Get lost, troll: How accusations of trolling in newspaper comment sections affect the debate
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionFirst Monday. 2020, 25 (8). 10.5210/fm.v25i8.10270
This qualitative study explores instances where someone is accused of being a troll or a bot in newspaper comment sections. Trolls have been known to create a hostile environment in comment sections, often motivated by attention seeking and amusement. In recent years, following the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election of 2016, trolls have also been accused of actively undermining the Western political climate by using social media to divide political opponents. Furthermore, technological development has led to the possibility of automated software, known as bots, playing a role in online debates. As social media users and participants of online comment sections become more digitally literate, the awareness of trolls and bots will hopefully make people less susceptible to online manipulation. But this awareness could also cause commenters to discredit and delegitimize opposing arguments in comment sections by accusing others of being a troll or a bot, without considering the merits of the argument itself. If this is the case, it constitutes a challenge in creating a democratically valuable debate in comment sections. In this study, comments from three U.S. news sites were sampled and analyzed to investigate how accusations of trolling are made, and how debates are affected by such accusations. The results showed that right-wing commenters were more likely to be accused of trolling, and that these accusations seem to have been motivated by political differences. Accusers would either challenge the suspected troll, critique the effectiveness of the perceived trolling, make fun of the suspected troll, or simply warn other commenters about their presence. Finally, while debates often continued after an accusation of trolling had been made, the accuser and the accused rarely participated further. The results suggest that accusations of trolling do not have any major impact on the debate. It is, however, problematic that such accusations seem to be used as a rhetorical tool to discredit opposing arguments, which could lower the deliberative quality of debates in comment sections.