Internet troll

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On the Internet, a troll is a message that seems to at least one user to be inaccurate, inflammatory or hostile, and which by effect or design causes disruption in discourse. The word is also often used to describe a person who posts such messages.


Political view

Some authorities consider the term "troll", when used to label a person, as being roughly equivalent to "riff-raff" or "scum" or some other term that dismisses a person as being unworthy of being heard for reasons that are not directly stated.

Many - perhaps most - people labelled "trolls" are simply being called a name by someone else in the course of a religious, political or other ordinary type of dispute. In other words they are simply a dissident or heretic, no better or worse than the person they argue with. To characterize systems administrators or moderators as "the troll who got there first" has some truth: many debates between those with and without administrative or legal powers seem simply to resemble a heated personal argument. On the Internet in particular, the holding of technological powers (such as the power to ban users or block IP addresses) is not necessarily a sign of any superior political or moral judgement.

As with similar pejorative labels, a group of people who are assigned the label can turn it around to create group identity and the power to collectively resist: individual outsiders using the label on someone become targets for a collective response. Insiders may use the label without consequence, usually in a joking or disarming way. For instance:

Self-proclaimed "trolls" may style themselves as devil's advocates, gadflies or "culture jammers," challenging the dominant discourse and assumptions of forum discussions in an attempt to break the status quo of groupthink - the belief system that prevails in their absence.

Critics have claimed that genuine "devil's advocates" generally identify themselves as such out of respect for etiquette and courtesy, while trolls may dismiss etiquette and courtesy altogether.

Use as pejorative

As a pejorative, the term "troll" is very often a slander of opponents in heated debates. People who identify as trolls and those who strongly deny that they are trolls will both use the term, often making it obvious to all neutral third parties that both participants are, in fact, trolls: one who admits it, and one who does not. Accordingly the view has arisen in some circles that trolls, the plural, is a valid term, but that it is not valid to refer to someone as an Internet troll on their own. In other words, it takes two to troll, and once they do, they're two trolls.

It could also have originated from the phrase "don't feed the troll" as giving them ammunition by replying to their posts often in fact made them stronger and perpetuated the argument.

Vicious cycles

Many times a person will post a sincere message that they are emotionally sensitive about. Skillful trolls know that the easiest way to upset them is to claim falsely that the person is a troll. On other occasions, a person may not instantly understand or fit into the social norms of a forum where most people are the same - so acting just slightly out of social norms, often unintentionally, for legitimate reasons gets the poster called a troll. Whether they actually "are" a troll depends wholly on whether one takes the political view of trolling, in which motives are not considered.

Sometimes people who are just attempting to be funny are accused of trolling, when that is not their intent. Many trolls now find that the traditional trolling tactics are so overused and commonplace that they have to disguise their trolling to make it effective - although, quite often, the disguising merely involves accusing others of being trolls themselves.

Troll culture

The long history of trolling and the strong support for anonymous and pseudonymous discourse on the Internet, suggests that the story of the anonymous troll is only beginning. Whether there can be a "culture" consisting of people who do not know each other except through a common experience of being bounced from Internet forums, is questionable, but, some do claim it is possible and already occurring.

There is strong evidence for this in the existence of forums that claim to exist specifically to support trolls and trolling, to exchange troll tips, and to identify targets that other trolls might fruitfully bait or debate.

This culture seems to have gone beyond the vague Scandinavian mythological identification and included some elements of Celtic culture, including a sort of status for the more effective poets and rhetoricians among them. The Wikipedia red faction was a notable group of this sort, employing largely Marxist rhetoric. The Anarchopedia similarly employs some anarchist rhetoric and seems to actively encourage self-identification and factional expression among trolls. To a lesser degree so has Consumerium.


Calling someone a troll makes assumptions about a writer's motives that are impossible to determine, whereas using the verb (calling a post "trolling") describes the reception of a post without making assumptions about motives. Such assumptions would generally be an example of the fundamental attribution error; i.e. inferring that behaviour results from a person's nature or personality rather than examining behaviour in the context of events surrounding the behaviour. In other words, trolling may have more to do with context than with personality. Also, it may be possible to troll unintentionally. Regardless, both users and posts are commonly labelled as trolls when their content upsets people.

The term troll is highly subjective, and some posts will look like trolling to some while seeming like meaningful contributions to others. For example, a so-called troll may be playing Devil's advocate by stating conservative opinions in a liberal forum. Behaviour which might be considered a simple rampage or an emotional outburst in other environments is often tagged with the term troll in Internet discussion.

The term is frequently used to discredit an opposing position in an argument. This can amount to an ad hominem argument; a purported troll of this nature may actually hold an insightful but controversial position that is generating controversy precisely because it has successfully challenged entrenched opinions.

Possible reasons people use more slang monikers in Internet-mediated discussion include the feeling of anonymity and impersonal perceptions of other conversants.

Regardless of the writer's motives, controversial posts are virtually guaranteed, in most online forums, to earn a corrective or patronizing or outraged response by those who do not distinguish between real physical community where people are actually exposed to some shared risk of bodily harm by their actions, and epistemic community based on a mere exchange of words and ideas. Customs of discourse, or etiquette, that originated in such physical communities are often applied naively by newcomers to the Internet who are not used to the range of views expressed online, especially anonymously.

Troll food refers to replies to the original controversial troll posts, that the trolls subsequently use as feedback to throw more fuel to the fire of their posts.

"Please do not feed the Trolls" is a warning sign that other article readers post to warn newbies that they believe the original poster is a troll.

Trolling in different Internet media

Trolling takes distinct forms in different media; it started on newsgroups, and as the Internet has evolved, so has trolling.

  • Usenet — hierarchies of newsgroups limit trolls' exposure, but crossposting can overcome this. Some Internet Service Providers implement limits on the number of newsgroups a message can be crossposted to. In one notable example, instituted a crosspost limit after the trolls on the system had become so notorious that Peter da Silva] instituted a campaign for other systems to cease exchanging news with until they did something about the problem.
  • Mailing lists — usually controlled by moderators, so unwanted contributors can quickly be banned.
  • Wikis — the flat, asynchronous and open model allows anyone to post anything; users work to undo negative changes using the built-in reversion tools, but this requires hundreds of volunteers to monitor large popular sites. Trolls tend to be more subtle than in discussion groups, often posting material that could be legitimate, but will cause controversy by challenging the current power structure. Difficulty is compounded by the impossibility of discerning whether a user is simply espousing a controversial opinion, or trolling. Sometimes wikis get vandalized.
  • Weblogs — in their most common form as a personal soapbox with the ability for anybody to leave comments, popular weblogs often make effective springboards for trolls, either as inflammatory comments or provocative entries. The ease with which weblogs can be linked encourages troll propagation.
  • IRC — the open nature of most IRC channels on popular networks enables any potential troll to enter and utilise any of a range of techniques, ranging from simple crapflooding to subtly irritating remarks to garner angry responses. The relative ease of evading bans from channels and servers and the volatile nature of many IRC users can allow trolls to perpetuate indefinitely.
  • Multiplayer first person shooters — online gaming attracts a large number of teenage males, who take advantage of the combative atmosphere and their general anonymity to disparage other players.
  • Online Fantasy Sports — A troll will infiltrate a free, online league with multiple teams from different identity accounts and then attempt to make lopsided trades of players to improve one team. The troll will leave numerous messages on the league bulletin board from different identities to give the appearance of legitimacy to otherwise illicit behaviour. Players that object to the obvious complicity are usually showered with insults and other attempts at evasion.
  • Forums — Forums of all kinds will attract trolls. Their behaviour does not differ much from the above examples. There is no forum free of trolls. This could be seen as the unique factor in forum trolling: a forum about knitting has the same chance at getting trolled as a forum dedicated to a new sports car.

Resolutions and alternatives

In general, popular wisdom advises users to avoid feeding trolls, and to ignore temptations to respond. Responding to a troll inevitably drives discussion off-topic, to the dismay of bystanders, and supplies the troll with the craved attention. When trollhunters pounce on the trolls, ignorers reply with: "YHBT. YHL. HAND.", or "You have been trolled. You have lost. Have a nice day." However, since trollhunters (like trolls) are often conflict-seekers themselves, the loss usually is not on the part of the trollhunter; rather, the losers are the other forum-users who would have preferred that the conflict not emerge at all.

See Also

External links

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