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Why the Online Trolls Troll

8 reasons why some people feel comfortable posting the most offensive comments.

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Alongside online coverage of many major news events is a second current of stories about how people have reacted to the events on social media. This week, as the media focused on stories from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, to the death of actor Robin Williams, secondary stories have examined how people have been responding on Twitter—and a lot of it ain’t pretty.

Why do people think it’s okay to say racist, inflammatory, or otherwise socially inappropriate things online? Research in communication and psychology has investigated people’s perceptions, rationale, and behavior and identified several factors that determine the likelihood that a given individual may post offensive content.

Following are eight:

1. Anonymity. Some people are under the impression that you can say anything online and get away with it. Online forums, the comment sections of news media sites, and sites such as Reddit and Twitter allow people to make up screen names or handles that are not linked to their real world identity. The online disinhibition effect suggests that this anonymity may drive more deviant behavior, because it is easy to avoid consequences.

This is one reason some online news sites now require users to sign in and comment using Facebook. Facebook’s user agreement requires the use of one’s real name, and so the other sites hope that people will be more conscientious about what they post via Facebook given that it’s tied to their true identity. (This is not to say people don’t make fake, pseudonymous Facebook accounts, but rather that this is the guiding logic.) The problem with that is…

2. Perceived obscurity. Even if people are using their own Facebook accounts tied to their offline identities and know they are not anonymous, they may still have feelings of obscurity. That is, they believe that their expressions are still relatively private. If Henry is commenting on the site of his small hometown paper in Kentucky, for example, he may feel less obscure than if he comments on a story on the Washington Post site. Even though both comments are tied to his name, the poster thinks the people that matter in his life won’t really notice the Post comment, and that the people who do see it comments are just faceless masses he'll never encounter offline.

3. Perceived majority status. The spiral of silence theory suggests that when people think they are in the majority in a certain setting, they will more freely express their opinion than those who see themselves as in the minority, and may fear social ostracism if they express an unpopular opinion. Thus, although individuals may not make sexist or racist comments offline, they may feel it’s okay to do so in a particular online setting because they think their opinion is the prevalent one there.

4. Social identity salience. The social identity model of deindividuation effects, commonly referred to as the SIDE model, suggests that, online, social identity sometimes means more than our individual identity. Sarah might be a nice, civil person offline, but when she goes online to talk about her favorite soccer team, she may behave like a hooligan and hurl insults at opponents and their fans. This is also often seen in political discussions, in which people start responding like a group member based on political, national, ethnic, religious, or other identity or affiliation. This process of deindividuation is known in more extreme forms as “mob mentality”—you stop seeing yourself as an individual and act more in line with the group. As a result, the group’s behavior can become more extreme than it would have been, as everyone shifts to conform to the group even if they’re not as passionate or opinionated as others in it.

5. Surrounded by “friends.” On sites like Facebook, people may perceive their online environment to be full of people like them, because they are part of the same social network. Thus, individuals feel confident self-expressing because they anticipate support or agreement from their network. John might post an angry, vitriolic political message because he assumes that his network members feel the same way. He might even do so to earn “likes” or other expressions of agreement from his friends. But our social media networks are often more heterogeneous than we think. Privacy settings determine how broadly our posts may be read, and sometimes they reach to “friends of friends”—people we may not even know. Further, our comments can easily be shared outside of our immediate network. Thus, although we feel we are surrounded by people who agree with us, there actually may be many who disagree or find our comments hurtful, insulting, or offensive.

6. Desensitization. Over time, we may get desensitized to the online environment. Whereas once we would have thought about the consequences of what we posted, now we just spout without thinking about it. We may see so many nasty comments that we think making one ourselves is no big deal. If we get used to using a certain social media site like Facebook to express our daily experiences and frustrations, we start to lose our filter. It is also easier to type something offensive or mean into a screen than to say it to someone’s face.

7. Personality traits. Some individuals are outspoken by nature. Others tend to think that they are morally superior to others. And some just enjoy making other people uncomfortable or angry. Any of these traits may drive individuals to express themselves online without a filter. Personality traits such as self-righteousness and social dominance orientation (in which you think some social groups, typically yours, are inherently better than others) are related to expressing intolerance. Others are “hard core” believers who will express their opinions no matter what, because they believe their opinion is infallible.

8. Perceived lack of consequences. Social exchange theory suggests that we analyze the costs and benefits in our communication and relationships. All in all, these factors precede the belief that the benefits of expressing oneself outweigh any costs. Anonymity and obscurity suggest you won’t be personally responsible. Perceived majority status, social identity salience, or being surrounded by friends means you believe that even if some people are upset or angry, you have more (or more important) people on your side, so you are winning more friends than you’re losing. Personality traits and desensitization may making offending or losing friends not seem like a real consequence, because those friends aren’t really "worth it" if they can’t handle the “truth,” or they aren’t really friends if they don’t agree with or tolerate you.

In summary, there are a lot of reasons that people post awful things online, and unfortunately, characteristics of online interaction make this a popular context for offensive chatter. Engaging in a comment war probably won’t curb anyone's behavior, but there are some things you can do to manage these types, which I will address in a future article. . .

Jesse Fox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University and director of the Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab.

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