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.
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.