Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What Feeds The Trolls?: The Online Disinhibition Effect

Trolling is rife online, particularly it appears on anonymous websites where the perpetrators are almost completely unidentifiable. Negative trolls are defined as individuals who deliberately engage in damaging and disruptive behaviour online, such as online vandalism and cyberbullying (Phillips, 2011). While these comments may only be made online, they nonetheless can have devastating consequences offline, in the real-world. Over the years, there have been several people who have taken their own lives after being a victim of internet trolls.
One example is Hannah Smith (14) who took her own life in 2013 after she received dozens of abusive messages on, a website where users are able to comment anonymously on others profiles. Additional cases include Jessica Laney (16) and Izzy Dix (14) who were also sent cruel messages on before committing suicide.
Trolled: Some of the messages sent to Hannah Smith before she died.

Some researchers have investigated whether the degree of identifiability influences commenting behaviour online. For instance, people may be more likely to make offensive comments when they are less identifiable because the increased anonymity, decreases inhibition (Suler, 2006). This is known as the online disinhibition effect.

Subsequently, Cho and Acquisti (2013) proposed that the degree of identity disclosure may be a vital factor in influencing online commenting behaviours. The researchers analysed a social commenting system where the users could choose one of three types of accounts; (1) non-social-network site (SNS) account; (2) a pseudonym SNS account (e.g. twitter); or (3) a real name SNS account (e.g. facebook). The real name SNS account has the highest level of identifiability, while the non-SNS account provides the least amount of information about the user's identity. Thus, Cho and Acquisti (2013) hypothesised that those who choose the non-SNS account are more likely to use offensive words.

The findings supported their hypothesis and showed that those choosing to use a real name SNS account were less likely to use offensive language, while those who used a non-SNS account were more likely.

Figure 1: Proportion of the Use of Offensive Words by Account Type Each Week

Figure 2: Proportion of the Use of Offensive Words by the Use of Real Name

Both figures show that the use of SNS accounts and the disclosure of the user's real name are less likely to be correlated to the use of offensive words. Whereas, the greater anonymity associated with non-SNS accounts increases the likelihood that the user will post comments containing offensive language. Therefore, this suggests that the degree of identifiability does influence commenting behaviour online; the greater the anonymity, greater the effect of online disinhibition.

Consequently, should there be greater regulation of websites, such as, that allow people to comment anonymously? Should there be a policy in place where the person must at least provide their real name before being allowed to comment? If such policies were to be enforced, perhaps there would be fewer instances of negative trolling and online abuse.

   Cho, D., & Acquisti, A. (2013). The More Social Cues, The Less Trolling? An Empirical Study of Online Commenting Behavior. Unpublished manuscript, Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, PA: United States.
   Phillips, W. (2011). LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages and resistance to grief online. First Monday, 16(12).
    Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & behavior,7(3), 321-326.

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