This Is When Internet Trolls Go From Annoying To Dangerous

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
The public perception of anonymous internet trolls — the people who post angry and hateful messages in comment sections online — is unfavorable, to put it lightly. We tend to equate them with hostility and self-absorption, an idea that has been backed up by research.

A 2014 study from the University of Manitoba in Canada found that trolls display the same qualities as sadists and psychopaths. And in an interview with the LA Times about her 2015 book on internet trolls, researcher Whitney Phillips, PhD, said that anonymous trolls, typically presumed to be male, focus their aggression on women, people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQ.

As Quartz notes, a troll's hostility is usually equated with their status of anonymity. Behind the shield of a fake name, anyone has the power to spew words of hate without bearing any repercussions. Others contend that the ability to create a fake username on sites such as Reddit and Twitter adds to the problem.

But a new study concludes that one long-held assumption about internet trolls might actually be false: Anonymous trolls aren't the worst type of online commenters; it's the non-anonymous trolls we have to fear the most.
Advertisement

Anonymous trolls aren't the worst type of online commenters; it's the non-anonymous trolls we have to fear the most.

The study, which was published in the journal PLoS One and conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich, makes a strong point: We are more likely to put stock in comments that are linked to a real person than those that come from an anonymous source. If someone is willing to put their name behind a belief, there must be some truth to it, we think. For this reason, someone who is non-anonymous online is more effective with their posts and, therefore, more dangerous than someone who is anonymous.

But are non-anonymous online commenters actually more aggressive than anonymous ones who don't have to contend with the vulnerability that comes from revealing their names? Yes. In their study, which analyzed three years worth of comments on a German social media platform, the researchers found that the most hostile comments came from non-anonymous individuals: "Non-anonymity helps to gain recognition, increases one’s persuasive power, and mobilizes followers."

If trolls are, in part, driven by narcissism, then the ability to gain more followers by using their own names is strong incentive for them to take a risk and do so.

"If commenters perceive that their racist opinions are increasingly shared online, it is likely they give up their anonymity," Lea Stahel, one of the study's co-authors, explained to us in an email.

Of course, in some cases, trolls can make important points that challenge the norm and should be considered. But when their words are driven by hatred and unfounded perceptions about what is morally right and wrong, their voices are dangerously powerful.

To counteract their strength, we need more social media sites to take action, as Twitter did when it banned Breitbart Tech Editor Milo Yiannopolous for his comments targeting Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. This ability to take overhead action will become even more essential with election campaigns in full force and online trolls increasing in number.
Advertisement

More from Tech

You may start to notice your Uber drivers snapping a lot of selfies, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you're riding with an Instagram addict. Your ...
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel announced that the company has developed new video-enabled sunglasses, called Spectacles, and will subsequently be rebranding ...
You're at 20,000 feet, and you realize your flight doesn’t have WiFi — which wouldn't be a big deal, except you forgot your book at home, and none of your ...
GENERATION STARTUP presents Women In Tech, an episode of an exclusive web series with footage left on the cutting room floor. The feature documentary ...
It's a sad but true fact that a bad commute — one where you just miss the bus or subway — has the power to ruin your day. More often than not, these near...
When you think of playing a video game, what comes to mind? Is it a raucous game of Wii Bowling when you were in college? Hours spent on your Game Boy ...
If you're a Yahoo user (or ever have been), you'll want to change your password ASAP — and not just on that Yahoo account. Today, the company confirmed ...
(Paid Content) Refinery29 is now on Versy, a messaging and content-sharing app made for busy people like us
There are two types of people in this world: the zero-inbox purists, and the ones with hundreds (or even thousands) of unread messages in their inbox. ...
It may seem like your car hasn't let you down. But apparently, all these years, you've been driving a vehicle suited for the wrong gender. At least that's ...
The iPhone 7 may not be a mystery anymore, but the hype surrounding it is far from gone. Now that we know what it looks like (hello, new camera) and what's...
Without a doubt, dating in 2016 is an art form. If you’re single and looking for love, you know where the scene is. It’s online. (Unless you’ve made it ...
Instagram's latest update includes a tool that's ideal for every perfectionist — or anyone who spends time editing a photo in the app, only to get ...
I was doing my usual routine of scrolling through Instagram while eating my lunch when I saw a truly disturbing image: The now-10-year-old boy I used to ...