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Are Anonymous Users Really the Worst Trolls?

A new study of Wikipedia shows a small group of users are responsible for most personal attacks on the site. Photo: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Wikipedia’s greatest appeal, and its greatest danger, is that anybody with access to the internet can make edits. This means you get both the knowledge base of the masses (great) and the opportunity for those masses to lie, troll, and cyberbully each other (less great). That freedom makes it a good place to study trolling and online toxicity, and to discover some surprising new ideas about how the internet works. A new study from Jigsaw (an Alphabet-owned tech incubator) and the Wikimedia Foundation shows that the bulk of personal attacks came from a select group of registered users, rather than from totally anonymous users.

Using data from 100,000 Wikipedia comments made over nine years from 2004 to 2015, Jigsaw found that “approximately 30% of attacks come from registered users with over a 100 contributions.” A personal attack, as the name implies, is a comment directed at a specific person or party, like “you suck,” or “Bob sucks,” or even “Bob says Henri sucks.” (Though, if all these types of comments entailed were a lot of people who “sucked,” personal attacks probably wouldn’t be an issue for study.) While you might think anonymity would be a root cause for harassment online, the study found that “while anonymous contributions are much more likely to be an attack, overall they contribute less than half of attacks.” Statistically, “much more likely” translated to six times more likely [to be an attack].

Unfortunately, the study also found that attacking comments often inspire other attacking comments from different users; an attacking comment is 22 times more likely to appear near another attacking comment. “These results suggest the problems associated with personal attacks do not have an easy solution,” the study concludes, recommending that further study and more stringent moderation could help the problem. A nonsolution which, if you’re a person who has spent any time online, should leave you nodding your head up and down and mumbling, “of course.”

Study Finds Many Wikipedia Attacks Aren’t Anonymous