Most people think that Internet trolls are angry sociopaths firing off abusive rants to strangers. Mostly, however, they are not – they are ordinary people, just like you and me. But under the right circumstances, almost anyone can become one.
Around 40% of Internet users say they have been victims of trolling, while 20% of comments on American news website cnn.com have to be removed by moderators.
It’s important to understand why people take to the Internet to indulge in bullying, or trolling as it’s more commonly known.
Scientists at Stanford and Cornell Universities were interested to find out how and why people are ‘triggered’ to become angry Internet trolls because of ‘herd behaviour’ and that the effect is enhanced if the individual happens to be in a bad mood!
Given that human beings can be very suggestible, individuals can also be susceptible to being swept along with the crowd – they can be submerged in the larger organism of the group, albeit unwittingly.
The same is true when individuals are exposed to lots of personal attacks against others online. This is how, and when, Internet bullying gets out of control.
One person throwing a stone through a window makes it easier for others to follow suit. Lots of people throwing stones through the windows make it easier for others to burn it down.
This is the same pattern of behaviour that leads to full-scale riot – an individual throws something at a policeman, the rest follow suit, and inevitably someone throws a petrol bomb.
Some of those involved in the riot will after the event question their own behaviour. They may be surprised they did it. Whipping the crowd into a frenzy is surprisingly easy. The Nazis had it down to fine art. People hypnotised in stage shows also experience this effect. ‘Why on earth did I do that?’
And so it is with social media. Just one person making a negative comment about another can initiate a spiral of bullying.
Researchers at Harvard and Cornell recruited 667 people for the experiment, which involved giving people an easy test to complete before they read an online news article and accompanying neutral responses. After reading the article, they were asked to leave their own response.
About a third of the participants posted a negative comment or a personal attack that included swearwords or unacceptable language. But this proportion almost doubled (to 68%) when they were given a difficult test to worsen their mood and were shown negative ‘trolling’ comments about Hillary Clinton before reading the article and commenting.
So are we suggestible or what?!
The biggest problem with Internet trolling is that it is impossible to control. Kids kill themselves because they are bullied online.
Passing a nasty comment about someone behind their back is more than likely forgotten in time. But once posted online, it’s there forever. Trolling is like standing at the top of a tall building and emptying a sack of feathers into the wind. There’s no chance of picking every feather up again.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.