Trolling, Bullying, and Flame Wars

13 April 2018

Are trolling, bullying, and flame wars an inevitable result of online communication? Does the anonymity and invisibility of cyberspace lead to toxic speech and behavior? How can we create more toxic-free environments online?

Without a doubt, the internet has revolutionized communications. It is an incredibly powerful tool that enables us to exchange ideas and information with people from all over the globe in an instant.

But it also seems to bring out the worst of people’s anti-social tendencies. Trolls were once fictional characters, nasty creatures living under fairytale bridges who only came out from their hiding places to harass those trying to pass over. Now trolls are real people in cyberspace who say things—often outrageous—just to get a reaction out of people. And they're all over the internet, not just in dark corners like 4chan. Look at the comments on mainstream sites, like Twitter or YouTube. 

I mean, no! Don't look at the comments!! Never look at the comments!!!  

It's possible to have fantastic discussions online too, where everyone politely listens and tries to understand one another, even if they don't see eye to eye on some issue. We can share norms of civility when we don't share the same beliefs. We can explore our disagreement with one another without making ad hominem attacks. We can try in good faith to reason with one another in the face of disagreement. And we can know when to let a disagreement go. This is all possible—but by no means guaranteed—in the cyberworld. It's much more likely in smaller networks of people who also interact with each other in the real world, not just online.   

But when exchanges are between anonymous strangers who will never meet or know one another in real life, that’s when the discussion often devolves into trolling, bullying, and name-calling. Even worse, trolls and bullies can be quickly organized into mobs who target and harass people (often women) whose views they don’t like. Gamergate is a classic example of that.

Mobs are nothing new in human history, of course. It should be no surprise that in the age of the internet we get online mobs, a virtual version of a real-life phenomenon. Instead of pitchforks and torches, their weapons are computers and smart phones. Like the mobs of yore, cyber mobs seek to threaten and intimidate.

An important question to ask about all of this anti-social behavior we see online is whether the internet is simply providing a new way for bullies and trolls to act out, or whether the technology itself has created an entirely new beast. Has the internet made us into worse people? 

Psychologists who study this kind of question have noted that people do and say things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t normally do and say in face-to-face interactions. This kind of behavior is so pervasive, they’ve given it a name—the online disinhibition effect. While we’ve always had mobs, we've never had such an easy and efficient way to organize them—free from geographical restrictions, insulated from the real damage they inflict on their targets, and escaping accountability or punishment. And this changes the human landscape significantly.

It's not just that the internet makes it easier for bullies to bully. That is certainly true. You could also say that the internet makes it easier for generous people to donate to charity. The internet is indeed a very versatile tool that can be used for good or bad, depending on whose hands it’s in. But that does not make it a neutral tool.

Sure, we could say, blame the bullies, not the tools they use for their bad behavior. But that’s a bit like saying guns don’t kill people, people do. Yes, people do kill people, but having guns easily available, especially assault style weapons, makes it so much easier for people to hurt or kill others that we now have an epidemic of gun violence in this country. It’s disingenuous to say that the tools of destruction and what they make possible don’t play a role.

Decades of research in social psychology has shown us that context and situation greatly influence how people tend to behave. Put people in certain social situations and you’ll see the same results again and again. Take something like the bystander effect. That’s when people are less likely to help out a victim if there are other people around. Similarly, people tend to behave in anti-social ways when they're interacting with anonymous strangers they never see face to face. Being able to bully others with practically no repercussions in real life brings out the bully in people that ordinarily would not behave that way. There can be a major mismatch between their online behavior and their offline behavior. That’s the online disinhibition effect.  

Blaming “the internet” for people’s bad behavior, though, is not quite right. That’s too vague and nebulous a target. It’s more accurate to blame particular platforms on the internet that allow  bullying, because there are sites, like The New York Times, where bullies and trolls are simply not welcome. They do a lot of work moderating comments to keep the discussion civic and productive. It’s expensive and time-consuming, of course, which is part of the reason why more sites and platforms don’t do it. But it shows that it's at least possible to create the kind of environment online where anonymous strangers can disagree civilly, if there is a will to do so.

But don't get your hopes up yet! Bad behavior online is often good for profits, and we know that's the bottom line for most of these sites. Take a look at this article from the Pew Research Center that summarizes a large-scale canvas of more than a thousand technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners, and government leaders on whether they think that “public discourse online will become more or less shaped by bad actors, harassment, trolls, etc.” Overall, it presents a rather pessimistic forecast for online discourse.

So, how do we as consumers get platforms that do very little to curb bad behavior to change their guidelines, or, as is often the case, enforce their guidelines? Do we just stop using them or can we create change in some other way? And how should online spaces be redesigned so that there are real consequences for bad actors? How do we eliminate anti-social behavior to the extent that we can?

Tune in to this week's show with guest Michael Lynch, author of The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data, and share your thoughts with us here.

Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, April 14, 2018 -- 12:16 PM

Hi, Laura!

Hi, Laura!
Your first three questions (in bold font) are key to an understanding of these phenomena. An unqualified 'yes' covers the first two. The third goes to our notions about free-speech, regulation, proscription and other off-shoots relating to people behaving badly. In other words, there is no good course of action, short of excluding those bad actors who insist upon venting their spleen and causing distress in others for the least of slights (or perceived slights). People are not like they once were. The grave new world takes itself far too seriously and there is little room for unmitigated equanimity. The overall emotional climate on our little blue planet supports a take-no-prisoners mentality, although many people really do not have all that much to be angry about. It appears we have all but lost The Better Angels of Our Nature. I think, however, this is but a symptom of deeper problems---many of which are outgrowths of Big Data, and frankly, too much information. Friends tell me about their Facebook 'friends'. They do not understand why I do not 'do Facebook'. It is simple really: Facebook and other social media venues are, in a real and final sense, asocial, or worse, anti-social. I haven't the time for such drama:

Wouldn't join in, even if I did have the time. It's just not worth it. My friends are those with whom I have personal contact and a few things in common. And people who have more between their ears than a lump of flesh, blood and bone.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, April 15, 2018 -- 9:04 AM

Hi Harold! I think you are

Hi Harold! I think you are wise for avoiding Facebook. Don't get me wrong, I love Facebook.... in the same way that some people love cigarettes and coffee. But, like smoking cigarettes or drinking coffee, you'll be better off if you never start that particular habit!

Myperspectiveonly's picture


Tuesday, April 17, 2018 -- 1:55 PM

As an extension of today's

As an extension of today's discussion, I suggest that you consider the question of how the internet affects decision making about substantive issues. For example, I belong to a group which formerly made decisions by consensus. Now the same group of individuals--which is much larger and more geographically far flung than in the "old days"--needs to make decisions with significant economic and program implications. Although the group has formed a "representative" decision-making council, said council is relatively fragile as many individuals want to return to the consensus model despite the impracticability of the process in this instance. In arguing both the content of the issues and the process for making the decision, I have found, in reading the membership list serve, that many writers/readers do not understand what is being discussed or proposed either due to lack of or very different knowledge about the issue or the inability to communicate or understand more subtle elements of the communication (e.g., empathy, sarcasm, diplomatic correction of misinformation, etc.). This example, of a relatively small group of individuals with a shared language and history, trying, via email communication, to make important decisions by consensus surely has broader implications worth examining, don't you think?

Dr B's picture

Dr B

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 -- 11:39 PM

To a great extent, in the non

To a great extent, in the non cyber world, political correctness, all encompassing definitions of hate speech, no-platforming etc has completely curtailed disagreement of any kind. I often wonder whether the escalating abuse online is caused by the inability to disagree or make even the mildest of sarcastic comments in the local pub without being reported to the “thought police”. For example anyone who speaks out about ILLEGAL immigration here in the U.K. is immediately branded a racist which is leading to a pressure cooker type of environment with no outlet for views other than the anonymous internet?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 -- 6:41 PM

Certainly humility is

Certainly humility is possible everywhere and just as certain is growing more rare by the day. To achieve humility is to strive toward truth in the name of Habermas, in a world that supplies alternative facts.

So much of what we do comes from within. The best approach would be and is to question ourselves first. I'm learning that more and more as the unfathomable becomes fathomed.

If I am reading the science on this right it looks like the classical regions of the brain that map to language use, Wernicke’s Area and Broca’s Area are both double purposed to interoceptive control of the body. This is an indication that body budgeting, which is by far the more primal purpose of the brain can be greatly affected by words.

Here’s something else from science with bearing here… if you suffer from long term verbal abuse this actually warps your brain, reduces effectiveness of common vaccines, slows wound healing and in developing minds can lead to physical and mental illness.

One last thing from another study… that if you are exposed to social stress within 2 hours of a meal the relationship of language and body budgeting is such that this can add 104 calories to your meal. Which isn’t so much an argument for football coaches to yell at their offensive linemen as it is an explanation for chronic obesity in victims of abuse.

These studies were pointed out in a book I finished a couple months ago and only now am re-reading and thinking back to this show.

In the spirit of this learning and show… I’m going to be much more mellow in my criticisms going forward. I doubt I shall ever throw shade as lightly as I have in the past. I am amazed at the complexity of the world, my persistent ignorance of that complexity and the immense power of words.

I am humbled.

cybersecuritylawsrc's picture


Friday, August 6, 2021 -- 12:14 PM

While bullying is nothing new

While bullying is nothing new and we all know that it’s changed, finding victims not only on the playground but where they are online, there are tactics to combat it. Raising awareness about the issue, defining it as unacceptable, and sticking up for those who are bullied are ways that we will hopefully curtail this growing problem.
When the rude comments or bullying are online , when people are looking at social media at home or at work, it can be even worse because it is happening in a place where they should feel safe. It can happen when they are around people important to them such as their children.