Social media trolls are inspired by ‘likes’ — not hate: study

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By Dan Sears

Haters gonna hate.

When it comes to spreading toxicity online, trolls aren’t keen to just rest on their viral laurels, according to a study by Cornell University, which found that the more “likes” a negative post receives, the more likely it is that the author will publish an even more hateful message next.

The findings suggest that online hate is fueled by “the pursuit of social approval” — and not, as the insult would imply, an intent to cause harm to a targeted audience.

Researchers Julie Jiang, Luca Luceri and Emilio Ferrara reviewed posts from polemic X (formerly Twitter) users to analyze what happened when they received increased approval for their xenophobic tweets.

They found that when someone’s toxic tweets got a large number of “likes,” their next post would be more inflammatory.

This comes as watchdogs continue to warn about the rise of hate speech, especially on social media.

“It now appears that the same dynamics that can make some online relationships intensely positive can also fuel friendly feelings among those who join together online in expressing enmity toward identity groups and individual targets,” Joseph B. Walther, a visiting scholar at Harvard University, explained on Phsy.org in response to the study.

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The researchers found that online hate is fueled by “the pursuit of social approval” — and not, as the insult would suggest, intent to cause harm to the troll’s target. Getty Images/iStockphoto

He claimed that these social media users are driven to write hateful messages to impress “like-minded” others.

The scholar noted that white supremacists and neo-Nazis often use codes and symbols that are only understood by each other, demonstrating their investment in parasocial approval as opposed to spreading their bigotry message to others outside the group.

Many hateful groups have also turned away from popular social media platforms to join smaller fringe sites — places where the targets of their ire would never see or be victimized by them.

The findings support previous research showing that the more “heavy users” of social media engage with each other, the more knee-jerk and thoughtless their online posts become.

Over time, they become desensitized to the positive feedback — “likes,” shares and comments — causing them to lose sight of accuracy and clarity, in favor of instant gratification.


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An expert that these social media users are driven to write hateful messages “to get attention and garner social approval from like-minded social media users.”

Getty Images/iStockphoto

While people remain divided on how to best manage hate speech — without encroaching on the First Amendment — its rise online has paralleled an uptick in hate crime in the US.

According to the most recent data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, hate crimes reported in the United States increased nearly 12% in 2021 over the previous year.

Experts hope that understanding the psychology behind hate speech will allow agencies to better monitor and shut it down before these jabs make it out of the group chat and onto the streets.

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