Online Trolls Actually Just Assholes All the Time, Study Finds

According to research by Aarhus University, the internet does not make people a scumbag.

The American Political Science Review published a study that used representative surveys and behavioral research from Denmark and the U.S. to determine why online interaction is perceived as more hostile than offline interaction. The article can be accessed here in its pre-print form.

The mismatch hypothesis was considered by the team. This theory, in relation to online behavior, refers to the idea that humans are unable or unwilling to adapt for face-to–face interaction with other people and for online interactions. This hypothesis basically states that people who are more friendly to one another in person may be more inclined to become hostile when they interact with pseudonymous online users. Researchers found no evidence to support this.

Their data showed that online interactions mirror offline behavior. People who are predisposed to being aggressive and status-seeking in online interactions were just as bad in person as they were behind the veil of anonymity online. They also chose to be jerks because of the format, rather than because of it. Some evidence also showed that people who are less hostile to politics online aren't as interested in it. The results were similar for both the U.S. as well as Denmark, despite the fact that the two countries have very distinct political cultures and differing degrees of polarization. (An example: A hostile far-right mob that was organized via social media has not yet stormed the Danish Parliament.

Researchers found that people aren't more hostile online than offline. They also discovered that hostile people don't preferentially choose to participate in online (vs. offline!) political discussions. And that online messages do not cause people to feel hostility. There was another evidence: We found that non-hostile people select from all online, hostile, and non-hostile political discussions.

Alexander Bor, a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University's Political Science Department, and co-author of this study, explained to Engineering & Technology that there are many psychological reasons for getting angry online. He said users don't see the faces of people they are arguing with, and that the rapid-paced written communication can lead to misunderstandings.


Bor explained that psychological research has shown that not all people are equally inclined to aggression. These personality differences are a stronger driver of online hostility.

Michael Bang Petersen is a professor of politics at the university. He was also co-author of the study. Engineering & Technology found that they were more likely to see trolls harassing or attacking other people online than in person.


Petersen explained to the site that online discussions are conducted in large public networks, and that the behavior of an internet trolling is more obvious than in an offline setting.


This finding that people aren't more or less likely to engage in toxic behavior online is consistent with previous research that showed that malicious individuals take advantage of the opportunity to create toxic online political conversations. A 2017 study in Personality and Individual Differences found that most online trolls are high in cognitive empathy. This allows them to recognize when someone is pushing their buttons. However, they have low levels of affective empathy. This allows them to avoid feeling guilty or internalizing the pain they cause. Devin Gaffney, an affiliate of Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, wrote for Bennington Magazine, that platforms have been negligently optimized for connectedness. This means they have neglected to optimize for the growth of mob-like online communities. They also have a high level of cognitive empathy, which allows them to identify when someone is pushing their buttons, but low in affective empathy, which allows them avoid feeling bad or internalizing the suffering they cause.

Engineering & Technology reported that Bor said the results support stricter enforcement rules against hate speech. This is because it is not born from ignorance, and aggressive people fully understand how disruptive and damaging their actions can be. He said that this is a democratic problem because social media has a greater role in political processes.