Denby Weller

What makes a troll? The experts weigh in on our toxic online culture

The marriage equality debate is merely the latest arena that allows us to be horrible to each other online. But what makes a troll? And how does this behaviour continue to repeat?

 

 

“Please everyone don’t be angry or nasty to others who have a view different to yours!” you can almost hear her wailing, this lone voice of decency among a hail of insults in the Facebook comments. The topic? Same-sex marriage, of course. The stimulus that’s revealed the arseholes – excuse me, I mean opinions – of learned and wise individuals? How could people be so horrible

Three years ago, I took up arms as a full-time journalist in a busy national newsroom. The newsroom was a place I thought only existed in movies: populated with a mix of pragmatic visionaries, radical realists and some of the best examples of human wit you’d find anywhere. All of us united by the crazy – nay, lofty idea that honest journalism makes the world a better place. I jumped on the bandwagon and my faith in humanity swelled.

I became keenly interested in what our audience thought of my reporting: was I living up to the benchmark? Was I, a debutante journalist, worthy of the faith my boss had placed in me?

On the masthead’s moderated website, the comments thread was a place for well-reasoned debate. Whether I agreed with the commentary at the bottom of my stories was hardly the point. They challenged me, pointed out flaws in my logic, trained me. Some of them stung, but I wanted to be the kind of journo who had the kahunas to engage in a two-way conversation with my audience, not a monologue.

One of my first forays here was an explainer on the US electoral college, where the comments instantly devolved into an argument about whether I had a hidden feminist agenda. This stemmed from my sharing the fun fact that the “average” American voter is a woman.

After being addressed as a ‘douche canoe,’ I watched as myself and other commenters were directed to seek more medication, relocate our heads from the place they were currently stuck…and other things I’d rather not repeat. The invalidity of my ‘argument’ (I hadn’t made any argument! It was just a fact!) was attributed to my sexual orientation, race, accent, gender and apparently disastrous choice in jackets.

Then came the ‘respectful’ (thanks, Malcolm!) national debate where the privileged get polled on the human rights of those with less privilege. Yayy. This comments thread, while stopping just short of death threats, does feature a smattering of STFUs, vitriolic musings on the fidelity of one poor reader’s wife, and much slinging of ‘idiot’, ‘evil,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘liar’ – all insults that would bring the dinner conversation to stony silence if they were made face-to-face.

How could people be so horrible? Did they go around interacting with actual people in this manner? If they did, where had they been hiding all this time while I’d been developing all this erroneous faith in the general good of humanity?

The first person I asked for some clarification was David White, a post-doctoral research fellow at UNSW, whose area of research centres around the way people perceive themselves and each other online. Dr White was just as miffed as me. There could be a clue in anonymity, he suggested.

 

Dr Albert Mehrabian found that a person’s liking of another person was only 7% due to what was actually said, while tone of voice and body language accounted for the rest. There’s a lot of nonverbal communication missing when we post or read a comment online. In fact, one study from 1992 observed that in the absence of social context cues, people’s behaviour became more uninhibited and less socially-desirable.

 

“Even in scientific peer review, there’s debate about whether scientists should sign their reviews or be anonymous. I often think anonymity in this process has the same effect as in social media. Because they’re not accountable for what they’re saying, people will let rip. In person, I think someone might be more cognisant of the context of their thoughts.”

While Dr White’s point stands in online forums where people can hide behind an avatar, anonymity is not so common on Facebook. So why do so many Facebook users feel that they can be so rude online?

Part of this reactivity in online threads could be due to the absence of unspoken social cues in written communication. We can all relate to having inadvertently upset someone with an email or text that was taken the wrong way.

In his book Silent Messages, UCLA psychologist Dr Albert Mehrabian found that a person’s liking of another person was only 7% due to what was actually said, while factors like tone of voice and body language accounted for the rest of a person’s likeability.

It’s clear that there’s a lot of nonverbal communication missing when we post or read a comment online. In fact, psychologists have been writing about the impact of electronic communication since the ’80s. One famous study from 1992 observed that in the absence of social context cues, people’s behaviour became more uninhibited and less socially-desirable.

This phenomenon is called “online disinhibition effect” which, according to investigative journalist Ginger Gorman, is “…just a fancy way of saying that behind a computer and in the absence of the physical presence of the person you’re communicating with, social norms don’t apply.” One of Ginger’s key areas of interest is the online practice of trolling.

“Even as a cyberhate expert, I can be shocked by how foul people can be online. But the truth is, there’s a troll inside all of us,” she says. And although it makes me all squirmy to admit it, even I have been guilty of unnecessarily brusque comments online. Some, I hate to say, may even have been just as stinging as those ones directed at me.

But after all this research I can only conclude that the best measure of my own behaviour online is my own conscience. As Ginger puts it, “Without those norms, it’s a nasty and dangerous society we live in.” And if there’s no social cue around to prompt me to behave myself online, then this warning should be motivation enough.

 

Denby Weller

Denby Weller is a freelance writer and video journalist from Sydney, Australia. Her work has featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, BBC Travel, and News.com.au. She is a contributing author to Lonely Planet's *Atlas of Adventure* and a columnist for Australia's rock climbing magazine, *Vertical Life. *In 2017, she left Fairfax after three years as a video producer, where she made videos that explain breakthroughs in academic research, in partnership with UNSW and The University of Sydney. In 2016, her multimedia interactive for SMH, *Trekking the Annapurna Circuit *earned a special mention at the PANPA Awards.

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