TIME Web

Science Says You Should Ignore Internet Trolls

Troll sign
Douglas Pearson—Getty Images Troll Road Sign, Trollstigen

A new algorithm can predict Internet irritants with 80% accuracy

Commonly found under bridges and in the reader commentary of stories about Apple, trolls have long plagued the good people of fairy tales and the Internet. While banishing them has long been the remedy of choice, new research out of Stanford and Cornell universities might help to identify these persistent pests before they even start wringing their wart-covered hands. Boasting a methodology with 80% accuracy, the study provides hope that once Skynet becomes self-aware, we can wipe this scourge off the face of the web once and for all.

So who, exactly, is a troll? Analyzing the comments on news (CNN.com), politics (Breitbart.com), and gaming (IGN.com) sites over a period of 18 months, the study examined more than 40 million posts by at least 1.7 million users, discovering not only what antisocial behavior looks like, but how it festers, grows, and is ultimately dealt with. This allowed the researchers to see how trolls typically evolve over time.

But one thing in particular helped these odious Internet users stand out from their mild-mannered counterparts. “They receive more replies than average users,” says the paper, “suggesting that they might be successful in luring others into fruitless, time-consuming discussions.”

To create the algorithm, the researchers looked at all 1.7 million users surveyed and split them into two groups: future-banned users (FBUs) and never-banned-users (NBUs). Assuming the FBUs were all trolls, they then monitored their behavior from when they signed up to when they got shut out. Some clear differences emerged between the trolls and the NBUs: FBUs wrote differently than everyone else, often going off-topic, scribbling posts that were more difficult to read, and saying more negative things. In addition, trolls made more comments per day, and posted more times on each thread. They often had the most posts in a particular thread, and made more replies to other comments.

In other words, the trolls were hyper-active.

But that alone wasn’t enough to separate trolls from your casual cranks. To do that, the researchers looked at how users’ behaviors changed over time, analyzing how many posts of theirs were deleted by site moderators. NBUs weren’t saints — they also had posts deleted — but only a small proportion got worse over the course of the study. The trolls, on the other hand, had an increasing amount of posts deleted as time wore on.

And this all makes sense, when you think about it. Trolls start off surly, are met with opposition and then get a little nutty. Then, and when their comments are deleted, they get even crazier — a cycle that gradually spins out of control, until they’re ultimately shut down. It happens online. It happens on television. It even happens in the real world.

Admittedly, the study doesn’t take sarcasm into account, a tool no doubt wielded by a mutant strain of super-trolls, users who “purposefully ask overly naive questions or state contrary viewpoints.” Imagine that . . . oh god, the horror.

But the study does give actionable insight on what to do should you ever encounter a troll. “Anti-social behavior is exacerbated when the community feedback is overly harsh,” says the report. In other words — and of course you already know this — don’t feed the trolls. Since FBUs’ behavior gets worse over time, that means don’t engage them early or often.

Currently, this research is unfortunately little more than an exercise in academics, as its algorithm for detecting trolls has yet to be rolled into a software or a service. But it’s a good first step for sites all over the web — especially on Twitter —where the formula could be used to scout out future troublesome users.

TIME Research

Tylenol Dulls Your Emotional Pain, Too

Tylenol Pills Spilling Out Of Bottle
Shelley Dennis—Getty Images

Acetaminophen might be having a bigger effect on the brain than we realize

Popping Tylenol to soothe an ache is second nature to many of us. But what do you take for heartache? A new pair of studies suggests that the painkiller might blunt responses to emotional pain, too.

In one study, researchers from the Ohio State University Medical Center gave 80 people either a placebo or 1,000 mg of acetaminophen —the active ingredient in Tylenol and the equivalent of two extra-strength Tylenol. After waiting an hour for it to kick in, the researchers showed them a series of emotional images on a computer screen and had them rate how much emotion they felt from each picture: from happy images like cute, cuddly kittens to negative images like gory car accidents and snakes, to neutral images like a filing cabinet. Study author Baldwin M. Way, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology and Institute for Behavioral medicine Research at the Ohio State University, says he was surprised by what he saw. “It turned out Tylenol blunted that or reduced that by about 20% compared to people who were on placebo rating the same images,” Way says.

The next step was to figure out if the drug was blunting responses to absolutely everything—or just emotional responses. They repeated the experiment testing reactions to color saturation. When they found no difference in how the two groups observed the intensity of color, they concluded that the drug was only interfering with emotionally charged information.

This isn’t the first study to show that the drug might be tinkering with our emotions. Previous research has shown that when people take acetaminophen for three weeks, their feelings get hurt less when they are socially rejected. That could be because pain is pain; whether it comes from a bump or a break-up, pain seems to travel through the same neurochemical pathways. In another study published in 2013, people who took acetaminophen thought about their own death less negatively than those who weren’t on anything. And a study this year found that when faced with a tough choice, acetaminophen helps dull the discomfort.

But how?

Acetaminophen works on several different levels in the body in ways scientists aren’t entirely sure about yet. But Way suspects it involved the insula, an area of the brain that responds to both positive and negative emotions and creates emotional significance. “When you have a pain response—when you put your hand on a hot stove for example—your brain needs to know which body part is getting hurt or wounded so you can react,” Way says. “But there’s also another part of your brain that needs to know the emotional response: the ‘ouch.’” That’s where the insula comes in, Way suspects. “It seems to register that this is painful, that this hurts and that this has an emotional element to it. What we think is going on is that the emotional component of pain—the ‘ouch’—is being blunted by acetaminophen.” Another way Tylenol may dull emotional pain is that it could be acting along the same anti-inflammatory pathway to the brain, he suspects.

Some brain scan studies show that acetaminophen reduces activity in that area of the brain, and other studies show that people with insula damage don’t respond to positive and negative stimuli. Way says he plans to repeat the experiment in an MRI scanner to see if acetaminophen reduces insula activity.

“What this all means and how it affects people in daily life is an unknown question, of course,” he says. Way and his colleagues are currently running a trial with psychiatric patients to see if acetaminophen may have a therapeutic benefit.

More research is needed. But Way thinks that all kinds of drugs besides acetaminophen may be having effects on our emotions. “When a drug goes through clinical trials, they test it for its safety on things like, ‘Does your liver work?’ or ‘Is it causing your blood vessels to explode?’” he says. “But what’s never assessed in those studies is behavior and psychological processes…so one has to wonder, are these drugs that people are taking for a variety of different reasons having brain effects? There might be more widespread psychological and behavioral effects than we currently appreciate.”

TIME human behavior

Men Give More Generously to Attractive Fundraisers, Study Finds

Fundraising
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

They'll also compete against one another to give more generously

Fundraisers might want to make a note of this.

Men give more generously to fundraising campaigns if they see that other men have donated large amounts and if the fundraiser is an attractive woman, a new study published in Current Biology has found.

Researchers from University College London (UCL) and the University of Bristol say this “competitive helping” exists in the human subconscious because it was evolutionarily beneficial.

The scientists wanted to find out why people behave generously in situations when there is no obvious benefit to them in doing so. And according to a co-author of the study, UCL’s Nichola Raihani, this competitive generosity is more of a male trait (although they don’t specify whether sexual orientation plays a part).

“We found a remarkably strong response with men competing to advertise generosity to attractive women, but didn’t see women reacting in a similar way. Showing competitive helping is more a male than female trait,” she said.

Raihani used online fundraising pages from the 2014 London marathon and had 668 participants rate the attractiveness of the fundraiser. Personal information such as the name and gender of fundraiser and a photo are present on the pages, as well as the name and gender of other donors and how much they have given.

They found that when the fundraiser was an attractive woman (attractiveness, according to the researchers, had a lot to do with facial expressions such as smiling), men would compete with one another and make larger donations.

“Fundraising pages provide a fascinating real-life laboratory for looking at charity donations. Previously, we saw how donors responded to how much other people had given. Now we see that the response depends — albeit subconsciously — on the fundraiser’s attractiveness,” said co-author Sarah Smith of the University of Bristol.

TIME Crime

Support for the Death Penalty in America Has Hit a 40-year Low

Anti-Death Penalty Activists Hold Fast And Vigil Outside Supreme Court
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Abolitionist Action Committee member Bo Chamberlin of Columbus, Ohio, fasts with other death penalty opponents in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 29, 2009 in Washington, DC.

Only a slim majority of Americans agree with it

Public backing for capital punishment in the U.S. has dipped to its lowest in 40 years, according to a new report, although a small majority of Americans still believe in it.

According to a study released by the Pew Research Center, just 56% of U.S. citizens support the death penalty — a decline of 6% since 2011. During the 1980s and 1990s, in comparison, that number often crossed 70%.

The study, which surveyed 1,500 adults across the U.S., found that the decline has come mainly among Democrats — 40% of Democrats support the death penalty while 56% oppose it, a sharp contrast from the 1996 survey that showed 71% of them for and just 25% against.

Overall, 71% of Americans say the risk of an innocent person being put to death is high, and 61% say the death penalty does not deter individuals from committing serious crimes.

TIME Research

Health Problems Linger for 9/11 First Responders

Firefighter walks through the rubble of the World Trade Center after it was struck by commercial airliners in a terrorist attack, Sept. 12 2001. after the first.
Todd Maisel—New York Daily News/Getty Images Firefighter walks through the rubble of the World Trade Center after it was struck by commercial airliners in a terrorist attack, Sept. 12 2001. after the first.

Emergency medical services workers who arrived at the World Trade Center site were twice as likely to show signs of depression than those who didn't

It’s been more than a decade since the attacks of 9/11, but many of the first emergency workers to arrive at the World Trade Center site continue to feel health effects. Nearly 17% of emergency medical service (EMS) workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks display symptoms of depression and 7% show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to a new study in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

“Our findings are part of a pattern of adverse health outcomes found among those who were exposed to the disaster,” said study author Mayris Webber, a health official at the New York City Fire Department, in an email. “We highlight the importance of continued medical monitoring and treatment of FDNY EMS workers, and indeed, of other responders and individuals who were affected by the [World Trade Center] disaster.”

Read More: Why 40% of Americans Misremember Their 9/11 Experience

The study, conducted by researchers for the New York Fire Department, evaluated the health of nearly 2,300 New York City Fire Department EMS workers over a 12-year period. In addition to depression and PTSD, EMS workers experienced a number of conditions that affected their physical health including 12% who experienced acid reflux disease and 3% who experienced cancer. And the earlier a medical worker responded, the greater his or her risk for medical conditions.

The study adds to a body of research that has found long-term health effects on police officers and firefighters who responded to 9/11, but it’s the first research to look specifically at EMS workers, whose primary responsibility is to provide medical care. Because of the difference between the roles of EMS workers and police officers and firefighters, EMS workers tend to be at lower risk of health conditions than EMS workers, researchers said.

The findings suggests that 9/11 responders still need to be monitored to protect their health, researchers said. The New York City Fire Department plans to do just that.

“At the Fire Department, in addition to providing treatment, we will continue our efforts to identify emerging health conditions and to identify individuals who are at high risk for developing these conditions,” said Webber.

TIME Research

Here’s Why Our Knuckles Crack

Scientists say they've finally figured out what happens when we pop our fingers

Scientists have answered the puzzling question of why our knuckles make that “pop” sound when we crack them.

A team of University of Alberta researchers had a volunteer crack his knuckles inside an MRI scanner so the researchers could figure out what was going on. They published their findings on Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers have concluded that the crack comes from a gas-filled cavity or “bubble” that forms in the fluid between the joint.

“It’s a little bit like forming a vacuum,” said lead study author Greg Kawchuk, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine in a statement. “As the joint surfaces suddenly separate, there is no more fluid available to fill the increasing joint volume, so a cavity is created and that event is what’s associated with the sound.”

MORE: You Asked: Is Cracking Your Knuckles Bad?

The study supports an original theory from the 1940s, the researchers say. But in the 1970s, other researchers believed that the sound came from a bubble collapsing in the joint instead.

But is cracking your knuckles bad for you? That little bubble appears to be benign; there’s no evidence to suggest that people who crack their knuckles are more likely to suffer from arthritis than those who don’t.

TIME Research

Can Specks of Dust Help Solve Crimes?

dust microbes dna
Getty Images

Call them the dust busters: Scientists are now able to take a sample of dust, sequence the DNA of its fungi and microbes and figure out where it came from, according to new research published in the journal PLOS ONE. The application might prove useful in solving crimes.

The researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado, Boulder, had about 1,000 people across the country swab their homes’ outer door frames and send in samples of the dust. A lab sequenced all that dust DNA—fungi, microbes and all—from every state but North Dakota. (The scientists have nothing against North Dakota. It’s just that no one from the state sent in a sample.) Our nation’s door frames are home to a mind-boggling amount of diversity; researchers identified 40,000 unique fungal taxa from the samples. A single home, by comparison, usually only harbors about 700 fungal taxa.

MORE: Your Tiny Roommates: Meet the Microbes Living In Your Home

Their goal was to glean where each fungal species tended to show up, which could be useful information in forensic investigations with this type of evidence. “We wanted to take either the presence or absence of these different species and get a smooth picture of where we expect the fungus to live,” explains Neal Grantham, one of the study’s authors and a PhD student in the department of statistics at North Carolina State University. By estimating the probability of seeing these different species at some location in the U.S., they were able to put a pin in a map of the most likely location of origin, he says. Half of their predictions got closer than 143 miles of the actual place of origin, and about five percent were within 35 miles of the dust’s doorframe.

Down the line, mapping out the microbes of dust could help with forensics and law enforcement investigations, Grantham says. “This is not the first study that shows you can use bacteria and fungi in a forensics setting. But what our work contributes is a more objective statistical way to tackle these problems,” he says.

The scientists are looking into whether the probability method might hold for other samples, like pollen. If it does, law enforcement could use a statistically sound probability instead of relying on pollen experts to divine where a sample might have originated, Grantham says.

“‘Humans are ecosystems’ is the big microbiome message,” Grantham says. Now, our doorframes might be ecosystems, too.

 

TIME Research

You Asked: Are the Honeybees Still Disappearing?

You Asked: Are Honeybees Still Disappearing?
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Beekeepers continue to grapple with historically high death rates. And now something’s up with the queens.

From almonds to cherries, dozens of food crops are partially or totally dependent on honeybee pollination. And while media attention has waned, there’s still reason to worry about the country’s smallest and most indispensable farm workers.

Bee researchers first reported massive die-offs back in the 1990s. But the plight of the honeybee didn’t truly buzz into the national consciousness until the spring of 2013, when data revealed the average beekeeper had lost 45% of her colonies the previous winter. A mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) further stoked the fires of public interest.

Jump to 2015. While last winter’s bee death data won’t be published for a few more weeks, things appear to be “status quo,” says Dr. Greg Hunt, a honeybee expert at Purdue University. Unfortunately, the status quo is grim. “We’ve been seeing about 30% loss in an average winter,” Hunt says. “The winter before last was particularly bad and got a lot of attention, but things have been bad for a while.”

Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp—a University of Maryland entomologist who helps collect and publish the winter death data each spring—says there are three “primary drivers” of honeybee loss: The varroa mite, pesticides and poor nutrition. He doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the largest threat to bees: “I’d get rid of the varroa first.”

Varroa mites, properly (and frighteningly) named Varroa destructor, likely migrated to the U.S. sometime in the 1980s. They attach to a honeybee’s body and suck its blood, which kills many bees and spreads disease to others. The varroa can jump from one colony to another, wiping out whole populations of honeybees, vanEngelsdorp explains. There are treatments that combat the varroa. But many small-scale beekeepers don’t use them. “That’s bad, because they can spread mites to neighboring colonies,” he adds.

Of the two other major bee-killers vanEngelsdorp listed, pesticides have arguably gotten the most press—especially a commonly used category called neonicotinoids. While considered safe for humans, research suggests neonicotinoids may be extremely harmful to bees and many other insects, and so have been banned in some European countries. But the amount these chemicals contribute to bee deaths and colony collapse disorder is still debated. “We don’t find levels of neonicotinoids that are indicative of widespread exposure or harm,” vanEngelsdorp says.

The third problem—poor nutrition—is likely the most confounding of the honeybee’s enemies.

“Bees need a varied diet of different pollens in order to grow into strong, healthy workers,” explains Dr. Heather Mattila, a honeybee biologist at Wellesley College. Unfortunately, a country once filled with meadows of diverse, pollen-packed wildflowers is now blanketed by crops, manicured lawns, and mown fields barren of pollen sources. “A green space can be a green desert if it doesn’t have flowering plants that are bee-friendly,” Mattila adds.

Combine a restricted diet with environmental factors like extremely cold winters and scorching summers, and stressed honeybee colonies are less able to resist the ravages of mites, pesticides, viruses and other potential causes of colony collapse disorder.

To fill nutrition gaps, beekeepers give their wares pollen supplements. Along with tactics like colony splitting, keepers can restore their bee supplies quickly during the spring and summer months. But Hunt says the cost to do this is large—and growing larger. “As long as beekeepers are willing to put more money and hard labor into it, we can come back and rebuild our colonies and numbers,” he explains. “But whether this is all sustainable is an open question.”

Mattila calls this a “Band-Aid,” not a cure. “I think we’re making the best of a tough situation,” she says. Both she and Hunt applaud companies and localities that have started letting wildflowers grow along the sides of highways or under rural power lines—places that used to be mown and sprayed with herbicide. The federal government has also taken steps to protect lands that offer honeybees (and lots of other insects) the sustenance they need. Mattila says every American can help these efforts by planting flowers and avoiding chemical treatments.

But she mentions another emerging concern when it comes to the future of America’s honeybees: The strange, abrupt deaths of many bee queens. “When I started working with bees 18 years ago, we’d replace living queens every two years,” she recalls. “Now queens die after half a summer. Nobody is really clear on why.”

The “Band-Aid” she mentioned might already be coming off.

Read next: You Asked: Do Fruit Flies Come From Inside Fruit?

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: April 14

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Have the missing Nigerian schoolgirls been trained to fight?

By Amnesty International

2. Why more roads means more traffic, not less.

By Matthew Beck and Michiel Bliemer in the Conversation

3. Let’s face it. There’s no perfect deal to be made with Iran.

By Pierre Atlas in the Indianapolis Star

4. Does more spending guarantee a better military?

By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry in the Week

5. What if we could detect some types of cancer with a simple breath test?

By Smitha Mundasad at the BBC

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Research

Relatives of Sex Offenders Are 5 Times More Likely to Commit Similar Offenses Finds Study

Genetic factors were found to increase the risk of a sex crime conviction

A new study of thousands of male sex offenders found that close relatives of people convicted of sexual offenses were up to five times more likely than average to commit similar offenses themselves.

Researchers found that about 2.5 percent of brothers and sons of convicted sex offenders are themselves convicted of sexual offenses, compared to about 0.5 percent of the wider public. The correlation, according to the study, is largely due to genetic factors rather than shared family environments.

“Importantly, this does not imply that sons or brothers of sex offenders inevitably become offenders too”, Niklas Langstrom, professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “But although sex crime convictions are relatively few overall, our study shows that the family risk increase is substantial. Preventive treatment for families at risk could possibly reduce the number of future victims.”

The study, which analyzed data on 21,566 men convicted of sex offenses in Sweden between 1973 and 2009, was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

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