“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
- Oscar Wilde
Technology has had a profound impact on the way we communicate with each other – just think about how we’ve transitioned from letter writing to talking on the phone, to emailing, to texting and tweeting over the past 30 years and how that’s shaped how we socialize, how we date, and how we acquire, share, and debate information.
To be sure, online communication has its bright and dark sides. There’s no question that the internet has given us the gift of real-time personal access to both social contacts and “breaking news,” at arm’s length and at the touch of a finger, which most of us take for granted on a daily basis. Over 90% of the US population pays considerable monthly fees to remain “plugged in” to a portable device (over 50% have smartphones) and the rest of the world is right there with us. Beyond the convenience of our everyday personal lives, this connectivity has great potential to effect positive change on a global scale, whether by allowing us to track and halt the outbreak of diseases or to spark cultural and political revolutions.
But for all its benefits, we’re often reminded of the darker side of online communication. A number of high-profile cases of suicide, especially among teenage girls, have been blamed on cyberbullying. Last month, the actress Leslie Jones, star of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, was subjected to a level of public vitriol and hate speech that would be almost unthinkable in face-to-face interaction.
It seems then that online communication may bring out the very worst in us. How can we understand this psychologically and use that understanding to do something about it?
Back in 2004, psychologist John Suler popularized the term “online disinhibition effect” to describe how online communication can encourage people to come out of our shells to participate in public discourse.1 As Suler and others have noted, this disinhibition can have positive effects – for example, allowing people to share their inner emotions and giving a voice to those who might otherwise be too shy or feel too disempowered to speak up.1,2 But online communication can also facilitate “toxic disinhibition” whereby personal attacks, cyberbullying, hate speech, and threats flourish.
Suler attributed the disinhibiting effects of online communication to several factors, most notably the ability to be anonymous (hiding our identity), invisible (not seeing nor being seen in face-to-face contact), and asynchronous (not interacting in real time). While Suler’s hypotheses were largely speculative at the time, subsequent research by Dr. Russell Haines and colleagues suggests that while anonymity does increase participation on online discourse, it does so across the board, without any specific or disproportionate benefit to shy people.2 The potential for anonymous online communication to have an “equalizing effect,” allowing shy people to speak up, was not supported in his experimental study. Instead, Haines found that anonymity “removes the accountability cues and frees members to express unpopular or socially undesirable arguments,” freeing reticent opinions as opposed to reticent people.2 In other words, the anonymity of online communication gives us the sense that it's okay to speak our minds, sharing opinions that we’d more likely keep private – appropriately so – in face-to-face social interactions.
Similarly, University of Houston professor Arthur Santana analyzed actual online comments, comparing between news sites that allowed either anonymous or non-anonymous reader commentary.3 Anonymous commenters were significantly more likely than non-anonymous commenters to make an “uncivil” comment consisting of a personal attack, vulgarity, ethnic slur, racist remark, or threat. A small majority (53%) of anonymous comments were uncivil, whereas only about 30% of non-anonymous comments were uncivil. So – no surprise here – it appears that anonymity encourages “internet trolling,” loosely defined as making uncivil comments online.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison led by Dr. Ashley Anderson have demonstrated that online incivility has the potential to increase polarization of opinions around a controversial topic.4 Using an experimental design, the researchers surveyed readers of a balanced news blog about the safety of nanotechnology and exposed them to both civil and uncivil comments about the topic and its author. Uncivil commentary, defined as “a manner of offensive discussion that impedes the democratic ideal of deliberation,” strengthened pre-existing opinions about nanotechnology. When exposed to uncivil comments, those skeptical about nanotechnology became more skeptical, whereas those supportive about nanotechnology became more so. These findings indicate that reader perception of a neutral news blog is significantly shaped by online commentary, especially when that commentary includes uncivil remarks – what the authors called “the nasty effect.” Civil comments, using polite language free of expletives and personal references, don’t seem to be as influential in shaping opinion.
In a previous Psych Unseen blogpost called “Does the Internet Promote Delusional Thinking?” I discussed how when gathering information from the internet, online “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” can heighten our conviction about personal opinions, including unconventional and fringe beliefs (see this recent New York Times article for an update of how pseudo-news sources on our Facebook feeds also contribute to this effect). Now we can add online comments, and in particular uncivil comments made by internet trolls, to the online forces that harden belief conviction and polarize debate, keeping us farther away from open-minded discussion about controversial topics and the potential to find middle ground.
If internet trolling is a real problem, thwarting the democratic ideal of online deliberation, what can we do about it? Most readers and writers of online publications know the first rule of dealing with uncivil commenters – don’t feed the trolls. Based on what we now know about online commentary, a second rule seems to have emerged for online news providers – prevent trolls from sitting down at the dinner table at all. After reaching a “breaking point,” Reuters, Popular Science, ESPN, Huffington Post, The Week, USA Today, The Chicago Sun-Times, and most recently National Public Radio have eliminated reader commentary altogether in the past few years, in favor of moving commentaries to platforms like Facebook and Twitter where users are less anonymous and more accountable for their words and where “quality filters” – in the wake of the Leslie Jones incident – are now available to protect users from trolling.
Beyond a “policy of containment,” trying to achieve a deeper understanding of who internet trolls are and why they do what they do might help us curb trolling at its source. To begin with, we need to know whether online anonymity make trolls out of all of us or whether trolls are best understood as a minority having a more unique psychological profile. New research is beginning to give us some answers.
First of all, it turns out that internet trolls aren’t always real people with real opinions at all. It’s now known that foreign governments like Russia, China, and Iran frequently employ trolls to make online comments with the intention of influencing public opinion in the US. What’s not known is just how many trolls are actually state-sponsored robo-trolls in this vein.
For the trolls that are real people with real opinions, online anonymity makes it difficult to learn about who they really are, but a profile of typical trolls is starting to emerge. For example, based on research by Oxford statistician Emma Pierson looking at commenters of articles in The New York Times, it appears that online commentary is mostly provided by men, well out of proportion to gender differences in readership.5 Citing the work of others, Pierson noted that men tend to assert online opinions more forcefully, whereas women are more likely to be targets of online harassment, such that they often prefer to remain anonymous or refrain from commenting at all. Although it might be a premature leap based on limited data, it’s probably safe to assume that the majority of internet trolls are men.
Operating with an even smaller sample size, researchers at Indiana University interviewed a small handful of identified trolls on Wikipedia and concluded that they were motivated by “boredom, attention seeking, and revenge” and derived “pleasure from causing damage to the community and other people.”6 These findings were more recently echoed by investigators in Canada who administered surveys and self-reported psychological scales measuring personality traits to a much larger sample of 1215 online commenters and found that the trait most associated with trolling was sadism.7 Available evidence therefore suggests that internet trolls are mostly men who derive pleasure from inflicting psychological pain onto others through their hurtful comments.
Looking beyond preliminary research findings, a more intimate look into the inner life of a troll was provided last year in an episode of the podcast This American Life called “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS.” In Act 1, “Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee,” comedian Lindy West got the opportunity to confront one of her internet trolls, “Paul Donezo.” Donezo had apparently been busy harassing her from multiple Twitter accounts, tweeting that he wished that he could push her down a flight of stairs and even going so far as to falsely assume the online identity of her recently deceased father, writing that he was the “embarrassed father of an idiot.” When West ignored the advice not to feed the trolls and instead wrote an article on Jezebel titled “Don’t Ignore the Trolls, Feed Them Until They Explode,” she was surprised to receive this reply by Donezo:
"Hey Lindy, I don't know why or even when I started trolling you… I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self… I can't say sorry enough. It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article, it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who's reading this shit. I'm attacking someone who never harmed me in any way and for no reason whatsoever. I'm done being a troll. Again, I apologize. I made a donation in memory to your dad. I wish you the best."
In the interview on This American Life, West described how Donezo had decided to troll her because she was fat (her own words):
“I write a lot about body image, about the stigma and discrimination that fat people face, about being a fat woman. [Donezo] told me that at the time he was about 75 pounds heavier than he wanted to be. He hated his body. He was miserable. And reading about fat people, particularly fat women accepting and loving themselves as they were, infuriated him for reasons he couldn't articulate at the time.”
Donezo: “You know, it's like you stand on the desk and you say, I'm Lindy West, and this is what I believe in. Fuck you if you don't agree with me. And even though you don't say those words exactly, I'm like, who is this bitch who thinks she knows everything?”
West: “I asked him if he felt that way because I'm a woman.”
Donezo: “Oh, definitely. Definitely. Women are being more forthright in their writing. There isn't a sense of timidity to when they speak or when they write. They're saying it loud. And I think that – and I think, for me, as well, it's threatening…”
Of course, West’s experience with Donezo is an anomaly. After Donezo apologized and claimed to abandon trolling, Lindy forgave him and even said she felt sorry for him. But she also noted that it’s the only apology she’s ever received. The advice to “feed your troll until it explodes” should therefore be followed with caution and without the expectation that things will turn out so well. If it’s true that the motivating force behind internet trolls is sadism, then a reformed and penitent troll seems an unlikely outcome of confrontation.
Still, the idea that publically shaming a troll, calling them out online for all to see, might be an effective way to curb trolling is a tantalizing possibility. And it suggests that shaming trolls in public and speaking up in defense of the targets of trolling by the online community at large might be a vital part of instilling civility to online communication. After Leslie Jones quit Twitter, Ghostbusters director Paul Feig tweeted:
Leslie Jones is one of the greatest people I know. Any personal attacks against her are attacks against us all.
Maybe there’s hope for humanity on the internet after all, with the larger community having the power to provide a level of public castigation that can breach the shield of online anonymity that trolls rely on. And so, let's end with a third rule for dealing with internet trolls: speak up in defense of victims.
What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment here... or on Twitter. Of course, uncivil comments may be deleted.
Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/psychunseen. To check out some of my fiction, click here to read the short story "Thermidor," published in Westwind earlier this year.
1. Suler J, The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology and Behavior 2004; 7:321-326.
2. Haines R, Hough J, Cao L, et al. Anonymity in computer-mediated communication: More contrarian ideas with less influence. Group Decision and Negotiation 2014; 23:765-786.
3. Santana AD. Virtuous or vitriolic: The effect of anonymity on civility in online newspaper reader comment boards. Journalism Practice 2014; 8:18-33.
4. Anderson AA, Brossard D, Scheufele DA, et al. The “nasty effect:” Online incivility and risk perceptions of emerging technologies. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 2014; 19:373-387.
5. Pierson E. Outnumbered but well spoken: Female commenters in the New York Times. Proceedings of the 18th Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing, pages 1201-1213. Available at: http://cs.stanford.edu/people/emmap1/cscw_paper.pdf
6. Shachaf P, Hara N. Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science 2010; 36:357-370.
7. Buckels EE, Trapnell PD, Paulhus DL. Trolls just want to have fun. Personality and Individual Differences 2014; 67:97-102.