Policing the Trolls


By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Eirik Solheim.

It is easy for people who use the internet–particularly platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and news sites covering liberal-minded stories–to observe how websites’ comments sections can become toxic. In fact, the discussion of comments sections has become almost as pervasive as comments sections themselves.

Recently, writer and vlogger Lindsay Ellis wrote an op-ed for The Mary Sue entitled “’Don’t Read the Comments’ and Taxes” in which she discussed a certain explicit comment left on one of her videos that talked about tips on taxes. Ellis continued to explain that after posting a screen capture of the comment on Twitter, she was mostly met with people telling her “Don’t Read the Comments.”

However, Ellis went on to ask the question of whether avoiding comments sections is truly the answer to such a toxic environment. “It isn’t as simple as encouraging all websites to adopt strict moderation policies, but to examine the system in which toxicity is rewarded with attention,” she wrote.

On websites like YouTube and Facebook–as well as those like BuzzFeed, which have Facebook-connected comment sections–the most popular comments are “bumped” to the top no matter whether they’re positive, vitriolic, or trolling. (For those unfamiliar with the phrase trolling as it’s used online, it’s a statement made with the sole purpose of causing an argument.)

The reason comments sections can become so toxic is in part due to trolling and in part because of the anonymity allowed by the internet. At the University of Haifa in Israel, a study examined pairs of college students debating topics through various means of communication: instant messaging, video chat, and video chat with near-constant eye contact.

The researchers found that members of the study were twice as likely to be hostile if they didn’t maintain eye contact with their partner. Lead author on the study, behavioral scientist Noam Lapidot-Lefler, said eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you.” Eye contact leads to increased empathy and better communication.

However, anonymity and lack of eye contact don’t necessarily explain the behavior of trolls, who purposefully derail conversations in comments sections. Research conducted at the University of Manitoba in Canada found a correlation between those who enjoy trolling and the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.

Psychologists conducted research in a series of two studies. They gave online surveys to 1,215 participants, asking about their favorite internet behaviors, along with a personality test. In one of these studies, it was found that only 5.6 percent of the participants admitted that trolling was their favorite activity online (instead of debating issues, chatting, making friends, or other activities). These respondents who preferred trolling also had the highest “Dark Tetrad” scores and their rankings turned out comparatively much higher than the other participants.

In an effort to put a stop to trolls and other vitriolic comments sections, websites reserve the right to prevent/delete comments, ban users, or close the comments entirely. Although their restrictive actions are sometimes met with outrage and cries of violating the First Amendment right to free speech, many of these companies are privately-owned and are not held to the same standards as the US government.

Websites like Popular Science and Re/code have abolished their comments sections entirely. In the case of Popular Science, the decision was reached because comments were throwing doubt on the science of their stories: “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.” Meanwhile, Re/code felt that discussions of their articles were primarily taking place on social media, rendering their comments section unnecessary.

Although few other sites closed their comments sections, the reality of these online communications has been enough for some, like CNN’s Doug Gross, to put forth the idea that “online comments are on their way out.” Gross aligned with Re/code and claimed that most discussions have moved out of the comments and on to social media.

Whether or not comments sections truly are on their way out, websites are accountable for what visitors say on their platform. Those sites have a choice between allowing the “bump” function to promote whatever comments may be popular–even if they’re vitriolic trolling–or to enact a strict moderation policy.