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Online civility and why we all have the potential to be trolls

Triggers, impulsions, and why we all have the potential to into an online troll given the right conditions.    

Online civility

Contrary to what one might think, you might be a well meaning and a generally sociable person in real life,  but the same may not be true when you are online. 

This is because being behind the keyboard literary changes you by forcing you to drop your guard and for most people, the temptation to be drawn into the dark side of online interactions is just too high.

Here is why.

There are plenty of triggers that lead many people to adopt antisocial behaviour when engaging in online discussions. 

These triggers are such that, while some people may act upon their impulsions, others maybe also immune to some of these triggers since as research has shown, there is a huge spectrum of triggers that can make anyone turn into an online troll given the right conditions.    

These are:

  1. Hot button issues like race, religion and gender politics.
  2. Trending topics like breaking news.
  3. Your degree of attachment to a given online community or forum.
  4. Badly designed platforms with poor enforcement of community guidelines.
  5. Anger or negative moods. 
  6. Anonymity that breeds a sense of desensitisation that does not allow us to think about the consequences of our actions.
  7. Online environments are unconsciously thought by many as perfectly legitimate outlets for unpopular and politically incorrect opinions, that would otherwise not be spoken in real life interactions.

Whether it’s your brand or private social media account, you will most likely fall prey to online trolling in one way or another and the thing is, it may not even have originated from a bad place. 

It could have been a genuine customer complaint that was raised on social media, but it quickly degenerated into provoking negative reactions and inciting lots of hatred and anger behind the keyboard.

 That’s why if you are a business with a huge presence online, always remember that the social dynamics are radically different when they occur online. This means how you interact with your customers online need to be conducted with the utmost care.

As a brand, it’s often up to you to be the bigger man in online interactions because if your customers are aggrieved, they are more likely to launch ad hominem attacks, be more provocative, vindictive, and offensive online than in real life –  in an urge to elicit an emotional response from you. 

Indeed, this kind of trolling can also go beyond such provocations to include such acts like online bullying, threats of physical aggression and doxing. 

To start with, it would be instructive to start with the environment since many researchers have noted that the more negative the online mood is, the more likely it will give birth to trolling.  

This is a very important step that prepares you to gauge the ground correctly since not all angry online commentators are trolls.

How Then Do You Differentiate Between Genuine Online Anger And Trolling?

The truth of the matter is at first, there is no clear cut distinction since an angry person is more likely to lower his/her capacity for self-regulation just like the troll. 

Indeed, there may be some overlapping behaviours exhibited by trolls and genuinely angry online commentators who might be very sincere. 

Nonetheless, it’s a thin grey area laden with so many potential landmines that you have to maneuver it carefully since the danger of putting genuinely angry people and trolls in the same basket can be disastrous as well.

As a brand, you have to be very careful to not fall in this kind of trap because what ends up happening, is fullfing a self made prophecy by aiding and abetting the birth of trolls. 

People have a right to be angry, because that is a human thing and it’s part of human nature. 

As a matter of fact, not all online negative opinions are bad just in the same way, not every online disagreement is meant to be an aggression.  

 The reason we cite this truism is because, often behind emotions, you will often find very well reasoned logical consistency in what the person is trying to say which is far from the diversionary and derailments tactics used by the trolls to sabotage rational discourse. 

How Cultural Differences Foster Online Incivility.

Sometimes in the course of online interaction, the discourse may degenerate because we are incapable of seeing the other person’s perspective.  What will happen is that, in a desperate move to convince the other person to see our point of view, we go for the easiest strawman we can find so as to put them down and also to win the argument. 

In many cases, we resort to denigrate the other person’s group membership because we feel that they cannot empathise with our position on the basis that this person is not “our own”.

Indeed, whenever such accusations like “white privilege” and “reverse racism” are invoked, it’s just a matter of time before the discussion turns sour. In fact, you can never expect the discussion to remain civil once such accusations and moral judgements are made.

Predictably, when the discussion takes such caustic antagonistic positions by slighting the other persons group membership, we are forced to counterattack with our own strawman to get even. 

This means that there is rarely compromise because we become mutually radicalized and more entrenched in our positions – a fertile ground for breeding trolls.

This is because, when the rightness or wrongness of our arguments is solely attached to group membership, it makes heavy demands on the soul, and for most of us, it is guaranteed that we will react badly if we are pushed into a corner when someone introduces a particular cultural generalization/cliche to invalidate our argument.

But how do we get there? 

Often the starting point will be based around society’s hot button issues like social justice, where one party “feels an injustice” and the other party requires “proof” to be convinced that indeed there is an injustice. 

Each person will cite figures and facts to back their own argument and they will rarely reach an agreement because as the discussion drags along, each party starts to get exasperated,  and with such grudges budding, comes a loosening of our sense of politeness and civility.

It is the kind of incivility where each person comes from a position of high moral vaunting – a kind of superior moral posturing that seeks to impose your views on those who slightly disagree with you. 

That’s why we argue that, any opinion expressed on any given online space can be likened to shouting from the rooftops in a populated neighbourhood – you can be assured that somebody will respond. 

Therefore, you cannot be that naive to believe that possibly, people will not respond either negatively or with benign disagreement, and that’s why you do not have to personalize every online engagement.

Why We Need To Rethink Our Rules About Incivility

Very often new communication technologies have been cited as one of the culprits that has to some extent accelerated the tendency to be rude and impolite online. 

The anonymity and the indirect nature of our online interactions have led some to interrogate if we are developing an inflated sense of solipsism and narcissism, given that we have reduced the need for physical presence to conduct social interaction.   

Indeed, written and grammar skills have been so greatly handicapped that it would be safe to say that beyond the deterioration of technical usage of language, there has been a simultaneous disinhibition with regard to acceptable social norms in how we use words as well.  

Does this mean we should start a campaign for a reintroduction of good manners? 

In my opinion, it would be a good start both in the professional life and the private life, because as we have recently seen, just from online interactions, young people are particularly vulnerable to the extent of being pushed into suicide.

Learn to be patient, and by this we mean that you do not have to be instantaneous in your responses when the environment is filled with anger and negative emotions since this reduces the chances of being bogged down by a continuous feedback mechanism driven by negativity.

It is the next battleground for policy makers in the security sector and the judiciary since a simple online controversy can quickly turn ugly with people being harassed for their religion, gender, skin color, and political opinions which may take the form of, spreading rumors, creation of a false online profile, publication of sexually explicit or humiliating photographs and insults via private messaging platforms.


Written by Briana Anabtawi, Head of Service & Operations, LEXIGO: As Head of Service and Operations, Briana is responsible for quality, client satisfaction and efficiency in service delivery for LEXIGO Strategic Clients and Partners. Briana's professional background in the travel and tourism industry has provided her with a unique insight into culture, language and project management.