There's no denying that the Internet is an amazing invention. It allows people to communicate around the world at speeds approaching real time. But this connection can be a double-edged sword. Not only are you able to interact with people you like and respect, but you can also meet people who take pleasure in disrupting the conversations and activities of others. There's a name for this kind of person: troll.
While the word troll might conjure up images of billy goats and hobbits in your mind, the Internet variety doesn't really owe its name to the monsters of fairy tales and fantasy. Originally, the Web version of a troll alluded to a fishing technique. In fishing, to troll is to pull a fishing line behind a moving boat in hopes of coaxing a fish to take the bait. Web trolling is very similar -- trolls try to lure unsuspecting victims into responding to pointless or rude questions or statements. The goal for the Web troll is to get the victim riled up as a joke. But usually the troll is the only one laughing.
The term first gained popularity on Usenet forums. Usenet is a distributed computer network organized into categories called newsgroups. Each newsgroup covers a general topic. The network is a cousin to the World Wide Web, which it predates by more than a decade. People can visit Usenet newsgroups to discuss topics and share information and files. The original Usenet trolls were people who tried to bait victims into wasting time in off topic or annoying discussions.
Today, the term troll has a broader definition. A troll can be anyone who aims to disturb communication or ruin someone else's mood or experience while online. This usually happens in online environments like forums, message boards and chat rooms. But there are subspecies of trolls that branch out into other areas. You can find trolls everywhere from YouTube comments to online video games.
Not all trolls are created equal. While some trolls find it amusing to wind up another person until that person has a meltdown, others may not even realize that their behavior is disruptive. Sometimes, people are simply rude and aggressive without trying to behave like a troll -- particularly if they disagree with the subject of a conversation. You may have even behaved like a troll unintentionally. But if you learn about the strategies trolls use to cause trouble, you can avoid being a troll yourself. There are ways to express yourself that won't lead to other people accusing you of being a troll.
Let's begin by looking at the different kinds of trolls you might encounter on the Internet.
What is an Internet Troll?
Just as it's common for people to call any kind of malware a computer virus, it's not unusual for people to call any kind of disruptive person online a troll. Here are a few of the broad categories trolls might fit in:
- The breed that started it all is the Usenet troll. Usenet trolls use several different strategies to disrupt discussions online. One common tactic is to cross post the same message into several newsgroups. This helps increase the likelihood that the troll will get a "bite" from an unsuspecting victim. By posting off-topic messages into multiple groups, the troll has a higher chance of annoying someone.
- Many trolls find it amusing to pose as new members of forums or chat rooms -- also known as newbies -- and ask clueless questions until the discussion collapses as a result. These trolls often attempt to present themselves in a sympathetic light. The goal here is to encourage others to start flinging insults. The troll can then point to the other person and accuse him or her of being unfair or mean while maintaining the role of innocent victim.
- Some trolls don't use subtlety at all and go straight for insults. These trolls are easy to spot, as they come right out of the gate with inflammatory language. For example, a troll visiting a message board about Star Wars might create a thread that says "Star Trek Rocks! Star Wars Bites!" The goal isn't to actually start a debate or conversation -- instead the troll just wants to encourage Star Wars fans to lose their tempers and post angry messages.
- Sneaky trolls will sometimes pose as people who are genuinely interested in the topic before posting a message that undermines the discussion. This is common in political forums -- a person with opposing views might pretend to be sympathetic to other members in the community while simultaneously posting messages and threads that criticize their point of view. For example, the troll might say, "I really like Politician X, but do you think she's really strong on domestic policy?" The goal of this troll is to foment doubt within the community at large. Trolls who pose under a false identity are also known as sock puppets.
- Colluding trolls are people who work together to create chaos. One member might use classic trolling tactics while the others pose as normal members of the online community. These trolls in disguise can publicly defend the obvious troll and claim that the troll is really trying to add to the discussion. Another tactic is to pit one online community against another. Trolls do this by posting messages within one community while posing as members of the other one and vice versa. The goal here is to cause an all-out online war between two victimized communities.
- Griefers are a very specific kind of troll. A griefer is someone who finds it amusing to log into online games and ruin the experience of other gamers. There's a host of strategies griefers use to do this: Insults, team killing and cheating are common methods. Griefers are more concerned with being a nuisance than playing the game.
Trolls are troublesome and distracting -- that's their very goal. But it might surprise you to find out there are communities that allow and even welcome trolls to participate. Find out more in the next section.
Internet Troll Clubs
In "Star Wars: A New Hope," Obi-Wan Kenobi described the spaceport of Mos Eisley as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy." Many people might say the same thing about troll communities and forums. Within these communities, anything goes. It's very difficult to hold a discussion on any subject that actually has merit. Any attempt to do so will likely be sidetracked as the thread fills up with crude jokes, insults and pornographic images.
Normal online communities usually have a team of administrators or moderators who try to keep the peace and make sure the community runs smoothly. These officials sometimes ban trolls if they prove to be disruptive. Troll communities rarely ban members -- in fact, several of them explicitly welcome people who have been banned by other communities. Often, the community leaders claim that they value free speech too much to censor members or ban people.
What goes on in these communities? In general, many of them have forums filled with jokes, pornography and discussions about trolling activities. Trolls will brag about their exploits, linking to message board discussions that dissolved into flame wars. Sometimes trolls will cause such a fuss that the entire community shuts down as a result. Some trolls compete with one another to see how long it takes before an administrator bans the troll from a specific community. The winner might be the troll who remained part of a community the longest or it might be the person who went from registration to banned in the least amount of time.
Trolls also use these communities to discuss the sites from which they were banned. Usually the discussion is little more than a series of accusations and insults directed at the community that banned the troll in the first place. They may also use the community to organize concentrated trollish attacks on another site.
While there are online communities built and run by trolls, there are a few message boards and forums that tolerate trolls but aren't designed as a troll community. One of these is 4chan. The 4chan site is an image-based online bulletin board. Today, the main focus of 4chan is on Japanese culture and animation, though there are other sections as well. When 4chan began, it started as a general message board on which members could post anything (other than child pornography). That policy still holds true for 4chan's most popular channel, the Random (or /b/) channel.
Activity on the Random channel is unpredictable. Many posts contain vulgar language or images of pornography or violence. Contributors are anonymous, which means there is no sense of accountability within the forum. There's no need to create a login handle or register -- you can visit the channel and post whatever you like. As a result, trollish behavior runs rampant on the channel.
Trollish activities sometimes extend beyond the realm of the Internet. We'll look at some real world controversies caused by trolls in the next section.
Famous Internet Trolls
The 4chan /b/ channel has spawned a growing activist group called Anonymous. The self-proclaimed purpose of Anonymous is to bring to light certain alleged practices of the Church of Scientology. Anonymous claims that Scientology uses manipulative and harmful tactics to recruit new members and suppress information about the organization. Anonymous' activities have gone beyond the online world -- they have held several protests in cities around the globe. Whenever it's legal to do so, many of the protestors wear masks or bandanas to keep their identities secret.
Some people within Anonymous use trollish tactics to bait Scientologists. But in general, the members of Anonymous say they don't want to engage in that type of behavior to achieve their goals. From the perspective of the Church of Scientology, Anonymous is a network of religious bigots that uses the same tactics as terrorists [source: The St. Petersburg Times].
Anonymous itself has been the victim of trolls. Because it has no centralized leadership, there's no official voice for the organization. Trolls have uploaded videos and blog posts in the name of Anonymous that don't represent the group's philosophy. Some in Anonymous claim that Scientologists are behind some of the messages. Accusations from one group follow accusations from the other and it becomes impossible to sort out who did what to whom.
Some trolls have used Craigslist, an online classified service, to pull pranks that cross well into criminal activity. In one case in Washington and another in Oregon, people posted fake ads on Craigslist about someone else's home and property. In both cases, the ad said that the owner of the house was getting rid of everything and that people were welcome to take whatever they liked. The result was grim -- the owners returned to their homes to discover their belongings gone and their property damaged.
Investigators caught the responsible parties in both cases. The Washington incident appears to have been the result of a family feud -- the niece of the homeowner admitted to posting the ad [source: TG Daily]. In Oregon, police arrested Amber and Brandon Herbert, suspecting them of posting the ad. Later, Amber admitted to posting the fake ad to cover up an earlier theft of three saddles from the man's property [source: KGW News].
In another Craigslist incident, Jason Fortuny posted a fake personal ad that caused a big stir online. He posed as a woman seeking a male companion. He received more than 100 responses and posted them on a blog, complete with photos, e-mail addresses and other information [source: The New York Times].
Sometimes trolls are also hackers. Not all hackers are cut from the same cloth. Some use their programming knowledge to probe code and programs to see how they work. They might create their own applications based on the work of others, or modify code so that a program does something new. Others look at code and search for vulnerabilities and opportunities. These are the hackers who infiltrate networks and snoop around. Then there are the crackers, the people who not only infiltrate systems, but actively try to steal information or sabotage the code.
There's also a wide range of skill among hackers. Some hackers are accomplished programmers who can whip up an application in a few days. Others aren't really programmers at all -- they prefer to use established programs to cause mischief. In hacker culture, these people are known as script kiddies. It doesn't take much skill to use a program that infects computers with a virus. But it can affect a lot of people. That kind of return on investment appeals to some trolls.
Next, we'll take a look at the secret to dealing with trolls.
Internet Troll Help
The first step to dealing with trolls is learning how to recognize them. The following traits are clues:
- Does the person ask the same questions worded in different ways? Does the person ignore suggestions or responses from other members of the community? If the community has a frequently asked question (FAQ) section, does the person seemingly refuse to read it?
- Has the person posted inflammatory remarks that have no real substance to them?
- Does he or she make it a habit to post messages that include insults and vulgar language?
- Does he or she respond to other members in a purely negative, critical way?
- Does the person post messages that are generally off-topic? Does he or she seem to want only attention rather than discuss the topic at hand?
- Does the person resurrect old conversations or discussions that were once controversial within the community? Some trolls enjoy bringing back old arguments to encourage dissent within a group.
- When confronted with a counter argument, does the person in question change tactics rather than answer the points made by another member? Does the person employ logical fallacies within their posts?
If the answer to these questions is yes, there's a good chance you're dealing with a troll. Whether the member is consciously trying to troll the community or not is another matter. There are times when even respected members of an online community might behave like a troll. But if it's a new member who is very active and displays these qualities, you've probably got a real troll on your hands.
What do you do? If you're simply a member of the community, the best advice is to ignore the troll. The troll's goal is to disrupt the community and rile up its members. By ignoring the troll, you deny him or her a victory. There's a common phrase that dates back to the early days of Usenet: Don't feed the trolls. Trolls love attention -- depriving them of it usually means they'll lose interest and move on to a different community.
If you're the administrator of an online community, you have a few other options. One option is to ban the user from the community. Sometimes this is the goal for the troll all along. But that shouldn't concern you -- you need to focus on your community and its legitimate members.
If you think the troll isn't necessarily trying to cause strife within your community on purpose, you can try a different tactic. Pay the troll a compliment, thanking him or her for participating in your community. Ask the troll to participate in discussions and present his or her points. If the troll really is trying to cause a problem, this is the opposite reaction he or she wants. On the other hand, if the person isn't trying to be a troll at all, he or she may become a valuable member of the community.
The important thing to remember is to remain calm and civil. If you lose your temper, the troll wins. You become the butt of the troll's joke. Some trolls won't let it rest there -- they'll go to other communities and spread word of how they managed to push your buttons and make you blow your top. Don't give them the satisfaction.
So why would anyone behave like this in the first place? We'll look into that in the next section.
Reasons for Trolling
Some people troll others as part of a personal vendetta. This is also known as cyberbullying. The troll might taunt the victim in various online communities, use the victim's e-mail address to sign up for spam e-mails or even impersonate the victim in order to discredit him or her. In extreme cases like the family feud in Washington, the troll might post information online that leads to direct physical consequences.
Other trolls want to promote their own agendas by undermining an online community. The clearest example of this is on a political forum. A troll might use manipulative tricks to sabotage a legitimate discussion or to discourage community members from supporting a specific political figure.
But the trolls that seem to be the most puzzling are those who have no personal agenda or vendetta against anyone. For them, trolling is an end unto itself. The goal is just to frustrate people and to build the troll's reputation as a troublemaker. Or could there be more?
Mattathias Schwartz of The New York Times interviewed several trolls, including the infamous Jason Fortuny. The trolls offered various reasons for trolling beyond just a desire to victimize people online. Some claimed they wanted to teach people a lesson about how harsh the online world can be. In other words, they felt it was for the victims' own good. Others tried to justify their actions by pointing out how rough their own lives had been in the past [source: Schwartz].
The very nature of the Internet might contribute to trollish behavior. The Internet gives people the opportunity to remain anonymous. That means the average user has very little sense of accountability while online. It's easy to forget (or ignore) the fact that on the other end of the connection is a real human being with real feelings.
Trolls sometimes make fun of their own motives. In the Encyclopedia Dramatica, a very popular wiki in troll culture, there's an entry that claims that the American Psychiatric Association will include "Internet troll personality disorder" in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The entry then goes on to list the "diagnostic criteria" for the disorder -- many of which paint trolls in a positive light.
Elsewhere on the Web is what appears to be a scholarly paper written by an "Amy Dhala" about a supposed focus group study of trolls. But while much of the paper contains language that on the surface appears legitimate, there are entire sections that drop the scholarly voice completely. It becomes clear by the end of the paper that the entire work is a piece of fiction -- written by a troll.
The very nature of trolls makes them difficult to peg down. When are they being deceptive? Do they believe they are online vigilantes and guardian angels, or are they selfishly exploiting others for their own enjoyment? How many are teenagers or younger? It's impossible to know for sure, though that doesn't stop people from making guesses and generalizations.
In the end, it's probably just best to avoid engaging with trolls altogether. It'll save you a lot of frustration and wasted time. And it annoys the heck out of the trolls.
To learn more about trolls and other topics, lurch over to the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Cheung, Humphrey. "Woman pleads guilty to fake Craigslist ad." TG Daily. Oct. 16, 2007. (Oct. 6, 2008) http://www.tgdaily.com/content/view/34395/118/
- Collins, Mauri. "Flaming: The Relationship Between Social Context Cues and Uninhibited Verbal Behavior in Computer-mediated Communication." Pennsylvania State University. Fall, 1992. (Oct. 7, 2008) http://www.emoderators.com/papers/flames.html
- Dare to Dream. "Web Trolls: The Circular Logic of Victim/Victimization." Aug. 10, 2008. (Oct. 7, 2008) http://www.dare-to-dream.us/archives/2008/08/malwebolence_the_world_of_web_trolling.php
- Encyclopedia Dramatica. "Internet troll personality disorder." (Oct. 7, 2008) http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Internet_troll_personality_disorder
- Hamper, Cappy. "The alt.troll FAQ." Google Groups. Jan. 16, 1999. (Oct. 7, 2008) http://groups.google.com/group/alt.troll/msg/bc2e71e19c590d8e?pli=1
- Hitchcock, J.A. "Net Crimes & Misdemeanors." Information Today, Inc. Medford, New Jersey. 2003.
- Hollis, Ken. "Dealing with Trolls Crossposting and Flames Rev 20050130." Alt.syntax.tactical. Archived Jan. 30, 2005. (Oct 7, 2008) http://faqs.cs.uu.nl/na-dir/net-abuse-faq/troll-faq.html
- Johnson, Bobbie. "Why you're more troll than you think." The Guardian. Sept. 29, 2008. (Oct. 7, 2008) http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2008/sep/29/internet
- KGW News. "Wife confesses, husband cleared in cruel Craigslist hoax." Sept. 11, 2008. (Oct. 8, 2008) http://www.kgw.com/news-local/stories/kgw_040108_news_craigslist_hoax_arrest.1fa31526.html
- Lee, Louanne. "Anonymous vs. Scientology: What is trolling?" Nolan Chart. Sept. 11, 2008. (Oct 6, 2008) http://www.nolanchart.com/article4827.html
- The St. Petersburg Times. "Church of Scientology responds to protest plans." Feb. 7, 2008 (Oct. 13, 2008) http://www.sptimes.com/2008/02/07/Southpinellas/Church_of_Scientology.shtml
- Schwartz, Mattathias. "The Trolls Among Us." The New York Times. Aug. 3, 2008. (Oct. 6, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html
- Singel, Ryan. "Police Arrest Unsavvy Couple in Fake Craigslist Ad Case." Wired. April 1, 2008. (Oct. 8, 2008) http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/04/police-arrest-u.html
- Ubuntu Forums. "The definitive guide to Trolls." Thread originated on May 19, 2006. (Oct. 6, 2008) http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?p=1032102
- Urban75. "Trolling the Web." (Oct. 7, 2008) http://www.urban75.com/Mag/troll.html