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As denizens of the internet, most of us are familiar with the trolls. In this episode of SciShow, learn a little about how social scientists think trolls came to be, and how online communities are figuring it all out.

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Michael: Since you’re watching SciShow, you’re probably pretty familiar with the Internet -- it’s full of information and awesome communities. But, like any cool and kinda-magical place, it has its dark sides... Even its very own trolls. Trolling is used to describe a lot of different situations. But, basically, it’s when someone posts an off-topic or inflammatory comment to disrupt an online conversation.

Not all trolls are bad! Sometimes they’re just goofy, like our own dear litojonny and his questions about butt hair. But others can be more harmful. You might’ve heard the warning, “don’t read the comments” -- to try and avoid potentially aggressive online interactions. But who are the people writing these kinds of comments in the first place, and why do they do what they do? What goes through the mind of a troll?

[SciShow intro plays]

First, let’s talk about different kinds of trolling. We think trolling began in the early 1990s, on discussion boards like Usenet- basically early versions of message boards or forums. Experienced users would go trolling for newbies, by asking overly naive questions, or by making new posts about topics that had been waaay over-discussed.

Veterans on the site would recognize each other’s usernames and realize what was going on, so only new users would fall for the trap and answer them. This relatively harmless form of trolling was meant to get a laugh from people in-the-know -- they were in it for the lulz. Nowadays, the definition of trolling includes a lot of different kinds of people.

For example, some people who self-identify as trolls irritate others for the sake of a joke -- like so-called griefers in online gaming communities. Like when someone gets onto your minecraft server and just puts TNT everywhere. But griefers can also engage in more harmful behavior, going beyond playful rule-breaking and slinging racial insults and threats to upset other players.

Some groups like Anonymous have grown out of communities that basically celebrate trolling, like 4chan, and use its methods to oppose online censorship, or make political statements through hacktivism, taking advantage of the anonymity of the Internet. But, other kinds of trolling are essentially cyber-bullying -- like the trolls who descend on the memorial pages for deceased teenagers to post harassing comments. No matter the cause, it’s hard for victims to distinguish between empty threats and real threats online, which can leave people stressed and scared.

So, some behavioral scientists are trying to get to the bottom of it. The Internet is still a fairly new place, so psychologists are still figuring out how online spaces affect our psyche and behaviors. Some research has started to answer the big question: what makes a troll?

Back in 2004 -- before Twitter, before YouTube, before Reddit -- a scientist named John Suler coined a term to describe the loosening of social inhibitions because of the anonymity of the Internet: the Online Disinhibition Effect. Basically, people are willing to behave differently online than in real life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be.

Dr. Suler believed that there were six key factors that contributed to this effect: First, dissociative anonymity describes the ability to hide your true identity online. This gives people the sense that their online actions can’t be linked back to real life, and can remove a sense of responsibility. Next, because social media and online forums usually rely on text-based communication, this also instills a sense of invisibility.

Without eye contact or body language, commenters can become more disinhibited. Plus, online conversations can have a time disconnect, or asynchronicity, meaning that you don’t have to immediately respond to someone. You can disengage and re-engage whenever you want, and craft your responses more carefully than in face-to-face conversation.

It can also be hard to see other Internet users as real people who are affected by the things we say and do. And one part of that is solipsistic introjection, which means you basically create a character of the other person in your mind. By only having their words to read, you can sort of hear their responses in an imagined voice in your head.

So, the other person has become dehumanized. As a result, there’s a disconnect between the real conversation you’re having and your constructed version of the other person. This then can lead to dissociative imagination, where online interactions are seen more as a fantasy than a reality.

They can almost become a game -- one that’s easy to turn off and walk away from. This could be especially relevant to griefers -- they’re just people playing a different kind of online game, one that’s more about a social experiment and messing with other players. And when it comes to trolling, a big part is the minimization of authority -- the lack of clearly defined authority figures online.

Viewing other users as peers makes it easier to say whatever you want, including toxic comments, because there’s no fear of punishment. Since the first description of the Online Disinhibition Effect, Internet communities have grown, and so has our definition of trolling. But the research on trolling behavior is still pretty sparse.

Most studies are completed through online surveys, so they rely on participants to self-report what they do. And, since there are lots of different kinds of trolls, the psychology behind the actions and reactions that they cause can be varied. What motivates someone to consistently comment about butt hair is almost definitely not the same thing that motivates a troll to spam someone with death threats.

Some recent studies have focused on more aggressive kinds of trolls, and the presence of traits associated with the so-called Dark Triad or Dark Tetrad. And the name is... uh... pretty fitting for this group of personality traits: For example, one personality type is known as the Machiavellian -- which is predisposed to being cold and detached in order to manipulate others. Narcissism, on the other hand, indicates an inflated sense of self and lack of empathy toward other people.

You might also have heard of the term psychopathy. Psychologists refer to this more accurately as antisocial personality disorder -- it results in an inability to feel empathy or guilt, and a tendency to take advantage of other people. And sadism describes the tendency to take pleasure from other’s pain... which is some pretty dark stuff. In 2014, in an online survey of over 400 people, those who said they enjoyed trolling other people -- for example, by linking them to jump-scare websites, or griefing in games -- had positive correlations with several of these personality traits.

And people who spent the most overall time posting comments online tended to have more anti-social motivations. Rather than participating in message board conversations and online gaming to make friends, they were in it for the trolling. But also, only around 5% of survey respondents specifically said that they enjoyed trolling, out of the 60% that said they interact with people online in some way, like by posting comments.

So this suggests that mean-spirited trolls only make up a small fraction of Internet commenters, and an even smaller fraction of everyone online. These results may sound pretty intuitive, but it’s still interesting that there’s some correlation between some self-identified trolls and these personality traits. Plus, it highlights how the Internet can provide an outlet for some individuals with these social tendencies that are less acceptable to express in offline interactions.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all self-identified trolls are sadistic or narcissists. But it is causing more psychologists to ask interesting questions about the motivations of people who troll. Their research could help everyone understand online trolling a little better -- and, how to deal with the harmful ones.

Many people think that toxic online interactions stem from a lack of meaningful social feedback, to help people adjust their behavior. After all, the Internet is still pretty new -- new enough that it’s not always clear what the social rules are. And it’s really big -- so there are a lot of different kinds of communities where different behaviors are acceptable, or not.

So how can we make more spaces on the Internet fun and more comfortable for communities, and avoid the worst kinds of cyber-bullies and the more vicious trolls? Many activists say that well-moderated communities tend to have more civil conversations. This is linked to the concept used by some social scientists, known as the Broken Windows Theory. This says that, for example, areas that have already been hit by vandals are more likely to be targeted again.

In other words: where there’s already lots of mean-spirited trolling, similar trolls will congregate. On the other hand, communities that already have and enforce civil conversations, will discourage more harmful trolls. But intense moderation may make free-speech activists cringe.

Some people argue that everyone has the right to express themselves however they want, even if others find it offensive or upsetting. So there are still lots of unanswered questions about the ethics of moderation and anonymity in online environments. But what we do understand about the psychology of trolling can help combat its more serious forms.

For example, if the anonymity of the Internet is part of what fuels aggressive trolls, then one way to stop them is to un-do the Online Disinhibition Effect. If a victim manages to humanize themselves, then it might become harder for a troll to keep dissociating, and then they might realize they’re doing real harm. Feminist activist and writer Lindy West was trolled repeatedly by a man who was imitating her deceased father on Twitter.

She wrote a poignant piece about the experience. And to her surprise, the man behind the Twitter account reached out to directly apologize. In further conversation, he said that after he read her writing about the experience, he was actually able to recognize that she was a real, living human being who was receiving his insults and cruelty.

So it’s pretty clear that there are a lot of different flavors of trolling, and the mechanisms behind it can vary, too. Some of it’s pretty harmless: derailing conversations to get a laugh or mess with other players in a game. But some of it can turn into bullying and have serious consequences.

Psychologists are trying to understand where this behavior comes from, and how these interactions affect our minds. Hopefully in the future, we’ll reach an equilibrium where people on the Internet can feel free to express themselves anonymously without hurting others. And in the meantime, just remember: don’t feed the trolls.

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