takes a good subeditor with social media skills. If you can’t afford to do it well, then it’s probably better not to do it at all,” says Knowlton.
If the comments section is a potential minefield of abusive or libellous language, expensive to maintain and time-consuming, then what’s in it for the news organisation?
“The cheap answer is that it provides a place for people to see their name in type, which is exactly why community newspapers print pictures of babies,” says Knowlton.
“The real point of a comments section is to allow journalism to become much more of a two-way conversation with readers than it has ever been. The letters to the editor is a very imperfect and remote kind of way of doing this and comments on a webpage eliminate that remoteness remarkably.
“It allows readers to contribute thoughtful comments on stories and to other readers; commentaries in ways that have never been possible in the history of the printed word. This is a wonderful thing . . . if conversations could stay on track. Once [mudslinging] happens the point of the comments section is largely lost.”
A recent journalism project from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that involving the reader, by asking them a close-ended question at the end of the article, will reduce uncivil comments. Do you agree, dear reader?