Vector illustration of a internet troll

Internet shown to amplify and expose real-life trolls, but not create them

Image credit: Vladislav Ashikhmin/Dreamstime

New research suggests that the internet is not responsible for making people become more aggressive when engaging in political discussions online, but rather makes the behaviour of more aggressive people more visible.

Many people feel the internet is not a safe place to discuss politics: users who want to discuss contentious issues would much rather do it face-to-face with others. An often-used idea in both media and research behind this is that feelings of anonymity behind the computer screens turn some users into trolls, with little empathy for other discussion partners.

However, this argument is not true, according to researchers at Aarhus University.

“There are many psychological reasons why we might have a harder time controlling our temper online,” said Alexander Bor from the Department of Political Science at the university in Denmark. “We do not see the faces of those we are arguing with and the fast-paced written form of communication can easily lead to misunderstandings.

“Yet, we also know from psychological research that not everyone has a personality that is equally disposed to aggression. In the end, these personality differences turn out to be a much stronger driver of online hostility.”

The study found that those who are hostile in political discussions on the internet report to be just as hostile in political discussions face-to-face. These individuals have dispositions that make them crave recognition and status and motivate dominant and aggressive behaviour both online and offline to not lose a discussion.

The research follows studies with over 8,000 Americans and Danes who were surveyed about their experiences and behaviour in political discussions that occurred either online or offline. Despite the differences in political institutions and levels of political polarisation, status seekers in both countries were the primary culprits behind political hostility, both online and offline, the researchers said.

The research also documented that people in both Denmark and the US do in fact feel that online political discussions are worse than offline discussions, but points to an alternative explanation for this phenomenon.

“Our research shows that the reason many people feel that online political discussions are so hostile has to do with the visibility of aggressive behaviour online. Online discussions occur in large public networks and the behaviour of an internet troll is much more visible than the behaviour of this same person in an offline setting,” said Michael Bang Petersen, professor of political science at the university.

In both online and offline settings, few people surveyed feel that they personally are being attacked or harassed. Yet in an online setting, there is a marked tendency for people to observe others being attacked and harassed, according to the research team.

The researchers observed the internet is not responsible for making people aggressive – they utilise the features of the internet for their own purposes. They also suggest that online hostility is not an accident, but rather a deliberate strategy.

“We cannot remove online hate through education because it is not born out of ignorance. Hostile people know their words hurt and that is why they use them,” Bor explained. “Our research suggests that it is necessary to describe what is okay and what is not okay for each specific discussion page and to police those norms, for example by using moderators.”

Bor added that to end online hate, we need to decrease the visibility and reach of those who are hateful, as the alternative is that more reasonable people will be deterred from participating in online discussions.

“This is a democratic problem, given that social media plays a larger and larger role in political processes,” he added.

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