A theory of how ordinary people can become trolls

In online communities, antisocial behavior such as trolling disrupts constructive discussion. While prior work suggests that trolling behavior is confined to a vocal and antisocial minority, we demonstrate that ordinary people can engage in such behavior as well. We propose two primary trigger mechanisms: the individual’s mood, and the surrounding context of a discussion (e.g., exposure to prior trolling behavior). Through an experiment simulating an online discussion, we find that both negative mood and seeing troll posts by others significantly increases the probability of a user trolling, and together double this probability. To support and extend these results, we study how these same mechanisms play out in the wild via a data-driven, longitudinal analysis of a large online news discussion community. This analysis reveals temporal mood effects, and explores long range patterns of repeated exposure to trolling. A predictive model of trolling behavior shows that mood and discussion context together can explain trolling behavior better than an individual’s history of trolling. These results combine to suggest that ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, behave like trolls.

That is from Cheng, Bernstein, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Leskovec (pdf), via the never-trolling Kevin Lewis.


I wonder if any of the commenters here are "ordinary people"?

All of them.

Some of the readers here are ordinary. Speaking for my self, I'm extraordinary. A familial net worth in excess of USD 8.6 M, which puts me in the 1%. Rich, handsome, intelligent, beautiful woman half my age, etc etc etc.

As for the study, my first impression was "WTF? I hope taxpayer money was not spent on such a bogus social study, which states the obvious".

PS--I'm trolling you now...

I've left larger bequests to servants in my will. 8.6 million dollars is what I spend on golf club memberships in a year.

Minimum net worth to be in the USA's top 1%, as of 2012 or so data, is $8.6M or greater. Ours is "greater". FYI. Net worth = assets minus liabilities, so subtract out any mortgaged properties, cars with loans, etc. I'm not like Sam who drives his net worth.

Yes I have driven yachts worth more than you. But we've been over this just because I'm wealthier than you doesn't make me better than you. I'm better than you because I don't pay for sex.

Everyone pays for sex, one way or another.

Isn't that supposed to be "every straight man," Sam?

As a newly engaged gay man, let me say that it really, really did feel like the sex is free.

Oh, it was nice while it lasted.

Like every other self-renewable product known to man to man, it's wonderfully costless* and free as long as it's a public good that everyone can use. The second I gave exclusive rights away (or gained mutually exclusive rights) over this scarce-ass commodity, BOOM! the price explodes. I just spent all morning doing f****ng laundry.

Oh, but strawberries will never taste so good again, and the thighs of the guys have lost their clutch!

If this is trolling, can we have more of it? I'm weary of perusing the comments and finding only unintentional humor.

I'm an most assuredly not a troll young man no matter what a house master at Eton tells you. Had to finish up my schooling at Groton in the States after getting sent down a few times. First in my line to cross the atlantic. In fact the last time a Sykes-Corbett cross a body of water of any kind before that was 1066.

If you keep track of net worth down to the decimal point you aren't wealthy.

In "The Second-Richest Duck" it came down to who had the longer ball of string.

Ordinary men in the Christopher Browning sense?

After Lombardo I wouldn't think anyone should be surprised about what other people are willing to do. Especially on the internet where the normal feedback of face to face communication are lost. You can't tell if a tweet is ironic or amused or sarcastic - and people usually assume the worst.

Trolling has several parallels with graffiti in the 80's. They are/were both:

1) art by non-elites
2) treated as ASBOs
3) under-appreciated by contemporaries

Yes. I love to troll -- from putting nonsense in Wikipedia, to proving points to myself about people on "DailyKos" (I can take any thread, make a comment about how the "Koch Brothers" are no doubt behind any awful thing one can imagine, and get a favorable response there! They're just that stupid! Try it, it's fun!)

Penny Arcade figured this out 13 years ago:


Anyone thinking they are anonymous is likely extremely ignorant. What is true is that essentially no one takes action on what is already known - for example, this is both old and effective, and would allow essentially everyone posting here to be recognized. And easily banned if so desired. https://panopticlick.eff.org/

There's a difference between anonymity in an online community between peers and complete institutional anonymity from big brother. Anyone confusing the two is likely extremely ignorant.

If you think a site owner ensures anonymity in an online community between peers, well, what can one say? The same applies to moderators within that online community, of course. Big brother is not involved - but ordinary people are the sort that post pictures with GPS coordinates as part of the Exif data, without having any idea what Exif data is - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exif#Geolocation

Personally, my preferred Exif viewing tool is geeqie, by the way - no big brother involved. It's free - take it for a spin to see just how many people have no clue what their peers can learn from a single posted picture. (A few places do strip Exif information as a matter of course, which is a nice courtesy to their users - and then there are places like here or metafilter that do not allow images in comments at all.)

It takes just a modicum of knowledge concerning the sea of data we all swim in to realize that big brother is not really a useful concept in such discussions. Facebook cares much more about extracting maximum revenue from its user data than any government.

We live in the age where big brother has been all but privatized - and most of the tools are freely available for anyone with a tiny bit of interest. Or a business plan.

In today's BBC. They do say 'turn off location tracking' for photos towards the end, but the one that's really good advice for the IQ 80 parent is 'don't share nude photos of your children with others'. Used to be OK in the Nordic countries, not sure about today though, with the Pedo police constantly looking for work...


It's Safer Internet Day, so here's a guide to sharing pictures of children safely online.

Yes, true. I've left enough online clues for people to figure out who I really am, and at my former workplace I've used this nym, but it's unlikely anybody would out me, for the simple reason they are too professional and/or not reading this site. Even some of my hot friends of my hot twenty-something gf know I post here, but I trust they won't out me as they don't care to or are too busy with their lives (they don't care a wit about economics, which is good). That said, it's almost always the case that somebody reports you to Big Brother who is your friend (as was common in the USSR, as well as Orwell's novel "1984"), but nothing I've said here would put me in physical danger, so while I'd be upset and might even sue just to make a point, like Thiel did, it's not the end of the world for me.

As you say, there's no such thing as true anonymity anymore, unless you want to use super-slow Tor.

Do you think we know your name and address prior_test2? There's also a large difference between having the ability and having the will to spend time and effort tracing you. So, let's call it "economic anonymity". Trolls area anonymous not by the lack of means to trace them but by the costs incurred in tracing them.

A question for those who have bothered to read it: did they give a useful definition of troll or trolling?

Yep, that is really the only interesting question.

I would like the definition of ordinary people. Who is being excluded from that group? Was there some belief that extraordinary cyber villains are out there somewhere preying on innocent comment sections?

One definition would be people unaware that by having a facebook account, they are likely being tracked by every single web site using one of those clever f symbols. It is extremely hard for ordinary people to grasp how unanonymous they actually are today. Here is just a bit of information related to what that means in actual monetary terms - 'This is how much it makes off each user: On average, Snap makes $1.05 off each user per quarter. That’s a far cry from the $4.83 that Facebook reported in its most recent earnings report. Still, Snapchat is just five years old and is managing to grow that all-important figure each quarter.

In the United States, the figures are higher, at $2.15 per quarter.' https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/02/03/snapchat-files-for-its-initial-public-offering-here-are-the-10-most-interesting-things-weve-learned-so-far/

Facebook? I assume anything I type/search from google is tracked

From the paper: A troll has been defined in multiple ways in previous literature – as a person who initially pretends to be a legitimate participant but later attempts to disrupt the community, as someone who “intentionally disrupts online communities”, or “takes pleasure in upsetting others”, or more broadly as a person engaging in “negatively marked on-line behavior” or that “makes trouble” for a discussion forums’ stakeholders. In this paper, similar to the latter studies, we adopt a definition of trolling that includes flaming, griefing, swearing, or personal attacks, including behavior outside the acceptable bounds defined by several community guidelines for discussion forums. In our experiment, we code posts manually for trolling behavior. In our longitudinal data analysis, we use posts that were flagged for unacceptable behavior as a proxy for trolling behavior.

“negatively marked on-line behaviour”: I've not the first idea what that means, except perhaps 'yah boo!'

Thanks for the info.

'we adopt a definition of trolling that includes flaming, griefing, swearing, or personal attacks, including behavior outside the acceptable bounds defined by several community guidelines for discussion forums'

Yep, anyone that does not go along with the group consensus. Which is completely fair, but about as interesting as pointing out that people shouting at 3am in the morning are disturbing the peace.

Something they even seem vaguely aware of, with the following sentence - 'In our experiment, we code posts manually for trolling behavior. In our longitudinal data analysis, we use posts that were flagged for unacceptable behavior as a proxy for trolling behavior.'

Seems like a good definition. Note that it is not the same as


The troll stays up to keep others up. It goes beyond being peeved, to making sport.

It is pretty much a worthless definition - but I'm going to bed anyways.

Sometimes I think I am a rube for still believing that the Internet represents the group mind .. but maybe it is still true, and things like poor governance do come from illness in the group mind.

Not to mention very real "troll armies."

Must be that, cant possibly be your incredibly expansive definition as to what represents a tragedy of governance.

lol. I guess that was another "is this thing on?" or "can you hear me now?" test from a troll.

When say congressional disapproval is at 76%, it is not just me, and an expansive definition. Troll.

Another good poll, trust in government to do the right thing.


I used to be just like you. I used to spend a huge amount of time telling anyone who would listen how whatever the latest 'scandal' was the most important thing ever this week. I cant say that i had some epiphany or anything, but i did eventually come to realize that i was a horrible bore who wasted a lot of time regurgitating someone else's propaganda.

Take a breath. Not every tweet is a crisis. Not every poll that confirms your priors is important. Perspective man, if no one will care in a month, you shouldnt either.

What's "griefing"?

Mostly I am retired and have no real problems of my own. I can make constructive politics a hobby. I am sure many on the other side of any particular issue start from a similar place.

But as any number of people will tell you, these are not normal times. And yeah, I am a bit annoyed with people who should have put in a special effort six months ago did not.

Some in fact have become insufferable free riders. They take pleasure in checks and balances that protect them, while sneering at the people who do the checking.

So a link like this is important because it is real, because it does shape the world, even if it specifically is forgotten:


Griefing comes from gaming - playing the game in such a way as to maximize sadness in other players, not necessarily to raise your own score.

While you are at it, read this one on the change in temper of authority:


Trump, and those who step up to be minions, as Eric Cartman.


Anon, I always appreciate your posts. Most people seem to be Far Right or Alt Right and/or Trumpeters here though, and not particularly interested in other points of view.

Thanks Politics, I appreciate it and your comments as well.

We struggle with strange times.

Interesting theory.

Cats have always been a major Internet interest - no wonder that a machine wants to grab one. Though how one got wedged into a scanner is now finally explained - http://www.metafilter.com/19/CatScancom

Two in the pink, one in the stink, y'know?

What utter nonsense! These guys are idiots! They don't uneven understand the difference between emphatic disagreement and trolling!

Ahem. Actually I do really think that inaccurate definitions of "troll" and "trolling" might undermine these conclusions.

I thought the manual coding in the experiment was done judiciously (even though the definition would automatically include many things as trolling that may not be, like swearing or off-topic posts). But the CNN.com analysis is a mess. Anything flagged by moderators is automatically trolling, and anything left up is not. I've seen enough forums where benign but contrarian posts are removed and obvious vitriol allowed to stay. I don't think it's a good proxy for trolling at all.

Well, actually I think words mean what they're used and understood to mean, so there's no way to stop this watering down of the word "trolling" to mean any kind of rude behavior, if that's how people are going to use it.

But the original idea has more to do with the mythical troll under the bridge - that is, the character who consistently pops up and flames you whenever you cross some line ... usually taking a certain position on a certain topic. I think it would much harder to demonstrate that "ordinary people" are likely to engage in that kind of trolling depending on their mood or online community standards.

This research seems merely to demonstrate common sense, that people tend to be about as civil or rude as their community.

I thought it came from fishing, something flashy to hook ...

Wikipedia lists these as the two competing theories.


No doubt I leave the occasional troll comment here, including one that got another screenname/email banned. If not for the trolls, the earnest halfwits have a field day.

Well, not too many people are likely to read that confession, if past experience serves.

Earnest halfwits contribute to the discussion a lot more than trolls. I've seen countless instances where someone makes an earnest but erroneous comment, and it compels both regular commenters and people who read the comments but rarely participate to jump in and flesh out the topic. In the end it's more edifying than if they hadn't said anything at all. It's also possible to moderate the 'earnest halfwits' without being a stubborn twat.

Good trolls, yes, shitposting trolls, no.

Certainly that line is drawn differently by different people; in any case I find it high comedy that prior_ of all people is critiquing my content.

Rim-jobbing, as well.

They should do average age, too. I think researchers would be shocked to find how many elderly cranks are trolls.

Well, then they would need to develop a sincerity measure. Those elderly cranks are fiercely convinced that someone on the Internet is wrong, and that they are finally in a position to make things right.

What is amusing is how closely that ties to this recent article - https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/as-a-conservative-twitter-user-sleeps-his-account-is-hard-at-work/2017/02/05/18d5a532-df31-11e6-918c-99ede3c8cafa_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_trumpbot-820pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.b0c9012eba70

"Those elderly cranks are fiercely convinced that someone on the Internet is wrong, and that they are finally in a position to make things right."

That sounds like a really familiar scenario to long time readers of this very blog.

Or to readers of this web comic - https://xkcd.com/386/ - from 2008

Lack of self awareness is a useful attribute in a troll. Its not a necessity, but it is helpful.

How old are you, I wonder?

54 thanks for asking. Am I a troll?

PA talks about having been at GM over 30 years ago. He's old.

Interesting theory, Tyler, but I still think you do it for kicks.

And the clicks.

Don't think he's not worried about his income; he sees the writing on the wall.

" prior trolling"

Tyler, I think he goes by 'prior_test2' now.

And know, I don't believe that verbiage was coincidence.

The first consistent name used here was prior_approval, in relation to the housing crash. Some of us are long time calculated risk readers, after all.

And to be fair, "prior_approval" generated a lot of trollish commentary, whereas prior_test is much more apt to generate contrarian commentary. And contrarian commentary, is necessary for good debate.

And yet, amusingly, I think my posting is unchanged.

Though it has been strange to see a new generation of commenters call Prof. Cowen a Democrat.

"And yet, amusingly, I think my posting is unchanged."

You used to make multiple posts a day, completely off topic, on GMU, Tyler's positions, the Mercatus institute, the Koch brothers, etc. At that point in time you were a troll.

I always thought of it as the mirror image of "prior restraint." I like my version better.

That you like your own version more is not in the least surprising.

Why, it's almost like there's a thing lurking in the shadows called "human nature"

haha, +1 and amen.

They stole the idea of the book I intended to write The Banality of Trolling: What Hannah Arendt and Philip Zimbardo Can Teach Us About Our Online Ourvelves.

I'm torn. Is the whole thing in the style of conversation between girls in a primary school playground? Or is it expressing a longing for a return to the Age of Conformity in the US?

No complete theory would ignore the role of alcohol.

As Dr. Homer Simpson once toasted "To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems!"

"We propose two primary trigger mechanisms: the individual’s mood, and the surrounding context of a discussion..."

And wine...don't forget about wine.

Unemployed PhD's with no marketable skills living under a bridge somewhere?

I used to troll people on a soccer community. I reached my peak when I was made the moderator of our national rival's board. Then I was trolling in 2 languages. Good times.

"These results combine to suggest that ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, behave like trolls."

They need a better theory of ordinary people

What if the Post is the troll?

Is responding to it a

Troll Troll?

boooooooooooooooooooooo you loser

Niches get filled.

Ask not for whom the blog trolls ;
it trolls for thee.

During their tenures as lord chancellor Sykes-Corbett's presided over the execution of fourteen trolls, six feinds, assorted witches, and countless usurers.

I had always understood "trolling" to be a very specific type of behavior: making statements, often not genuinely held, in order to produce a certain reaction in others. A troll operating at a high level can poke and prod so as to produce a desired initial reaction from one viewpoint, which produces a predictable aggressive response from the opposing viewpoint, and so on. The desire to "troll" in this way is somewhat unique, so it could be interesting to see what traits or experiences predict it.

Here, "troll" seems to be defined so broadly as to basically be "not playing nice," and so unsurprisingly we end up finding that the same things that lead people to not play nice in the real world carry over to the virtual world.

There is plenty of abusive behavior that's easy to classify as being abusive. There's also stuff that's unclear enough that careful and attentive people will disagree on whether it's abusive or not.

One way that can happen is if someone is expressing a position that is extremely offensive to other people on the forum. This is independent of the defensibility of the expressed ideas, and independent of the tone or language used, as well. It's common to see that described as trolling, but it's something a bit different. The exact same arguments may be acceptable in one place and offensive and shit-stirring in another.

As an example of this, consider the overlap of a forum dedicated to living a Christian life, and a forum dedicated to atheism. There are worthwhile conversations that might happen between some members of those two communities, but an inoffensive and perfectly normal post in the atheist forum is going to look like trolling, if posted on the Christian forum, and vice-versa.

I love studies that use big words to explain obvious stuff.

You're more likely to troll if you're in a bad mood, and you're more likely to troll if other people are trolling.


Ironically enough, they missed the third obvious reason for trolling (not me of course) - easy to be tough guy when you don't have to look who you're talking to in the face! I could be wrong though - no Ph.d or study to back that up.

Looking forward to the next groundbreaking study - "when people are pissed, they're not as nice when interacting with others" or perhaps, "when person A is being an inconsiderate asshole, person B likely to respond in kind."

Isn't this just another example of James Wilson's Broken Windows phenomenon?

Unpunished abusers tends to degrade the whole environment.

File under "slippery slopes."

I would say our host is the uber-troll. He posts interesting links, he seemingly does a terrific job managing the comments without defanging them, but does he not post and run? At this point some of the more prolix commenters have perhaps contributed more original content than he has. Obviously a winning formula - still, occasionally, I would be glad for TC to slow the firehose of provoking links to defend his declarative statements in a little more depth. Perhaps that's not where his talents lie. Or maybe it's in those podcasts, and the fault is mine for not finding the time to listen.

And is it not trolls* all the way down? I can't attend to more than one such blog, and am not on social media, so my impression is pretty much formed here. It is that there are so many pure-snark commenters, they greatly outnumber the well-intentioned seekers after clarity. One might even say that on this blog the earnest successfully troll the trolls.

*I say this without judgment: some days I curate a handful of comments for my non-internet-reading husband, under the heading "What the trolls are out there saying," and it is meant either to amuse him or to share with him what I found an interesting thought, not waste his time. I select about evenly from among the eloquent straight shooters and the trollishly (I guess) clever.

I think I am unfair to TC. He says his piece and stops. I can see that that's kind of cool, and probably wise for personal reasons.

What's a troll?

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