PSA: Here’s When You’re More Likely to Turn Into an Internet Troll

Hint: It's all about mood.

Internet trolls: We all know them. Some of us are them. Working on the internet, I have encountered more than my fair share, and I do often wonder to myself, Why, dear troll, are you screaming “I know of a place you can shove your hoagie!” to a complete stranger? (Yes, that is a real comment on a real Philly Mag post.) Wouldn’t your energy be better spent … somewhere else? Well, researchers at Stanford and Cornell looked into just that question of why people exhibit troll-like behavior, and it turns out, under the right circumstances, lots of people — yes, maybe including you — are capable of turning into all-caps-typing monsters. Much of it simply depends on mood.

In a two-part study, the researchers looked at how mood and context impact trolling behavior. First, nearly 700 subjects were given one of two tests: one that was super easy, and one that was incredibly difficult. After completing the test, the subjects filled out a questionnaire evaluating their mood. The folks who’d been given the hard test were in worse moods than the folks who took the breezy one, naturally.

Next, the subjects were all given the same article to read and were required to engage in the comment section of the article, leaving at least one comment. For some, the comment section already featured three troll posts — posts that were disruptive, offensive, combative, etc. — at the top. Others saw three neutral comments. Researchers found that 35 percent of folks who took the easy test and saw the neutral post still exhibited troll-like behavior. Fine. But things got a lot worse when mood was impacted: 50 percent of the subjects who took the hard test and saw neutral comments left troll comments of their own, while 68 percent of people who took the hard test and saw the troll posts became trolls themselves. Yikes.

For the second part of the study, researchers analyzed data from over 26 million posts in CNN’s comment section from 2012. Troll posts in this case were considered posts that were flagged by community members for abuse. They found that troll posts increased during times when research has shown people are in worse moods, early in the week and late at night.

So long story short: The researchers found that a grumpy mood, it seems, along with context (like, if the post is already riddled with troll comments), can turn an otherwise normal person into a complete troll. “It’s a spiral of negativity,” says senior author of the study Jute Leskovec in a press release.

So next time you think about typing anything about shoving, well, anything anywhere to someone you don’t even know, maybe make yourself some chamomile tea and watch an episode of Parks & Recreation instead. Then come back to the keyboard when you’re a bit more … chipper.

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