Trolls Will Be Trolls, Online and Offline, Reports New Study

Being jerks is just the way some people try to make themselves feel dominant.


If you're a troll online, you are most likely also a troll offline, at least with respect to political discussions, reports new research published in the American Political Science Review. In their study, Aarhus University researchers Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen investigate what they call the "mismatch hypothesis." Do mismatches between human psychology, evolved to navigate life in small social groups, and novel features of online environments, such as anonymity, rapid text-based responses, combined with the absence of moderating face-to-face social cues, change behavior for the worse in impersonal online political discussions?

No, conclude the authors. "Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline," they report. However, they also find that online political discussions may tend to feel more hostile because the greater connectivity and permanence of various Internet discussion platforms make trolls much more visible online than offline.

Bor and Petersen arrive at these conclusions after conducting eight different surveys and experiments involving more than 8,000 participants in the U.S. and Denmark. Among other things, the researchers asked respondents in several studies if in the past 30 days they had posted or shared political content or comments online that had gotten flagged or deleted for violating the site's guidelines, that they later regretted or felt ashamed of, or that could be taken as offensive or aggressive? In another study, they asked respondents if in text-based online political discussions in the past 30 days they had made fun of their political opponents, posted comments that others may find hurtful, or bullied others for their political views or actions. Respondents were also asked if they had made similar comments in face-to-face political discussions in the past 30 days.

The researchers then asked how often respondents talked about politics or public affairs face-to-face and on the Internet with family and friends, co-workers and acquaintances, strangers, people who agree with them, and people who don't. Seeking to find out who does and does not engage in hostile political discussions, earlier research has identified keenness to talk politics with the personality traits associated with status-driven risk-taking. Bor and Petersen note that "recent research finds that status-seeking (both at the individual and the group-level) is a strong empirical predictor of support for and engagement in aggression, even violence for a political cause around the world."

To probe how this personality trait affects online and offline political discussions, respondents were asked to rank on a 7-point scale how much they agreed or disagreed with such statements as "I would enjoy being a famous and powerful person, even if it meant a high risk of assassination," and "I would rather live as an average person in a safe place than live as a rich and powerful person in a dangerous place." Another survey probed for aggressive tendencies by asking respondents to rank on a 7-point scale how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "I am even-tempered," or "when people annoy me I tell them what I think of them."

Parsing the data from their studies, Bor and Petersen report no significant differences between online and offline political hostility. They find that people who are status-driven and hostile in online political discussions are pretty much just as hostile offline. "Our results indicate" according to the researchers, that aggression in both online and offline political discussions by people who score high for status-driven risk-seeking "is not an accident triggered by unfortunate circumstances, but a strategy they employ to get what they want including a feeling of status and dominance in online networks." They add, "online political hostility reflects status-driven individuals' deliberate intentions to participate in political discussions and offend others both in online or offline contexts."

Bor and Petersen acknowledge that many folks do perceive online political discourse as being significantly more hostile than offline discussions. Seeking to account for this "hostility gap," the researchers asked respondents how often they experienced or witnessed someone else being insulted or offended in political conversations face-to-face and on the Internet. Both U.S. and Danish participants reported observing lots more hostile behavior in political discussions toward third parties online than in real life. Consequently, the authors conclude:

"…the perception that online discussions are more hostile than offline discussions is simply because people witness a much larger number of discussions online as they browse through their feeds on social media. Given this, they perceive – without any bias – a much larger number of encounters where the discussants are hostile with each other or at the expense of "absent" third parties or groups. To put it bluntly, people might also be faced with significant offline hostility, if they were able to monitor all the private chats at parties, bars and dinner tables about, for example, minority groups. Thus, despite common concerns about the negative effects of online echo chambers, perceptions of online hostility may be exacerbated by the publicity and fluidity of these discussion environments."

In other words, hostile individuals can generally troll just a few hundred people offline with their belligerent political views, but "in large online discussion networks, the actions of these individuals are highly visible, especially compared to more private offline settings."

If these results stand up, the good news is that the Internet does not tempt normal people to become more vicious in political arguments, but the bad news is that it makes the obnoxious views of intractably hostile posters more visible.

Bor and Petersen worry that continued exposure to hostile messages online will erode the norms of civility in political discussions thus "propelling more hostility through a vicious cycle." The upshot is if you don't want to make Internet debates more uselessly bellicose: Don't feed the trolls.