Internet troll

From Academic Kids

In the context of the Internet, a troll is a person who makes inflammatory or hostile comments, which by effect or design cause disruptions in discourse, or a post made by such a person. Trolling can be described as a breaching experiment, which, because of the use of an alternate persona, allows for normal social boundaries and rules of etiquette to be tested or otherwise broken, without serious consequences.

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. 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.

The contemporary use of the term first appeared on Usenet groups in the early 1990s. It is widely thought to be a diminutive of the phrase "trolling for suckers," itself derived from the sports-fishing technique of trolling.

The word likely gained currency because of its conveniently apt second meaning, drawn from the "trolls" portrayed in Scandinavian folklore and children's tales, which are often ugly, obnoxious creatures bent on wickedness and mischief.

As a pejorative, the term "troll" may also be a slander of opponents in heated debates, a tactic often used by trolls and non-trolls. Many times a person will post a sincere message that they are emotionally sensitive about and trolls know that the easiest way to upset them is to falsely claim that they are 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 - and so acting just slightly out of social norms, often unintentionally, for legitimate reasons gets the poster falsely called a troll. Sometimes when a person just wants to be funny, they 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 falsely accusing others of being trolls themselves.


Research and study: trolling as identity deception


Prior to DejaNews' archiving of Usenet, accounts of trolling were sketchy, there being little evidence to sort through. After that time, however, the huge archives were available for researchers. Perhaps the earliest known—although poorly documented—case is the 1982–1983 saga of AlexAndJoan from the CompuServe forums. Van Gelder, a reporter for Ms. magazine, documented the incident in 1996 in an article for his publication. Alex (in real life a 50+ shy psychiatrist from New York) pretended to be a highly bombastic, anti-religious, post-car-accident, wheelchair-bound, mute woman named Joan "in order to better relate to his female patients". This went on for two years and "Joan" had become a hugely detailed character with an array of emotional relationships. These began to fall apart only after "Joan" coaxed an online friend of hers into an affair with Alex.

"Even those who barely knew Joan felt implicated—and somehow betrayed—by Alex's deception. Many of us on-line like to believe that we're a utopian community of the future, and Alex's experiment proved to us all that technology is no shield against deceit. We lost our innocence, if not our faith." (Van Gelder, 1996, p.534)

Trolling in the 1990s

One early reference to "troll" found in the Google Usenet archive was by user "Mark Miller," directed toward the user "Tad" on Feb. 8, 1990. [1] ( However, it is unclear if this instance represents a usage of "troll" as it is known today, or if it was simply a chance choice of epithet:

"You are so far beyond being able to understand anything anyone here says that this is just converging on uselessness. The really sad part is that you really believe that you're winning. You are a shocking waste of natural resources - kindly re-integrate yourself into the mindless flatulent troll."

The more likely derivation can be found in the phrase "trolling for newbies," popularized in the early 1990s in the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban. The usage was somewhat different from the current notion of trolling; it was a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone only a new user would respond to them earnestly. Others expanded the term to include the practice of playing a seriously misinformed or deluded user, even in newsgroups where one was not a regular; these were often attempts at humor rather than provocation. In such contexts, the noun "troll" usually referred to an act of trolling rather than to the author.

Some longtime Usenet users continued to insist on these earlier definitions even after the term was applied more generally to inflammatory actions previously characterized as "flamebait".

In serious literature the practice was first documented by Judith Donath (1999), who used several anecdotal examples from various Usenet newsgroups in her discussion. Donath's paper outlines the ambiguousness of identity in a disembodied "virtual community" [2] (

"In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. ... The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter."

Donath provides a concise overview of identity deception games which trade on the confusion between physical and epistemic community:

"Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings and, upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they—and the troll—understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll's enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.
Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling—where the rate of deception is high—many honestly nave questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one's online reputation." (Donath, 1999, p. 45)[3] (


Please do not feed the troll
Please do not feed the troll

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 behavior results from a person's nature or personality rather than examining behavior in the context of events surrounding the behavior. 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. Behavior 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.
  • SlashCode-based forums use a rating system so that readers can moderate a post up or down from its initial rating. Readers can then choose to ignore posts that others have "modded down." Timing of trolls is particularly important, since earlier posts are more likely to be read than later posts. An ideal troll would generate much heated discussion and posting without further intervention from the troll.
  • 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. See pwn for more information. Team killing and griefing -- breaking the social rules of the game to harass other players -- can also be considered similar.
  • 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 behavior. 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 behavior 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.


Common types of troll messages or activities:

  • off topic messages — "Can anyone help me make a webpage?" "No, this is a music forum."
  • inflammatory messages — "You are an idiot for including this type of message in your list."
  • messages containing an obvious flaw or error — "I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is Roman Polanski's best movie."
  • intentionally nave or politically contentious messages — "I think George W. Bush is the best/worst President ever."
  • intentionally posting an outrageous argument deliberately constructed around a fundamental but obfuscated flaw or error; often the poster will become defensive when the argument is refuted but may instead continue the thread through the use of further flawed arguments; this is referred to as "feeding" the troll.
    • a subclass of the above is the flawed proof of an important unsolved mathematical problem or impossibility (e.g. 1 = 2); these are not always troll-posts and are usually at least mathematically interesting.
  • including offensive media such as annoying sound files or disturbing pictures in a message, or linking to shock sites that contain such media. Often these links are disguised as legitimate links.
  • after a flamewar ensues, pretending to be innocent
  • posting plot spoilers to popular movies and books without warning, sometimes surreptitiously buried in an otherwise innocuous message
  • posting politically sensitive images in inappropriate places
  • off-topic complaints about personal life; sometimes this is the "cry for help" troll.
  • deliberate and repeated misspelling of other people's nicks in order to disturb or irritate them in a conversation.
  • plural or paranoid answers to personal opinions expressed by individuals — "I don't believe that all of you really believe that, you are teaming against me."
  • insulting people for bad grammar, which can be a highly sensitive topic; obvious overuse of bad grammar, or AIM-speak; or even insulting people for bad grammar while employing bad grammar, for an "ironic" effect that can often call people to call them out on their hypocrisy.
  • any combination of the above. For example a troll will combine inflammatory statements with poor grammar and AIM-speak. "lmfao you foctard u are so weak minded and predictablei thought i wan iggied i play ya like a card"

Other examples

Some trolls may denounce a particular religion in a religion newsgroup — though historically, this would have been called "flamebait". Like those who engage in flaming, self-proclaimed or alleged Internet trolls sometimes resort to innuendo or misdirection in the pursuit of their objectives.

A variant of the second variety (inflammatory messages) involves posting content obviously severely contradictory to the (stated or unstated) focus of the group or forum- for example, posting cat meat recipes on a pet lovers forum, posting evolutionary theory on a creationist forum (or vice versa), or posting messages about how all dragons are boring in the USENET group

Cross posting is a popular method of choice by Usenet trolls: a cross-posted article can be discussed simultaneously in several unrelated and/or opposing newsgroups; this is likely to result in a flame war. For instance, an anti-fast food flame bait might be cross posted to healthy eating groups, environmentalist groups, animal rights groups, as well as a totally off-topic artificial intelligence newsgroup.

An example of a successful troll is the well-known "Oh how I envy American students" USENET thread which got 3000+ followups.


Most discussion of what motivates Internet trolls comes from other Internet users who claim to have observed trolling behavior. There is little scholarly literature to describe either the term or the phenomenon. The comments of accused trolls might be unreliable, since they may in fact be intending to stir controversy rather than to advance understanding of the phenomenon. Likewise, accusers are often motivated by a desire to defend a particular Internet project and references to an Internet user as a troll might not be based on the actual goals of the person so named. As a result, identifying the goals of Internet trolls is most often speculative. Still, several basic goals have been attributed to Internet trolls, according to the type of disruption they are believed to be provoking.

Proposed motivations for trolling:

  • Self-proclaimed trolls and their defenders suggest that trolling is a clever way of improving discussion, or an alternative method of viewing power relations on large public wikis.
  • Anonymous attention-seeking: The troll seeks to dominate the thread by inciting anger, and effectively hijacking the topic at hand.
  • Cry for help: Many so-called trolls, in their postings, indicate disturbing situations regarding family, relationships, substances, and school--although it is impossible to know whether this is just simply part of the troll. Some believe that trolling is an aggressive, confrontational way by which trolls seek a sort of tough love guidance in an anonymous forum.
  • Effect change in user opinions: A troll may state extreme positions to make his or her actual beliefs seem moderate (This often involves sock puppeteering, where the bad cop is a sock-puppet troll.) or, alternatively, play the role of Devil's advocate to strengthen opposing convictions [with which he or she usually actually agrees].
  • Test the integrity of a system against social attacks or other forms of misbehavior: For example, blatantly violating terms-of-use in order to see whether any action is taken by the site administrators.
  • Amusement: To some people, the thought of a person getting angry over statements from total strangers is entertaining.
  • Wasting others' time: One of the greatest themes in trolling is the idea that you can spend one minute of your time posting a troll, causing 10 other people to waste ten minutes of their time, more or catalytically affecting lots of other people. Most trolls enjoy the idea that they wasted others time at comparatively little effort on their behalf.
  • Domino effect: Related to amusement, but a more specific fashion: starting large chain reactions in response to one's initial post. Achieving a disproportionately large response to a small action is the general theme. This is similar to how a young child that goes missing (but is actually hiding) may act with glee, seeing a large number of people conducting a massive search in response to the supposed disappearance.
  • Fight "groupthink": Many trolls defend their actions as, when a sort of conformism settles, shocking people out of it.
  • Satire: In these cases, the individuals do not think of themselves as trolls, but misunderstood humorists or political commentators.
  • Personal attacks against one particular user or group of users
  • Overcome feelings of inferiority or powerlessness by getting the experience of controlling an environment.
  • Self-promotion
  • Lowering signal to noise ratio: On Slashdot, points that could be used to moderate interesting things up get wasted on moderating down things like ASCII pictures of the goatse man. This lowers the quality of comments at certain thresholds.
  • It is possible that they are using the perceived anonymity of the Internet as a platform to test an alternate persona.
  • In cases of small or relatively new forums, a troll might attempt to cause such a stir that the existing users are driven away until the forum is either empty or has lost a significant number of users.

Since there is a wide spectrum of possible motivations for trolls, some of these functions being benevolent and others, clearly malevolent, to typecast users as trolls in the negative sense is often rash.

Some users of Internet forums are considered to be "trollhunters", or "trollbaiters". They willingly enter conflict when trolls emerge. Often, trollhunters are as disruptive as trolls. A single troll-post may be ignored, but if ten trollhunters "pounce" following a troll, they will drive the thread offtopic.

Regarding troll-related conflicts, there are six groups into which users might be classified:

  • Trolls are users who actively provoke conflict.
  • Trollhunters (or Trollbaiters) behave according to a principle of "second strike". They do not initiate conflict, but escalate it once it begins. Often they use other trolls as an excuse for their own misbehavior, and in many cases, typecast a user as a "troll" regardless of his or her intent.
  • Ignorers seek to ignore the conflict, continuing with the topic at-hand. They usually express a nonchalant disdain for the troll, but do not seek actively to insult him or her. They behave like elders, issuing simple words of wisdom such as "Do not feed the trolls." or other phrases that generally mean the same thing: "Ignore the troublemaker and he will give up and go away." (The phrase "Do Not Feed The Energy Creature" or "DNFTEC" may be used, referring to a Star Trek episode in which a creature deliberately caused antagonism in order to feed on the psychic energy released) This type of response could be taken as passive-aggressive Trollbaiter behavior.
  • Moderators (not in the same sense as a "system moderator") seek to resolve the conflict, making all parties happy, if possible.
  • Bystanders withdraw from the conflict. In particularly bad cases, they will leave the forum in disgust.
  • Hijackers initiate an offtopic discussion in response to provocative posts by a troll.

In the attention-seeking cases, trolls seek the conflict provided by trollbaiters, whereas in the "cry for help" cases, they seek the consolance and compassion offered by moderators.

Possibly one of the most interesting cases of Trolling involves the "all things lamb" forum on the website for Mancunian Trip-Hop/Organica band Lamb, lambstar ( The Troll in question was known on other music websites, is believed to have been a stalker, and in early 2005 began posting on the forum using both a variety of both his own user names and those of other regular posters - he was able to do this as the forum was neither moderated nor had a login facility. Within a few weeks most of the regular users of the forum, including the band themselves, had ceased posting and had resorted to email, telephone and instant messenger programs, most notably MSN messenger, for communication within the group, and by the beginning of April 2005 virtually all new postings were by the Troll. The purpose of the Troll was entertainment, however the campaign backfired: instead of continuing to react negatively to the Troll, the forum's regular users simply chose a different method of communication within which they had more control.

One case of rather malicious Trolling occured at an offshoot website of ubersite called pulseHEAD, [4] ( The website started out as an alternative to ubersite, which many ubersite users felt had been overpopulated by trolls. At start, pulsehead got a small but significant portion of ubersite, albeit most ubersite users considered it a joke. In November of 2004, two users bargled and RingLancer (formerly bargled and degreeless_capibara of ubersite, both were friends and trolls on ubersite) decided to exploit a feature of the site that made all users with a rating of -20 or below, originally created to help filter out trolls. The two targeted a user named Sledgehammer (formerly heimdallsman of ubersite), and -5ed him until his rating dropped below -20. This caused a major uproar, in which RingLancer and bargled were nearly banned themselves. Neither frequented the site much longer, as they never felt it was worth going to anyway. After the incident, many dissapointed users who had thought of pulsehead as immune to the trolls of ubersite left. This cut activity down a significant amount, which happened soon after degreeless_capibara and bargled, along with other trolls, had started two trends, both of which offended many users, including those who had taken part. Ironically, these stunts caused a major immigration to pulsehead. Recently, the user degreeless_capibara started to frequent pulsehead again, posting page-widening posts, shock images, and spam. These trolling activities not only caused the creator to code in new anti-trolling features, but also discouraged many users to post there.

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.

Literature on conflict resolution suggests that labeling participants in Internet discussions as trolls can perpetuate the unwanted behaviors. A person rejected by a social group, both online and offline, may assume an antagonistic role toward it, and seek to further annoy or anger members of the group. The "troll" label, often a sign of social rejection, may therefore perpetuate trolling.

Better results normally ensue when users take the moderator role and describe more constructive behaviors in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way. Trolls are excited by trollhunters and frustrated by ignorers, and neither of these emotions produce positive results for the forum. Engaging trolls results in "flame wars". Trolls frustrated by the "ignore strategy" may leave the forum (and either troll elsewhere, or become constructive users) or may become progressively more inflammatory until they get a response.

Novice trolls often experience Troll's Remorse, a feeling of regret after losing their account (whether it be from an Internet Service Provider or from a livejournal) as a consequence of their trolling.

Usefulness of trolling

A major debate on the Internet is whether or not trolls perform any useful function. Because troll is such a broadly-applied term, if all definitions thereof are to be accepted, the answer must be definitively, "yes and no".

Users performing many useful, but controversial, functions are often decried as trolls, and in these cases, so-called trolling may actually benefit the forum in which it occurs. For example, the presence of a radical right-winger described as a troll may allow a conservative lurker to feel more comfortable expressing her viewpoints, which seem very moderate in contrast. On the other hand, if trollhunters mount a flame war against this right-wing troll, the conservative bystander may feel less comfortable expressing her views, to the detriment of the forum. As much as trolls claim to fight groupthink, they may actually encourage it by solidifying opinion against them.

Trolls may also provide a valuable service by making people question the validity of what is read both on the Internet and from other sources. Trolls show that expressing any opinion is as easy as expressing an informed and considered opinion and may get as much visibility. It is arguable that shock jocks, some newspaper columnists are trolling public opinion.

Even though useful content and productive users are sometimes decried as trolls, the general consensus is that pure "trolling" benefits only the troll and trollhunters, and has no place in any forum. Most forums reject the claim that pure and intentional trolling serves any useful purpose.

The Chinese characters for Internet troll are made up of the characters for Internet (互联网) combined with the characters for provocation (拖) and learning (钓).

Trolls can also in some circumstances be a source of genuine humour, which depends entirely upon whether the troll is a good or a bad troll. It's usually fairly easy to spot the difference between such actions: a bad troll resorts only to weak uncreative arguments whereas a good troll will create a subtle set of arguments which draw people in with cunning twists to provide a thread of non sequitur humour.

Some trolls have been known to try and troll threads into deletion and serve as a form of negative reinforcement to "newbies" and also help reduce clutter of spam threads on a large message board.

In many cases, trolling can lead to the administrator or moderators of a forum to implement features to the site to prevent trolling. Although this could be regarded as improving the website, it remains that the features would not be needed if the trolls weren't there.

Related articles

Specific trolling subcultures

Notable troll examples


External links

es:Troll (Internet) fi:Trolli (Internet) fr:Troll (Internet) he:טרול (אינטרנט) it:Troll (internet) nl:Internet troll pl:Trolling pt:Troll sv:Internettroll zh:小白


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