THINK you'd never stoop to viciously trolling someone online when you disagree with their opinion or actions?
Don't kid yourself.
We are all increasingly at risk of this cowardly and despicable behaviour.
Looking at the comments on a Courier-Mail report this week, when gay men were legally and elatedly tying the knot, there was a familiar refrain of disrespect and disdain.
"Congratulations persons. I hope your union is blessed with many children and grandchildren," quipped one smug reader.
"Are these men? How pathetically sad," opined another.
"Once empowered it will never stop for these show ponies," chimed in someone else.
The most measured comment was this: "Some people will never agree with SSM (same sex marriage). It's a case of agree to disagree."
If only this would play out in an environment of mutual respect where there is an appreciation of that fact that people are entitled to their own opinion.
Sadly, what online forums have done with startling success is open up the floodgates for grubs and bigots.
These trolls are not, contrary to what most of us think, merely miserable keyboard warriors whose mission is to take others down.
They are not only people who, to quote the Urban Dictionary, are "being pricks on the internet because they can".
New research shows trolls are not fringe dwellers. Anyone can join this toxic club, and membership is growing.
Stanford University and Cornell University academics conclude that "ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, behave like trolls".
Through an online experiment and analysis of more than 16 million posts on news site CNN.com, they isolate two primary triggers for trolling - a person's negative mood, and seeing other troll posts.
Lead author Jure Leskovec, associate professor of computer science at Stanford, identifies "a spiral of negativity".
He says just one person waking up cranky can create a spark, and because of the discussion context and number of votes or likes, these sparks can spiral into cascades of poor behaviour.
We are shocked and distressed to hear of the passing of “Dolly” - the young girl many of you will recognise from our past Christmas adverts. This beautiful photo was taken 8 years ago. Dolly chose to end her life to escape the bullying she was being subjected to. She was not even 15 years old. To think that anyone could feel so overwhelmed and that suicide was their only option is unfathomable. Bullying of any kind is unacceptable. It is abuse and it is time for us to stand up when we see any kind of bullying behaviour. Dolly could be anyone’s daughter, sister, friend. We need to make sure that anyone in crisis knows there is always someone to talk to. Be a friend, check up on your mates. Our hearts go out to Dolly’s family and friends. Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett 1.5.2003-3.1.2018 #stopbullyingnow #doitfordolly #justbekind
Bad conversations lead to more bad conversations, with people who get voted down coming back with even more horrendous comments.
What a pathetic, anti-social and unevolved way to carry on.
The study suggests "trolling can be contagious", which is particularly worrisome. When something becomes accepted as the norm, it encourages more people to perpetuate it.
Cue the rise of the sociopath.
It doesn't have to be this way.
We just need more competent and socially responsible users so that precious lives aren't compromised or destroyed.
Remember Tyrone Unsworth, the 13-year-old Queenslander who suicided in 2016 after relentless bullying over his sexuality?
Trolls persisted even after the boy's death, creating fake social media accounts in his name and mocking him and his grieving family.
Celebrities too are victims. In 2014, former Australia's Next Top Model judge Charlotte Dawson was reportedly "trolled to death".
This has to stop.
And the end begins with us.
Anyone who comments online has a responsibility to act with decency and consideration of the consequences.
It can be as simple as taking a moment and putting yourself on the receiving end and seeing how you'd feel.
Calling someone a "dumb c---" or suggesting they "f--- off and die" is hardly constructive or kind.
Now that we know "ordinary" users are capable of trolling given the right environment, then banning the worst offenders won't fix the problem.
We need to create an improved online culture for all, and discussion platforms should be redesigned to encourage this.
The Stanford and Cornell researchers suggest limiting the number of comments a person can make if he or she has just participated in a heated debate; allowing users to retract comments and minimise regret; and reducing other sources of user frustration such as poor interface design.
Altering the context of a discussion - by hiding troll comments and prioritising positive comments - may also promote the perception of civility and encourage more thoughtful behaviour.
Existing regulations governing Facebook give it 48 hours to delete content deemed to be offensive. Facebook reckons this is adequate. Politicians and police disagree, and I'm with them. Two days of offensive content is two days too long.
When it is painfully obvious that self-regulation isn't working, and that thinking before venting is considered old hat, then stronger action must be taken to stamp out trolling.
Kylie Lang is an associate editor of The Courier-Mail
If you are experiencing depression or are suicidal, or know someone who is, help is available.
Lifeline: 13 11 44
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