What Is a Troll?


I have a panel coming up at SkepchickCon/CONvergence talking about dealing with trolls online. Before we can deal with the creatures, however, we have to be able to recognize them. We have to make sure we’re talking about the same classes of behavior that we want to circumvent or counter or exclude.

Lots of different people have somewhat different ideas as to what a troll is. I have some very strong ideas on the subject myself, but I want to be prepared to deal with others.

So tell me, sourceable crowd, how do you determine who is and who is not a troll?

Comments

  1. embertine says

    Hmm, a troll is someone who says something deliberately inflammatory to get a reaction.

    That’s the classic troll, I suppose.

    There are other sub-classes that would be more likely to post an opinion that they do actually hold but know is not likely to be well-received: tone trolls, JAQoffs, and those who are simply making nasty comments to wound. But a classic troll is not necessarily representing a real opinion.

    Am I making sense?

  2. baal says

    Trolls are on-line personalities who comment or post for personal amusement and care little for the impact of their statements or questions.

    I think both elements are needed for a real troll. This definition sets apart earnest racists (who aren’t necessarily racist for personal amusement reasons) and paid stooges (who usually do care about impact, they are a form of advertising – I’m thinking about the fog of pro-industry junk that Ed or say Salon gets anytime they do a piece on big oil).

    Trolling is a sub-set of bullying and some folks who otherwise know better will use trolling to annoy and harass folks with whom they have a substantive disagreement.

  3. baal says

    oh – (hrmm…edit button…) – please note that I think trolling needs to be intentional. Accidental apparent trolling can be done by ignorant folks. They are only distinguishable over time. Ignorant folks can and do learn, trolls assiduously do not.

  4. says

    I think a key component is the unwillingness to engage in the conversation in anything more than a superficial manner. When I think of trolls, I think of those who will repeat the same claims over and over without addressing rebuttals, usually citing their very busy schedule that keeps them from being able to read through tons of comments.

    I know that’s not the only feature, but it seems to be a key one.

  5. dano says

    If your reason to post is simply to put someone or their idea down using flamming words then that would be what I deem as unnecessary or what you call a troll. On the other hand if they disagree with your view and are courteous with their debate I would not consider them a troll but rather an opposition to your view point. On the Christian websites we do not call anti believers trolls but rather the opposition. If they are vulgar or posting for no other reason than to piss the author off then they are simply banned/removed.

  6. christophburschka says

    I’ve seen the term used in the context of harmless actions too, as well as for jokes with an earnest political message, e.g. by the Yes Men. When JCPenney responded to homophobic critics by doubling down with its ads, this was also referred to (by supporters) as “trolling” the homophobes, even though the ads had a serious message. That muddies the definition a little.

  7. wfenza says

    I second the notion that trolling is about intent. A troll is trying to provoke a reaction, as opposed to putting forward an idea or have a dialogue.

  8. eric says

    Someone who uses an on-line forum to post an opinion without regard to (or knowingly disregarding) the topic of the forum.

    For me that seems to grab them all. Tone trolls want to discuss grammar or tone, so they do that regardless of the topic. Flamers want to start a fight, again regardless of the topic. Advertisers want to discuss their product or web page or opinion regardless of the topic, and so on.

    Like baal, I think intentionality is a necessary component. Some people have pet peeves or interests or memes that they’ll constantly repeat. That can be annoying, but if they stay within the context of the forum conversation, IMO its not trolling.

  9. stevendorst says

    There are a few essentials to “trollness”:

    1) They must have intruded into a conversation, whatever the context.

    2) Having intruded, they refuse to discuss, only to proclaim

    3) Use of deragoratory labels and/or names is almost universal. Examples “Barry Obama”, Libtard, Feminazi (Yes, I know these are all derogatory terms used by right wing trolls when intruding in neutral or left wing conversations, but I don’t see it when things go the other way!

  10. says

    @baal in #2:

    Trolls are on-line personalities who comment or post for personal amusement and care little for the impact of their statements or questions.

    Actually, it seems to me most trolls care deeply for the impact their statements have, in particular they seem to care that their statements cause irritation and/or anger.

    I’m not so sure that a troll is defined by doing it for personal amusement only. I would have little problem calling someone who is derailing discussion for more nefarious reasons (like harassing political or ideological opponents) a “troll” too.

    I think the main “tell” of a troll is a refusal of engagement with arguments, either the arguments from the original post that they comment on, or in reactions to their comments. Often this manifests in the form of meta-discussions (such as tone-trolling, accusations of group-think, etc). Other signs are refusal to let go of their favorite talking point (never mind if it’s been dealt with already) and endless repetition.

  11. says

    Oh, I wanted to add: because of the nature of things, most of these descriptions of what is or isn’t a “troll” will only describe the “obvious trolls”. It doesn’t really describe the trolls who mastered the art of derailing a thread while still having some plausible deniability that makes them seem reasonable, or worse, make the blog owner or regulars look bad if they react with anger.

  12. Jenea says

    I would say a “classic troll” is anyone trying to derail and inflame a conversation, to get a rise out of other people. The language used need not be inflammatory at all–on the contrary. They are effective through driving others to insanity with their comments. In the classic troll, the opinion is rarely sincere but rather designed to push other people’s buttons.

    I think the term has spread a bit in recent years to encompass more of the behaviors that other commenters have already mentioned.

  13. jamessweet says

    Trying to generalize embertine’s excellent thoughts..A troll is:

    “someone whose commentary is consistently disingenuous in some way.”

    In the case of a classic troll, this is simply that the level of emotional expression and/or invocation is well beyond what they might reasonably be experiencing themselves. In the case of a JAQoff troll, it is that their questions are not meant to be innocent ignorance. In the case of a tone troll, it is that they pretend to be concerned about the effectiveness of the message, but in reality they want to squelch the message.

    It’s all about mismatched intention — whether their intentions are irrelevant to the thread, or their intentions are other than what they represent, etc.

    On a side note, I think the JAQoff trolls are the worst, because at times I really have needed to just ask a question, where I was pretty sure I was being thick but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I am much more careful where I do this now, because if it is some place that is used to JAQoffs, then of course I will be misunderstood as one and will get piled on. Bah…

  14. says

    I think it’s important to distinguish between someone who merely disagrees and someone who is deliberately trying to provoke an emotional outburst.

    Trolls don’t necessarily care about the subject matter. They’re there to provoke an emotional outburst, which they then use to validate their own position.

    If you disagree with someone but stick to the arguments and the evidence, that’s not trolling. That’s disagreement. And if the discussion gets emotional, that’s just being human.

    A troll wants the emotional reaction, because they think that reaction = win for them.

  15. Bjarte Foshaug says

    You might be a troll if…

    …your purpose is to sabotage and derail a debate that you cannot win through arguments.
    …your strategy for “winning” the debate is to wear out your opponent through sheer quantity or drown out your opponent by shouting loudest.
    …you are actively trying to provoke your opponent into calling you names just to get a chance to accuse him/her of ressorting to ad hominems.
    …you are actively trying to get yourself banned from the forum in order to play the “sensorship” card.

  16. canonical says

    “Troll” (meaning Trollus Internetii) is the catch-all for any and all Internet-based sub-lifeforms that seek to derail a discussion via the invocation of strong emotion over reasoned debate. That, at least, is my working definition.

  17. jamessweet says

    I’m sticking with my “consistently and systematically disingenuous” definition. It catches everything. For instance:

    You might be a troll if…

    …your purpose is to sabotage and derail a debate that you cannot win through arguments.

    Disingenuous use of comments to derail rather than extend the debate.

    …your strategy for “winning” the debate is to wear out your opponent through sheer quantity or drown out your opponent by shouting loudest.

    Troll disingenuously pretends to be making meaningful commentary, but the content of said commentary is irrelevant; only the volume (both dimensional and auditory) matters.

    …you are actively trying to provoke your opponent into calling you names just to get a chance to accuse him/her of ressorting to ad hominems.
    …you are actively trying to get yourself banned from the forum in order to play the “sensorship” card.

    Troll disingenuously pretends to be making an argument, when the argument is not actually intended to be understood or effective.

  18. outeast says

    I think embertine’s definition is rather the historical meaning – and as christophburschka elucidates, in this context the term was not necessarily negative (I remember being complimented for my trolling on the guardian talk pages way back when for successfully spoofing a muslim evangelist).

    But I would contend that use has shifted. Increasingly, harmful intent is seem as necessary; and indeed trolling is often used simply to mean ill-mannered, aggressive, and asocial online behaviour. Trolling as originally defined is i think quintessentially unserious (disruptive to dialogue, but not actually harmful beyond that), but this seems no longer to be the consensus interpretation – actual bullying and threats now seem to be considered trollish behaviour, too.

    I find this a rather unhelpful shift in usage, but what’re you gonna do? Language is the ultimate crowdsourcing experiment and definitions are necessarily defined by consensus usage, not by etymology or historical meaning.

  19. says

    I’m going to disagree with just about everyone, and say that a troll is someone who disrupts the conversation, even if accidentally. Someone who is JAQing off in good faith is still JAQing off.

    I would also consider commenters who aggressively respond to trolls in an attempt to shut them down to also be trolls, because they also produce lots of noise without actually contributing to the conversation.

    I would generally prefer much heavier moderation on every comment section on the Internet. But my attitudes are apparently out of the mainstream.

  20. Utakata says

    I go with Wiki defintion of what a troll is…which is essentially what embertine stated at first to my understanding.

    I think it should be pointed out though, as someone has already put, that trolls can agree with their stated opnions; they can also not. We often don’t really know with them. But it doesn’t matter, they’re posting to dirsupt, even if it’s to advance their position.

  21. Nepenthe says

    The other internet community besides FtB I’m familiar with is Wikipedia. To us, the primary distinction is between good and bad faith actors; only bad faith actions are trolling. We get a lot of idiots and a lot of people who don’t write in coherent English and a lot of people who don’t understand what Wikipedia is for; these people are not trolls because they are acting, on the most part, in good faith. Grawp and Willy on wheels are trolls because they are not acting in good faith.

    I think intentional disruption is a necessary component of trolling. You can be an idiot on accident, but you can’t be a troll on accident. (“Tone troll” is thus a misuse of the term in general; one may have a genuine objection to the style of discourse in a particular space and may argue that. On the other hand, one might also go to Pharyngula and post something about the style of discourse just to watch the hornets swarm, which is trolling.)

  22. Onamission5 says

    I am on board with the points made in #13, #15, and #16. Before reading comments, I would probably have said that trolling is like that long ago definition of obscenity: hard to define, but I know it when I see it (ignoring of course that what is or isn’t obscene is often subjective to the eye of the viewer). After giving it further consideration, I would myself define trolling as–

    A pattern which demonstrates intent to provoke negative emotional response in others by deliberate use of triggering language, attitudes, or behaviors, either for one’s own amusement and/or in an attempt to detract from or derail the topic at hand.

  23. left0ver1under says

    Most people define a troll as someone who disagrees with them.

    But if you want a proper definition of troll as a verb, think of words we used to say before the internet came around:

    bait

    get a rise out of

    provocateur

  24. says

    Anyone who is new and foreign to any given forum, and doesn’t abide by the unstated rules and norms thereof, should be summarily labelled as a troll and hounded away, so as to maintain an acceptable level of intragroup ideological cohesion and create a ‘safe space’ for the free exchange of generally approved ideas. If they’ve been asking too many questions, you can call them a JAQ-off. If they’ve been expressing concerns (especiallly about means vs. ends) you can call them a concern troll. If they’ve been typing up genuine critques as barely-veiled satire, you can call them whatever you want, because obviously they aren’t going to withstand the resultant shitstorm of abuse.

    There may be those say we should allow fellow freethinkers to respectfullly disagree, without too-hastily sticking a derogatory label on them, but such people are probably just tone trolls, and should be summarily hounded out as well.

  25. says

    So what I hear y’all saying is that comments like D4M10N’s there, which don’t actually answer the question posed in the OP and appear instead to introduce a different topic altogether, may be trolling. Yes?

  26. says

    Yes. He’s trolling.

    I would like to add something to the definition and say that trolls actively enforce, through a variety of methods and general disingenuous behavior, cultural norms. In my years on the internet, I’ve noticed that trolls function to stifle conversations which buck cultural norms.

    I think of them as self-appointed police of cultural beliefs, which is probably why they’re willing to spend as much time as they do trolling. Even though they say they don’t care, they’re still investing time and energy in enforcing those norms.

    Also, most of them have the introspection and imagination of roadkill: they parrot popular cultural memes and refuse to do anything else.

  27. says

    “We have to make sure we’re talking about the same classes of behavior that we want to circumvent or counter or exclude.”

    For example, attempts to say that the term ‘troll’ has been defined too broadly, and used all too reflexively, so as to exclude too much, should be summarily relegated to the troll bin so that we can all move forward on the assumption that this is not a genuine problem.

  28. Hertta says

    I don’t think trolls disrupt discussions just for their own amusement when they don’t really care about the subject matter. I think the motivation is usually to derail a conversation about a subject they don’t want to see discussed or by people they don’t like. They are too stupid or lazy or dishonest to come up with actual arguments, so they throw their stink bomb into the crowd.

    I think people who troll feminist sites are very likely to be misogynists, people who troll progressive sites are probably bigots and so on. D4M10N for example managed to derail a thead about a clear case of sexual hararrasment by being a dishonest nitpicky troll probably because they didn’t like the topic and didn’t want to see actual fruitful discussion take place.

    Skepticism has it’s own special subspecies of troll: the overly literal, nitpicky, hyperskeptical kind that pretends not to have a position on the matter but look at it objectively and detachedtly. They are lying, of course. Possibly to themselves too, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior.

  29. lauraholmbeck says

    Someone who is trying, to put it bluntly, to stir shit up. They offer nothing of value to the conversation and just try to make people upset or derail the conversation.

  30. Nepenthe says

    @29

    No, I would not consider that “trolling” on face. It’s annoying and unhelpful–the bitter sarcasm isn’t helping make the point (as we say on the ‘pedia, sarcasm is really helpful!–but the post does raise a point that the poster apparently thinks is legitimate, as do I.

    On the other hand, when combined with previous behavior, that post could be revealed trolling, if it’s become clear that D4M10N is acting in bad faith. Actual trolls tend to show their hand after a while. We get subtle disruption at Wikipedia all the time, usually assholes trying to make some sort of veiled point about internal wiki-politics or performing sociological experiments on the admins or whatever.

    It seems that much of FtB has adopted an expanded version of “troll” that means “disagreeing in a way that displeases us” in addition to “being a jerk in order to get a rise out of internet commenters”. Which, ironically, makes actual trolling so much more enjoyable for trolls.

  31. jamessweet says

    I’m going to have to partially agree with Nepenthe. D4M10N’s little routine there was, at best, borderline “trolling”. (S)he was being a totally dickwad, but not all instances of dickwaddery are trolling. The comment was mostly relevant to the conversation (basically indicating that “trolling” is poorly defined and is simply used to smear those with whom one disagrees), and while the comment was sarcastic, it wasn’t at all disingenuous. D4M10N was saying what (s)he thought, and pretty bluntly.

    Of course, if it was a deliberate attempt to get banned, that’s another thing altogether…

  32. maureen.brian says

    Here’s my attempt.

    A troll is someone who enters a conversation, possibly online, knowing that his/her intentions are at odds with those of the people already in discussion. The goal is solely to disrupt though it may be disguised initially as something else. Techniques used include – writing vast walls of text confident that the others will read through to discern the meaning when there isn’t a meaning, constantly asking questions but refusing to act on helpful suggestions or read links, claiming to know better than the original participants but providing no evidence of such knowledge, patronising everybody in sight and as the level of deliberately caused exasperation rises complaining about sarcastic tone or rude words.

    The devoted troll can repeat any or all of these tetchy tricks over a period of days or from blog post to blog post. When finally ejected he (more usually) will creep back in disguise or send a friend to complain that it’s not fair.

  33. B-Lar says

    Trolling is is all about feeding off conflict.

    There should be a distinction between those who comment without any kind of point for the fun of the conflict, and those who comment with a point, but a point derails in some way. One of these classes can be reasoned with, and one cannot.

    I feel quite sad to have been lumped in with the trolls by being overly concerned about tone. I have had some productive converse with FTB where I have been shown that this is not helpful, and not only given some meatspace reading, but also some fresh perspectives which I have actually taken on board. A troll would not do this. A troll dances on the corpse of a ruined comment thread

    Here is my humble submission. Unfortunately it involves judging intent which must be the perogative of the blagmaster.

    Gives <1 Rats ass about the discussion = Troll

    Gives n* Rats asses… = Not a troll but possibly deluded in some way

    Managing dissent is a tricky business, but reducing someone down to a concept is a kind of violence (or so I recall reading somewhere) and should therefore not be done lightly.

    *where n is a positive integer

  34. lorn says

    IMO D4M10N @28 makes some of the more important points that defining what a troll is is largely a question of how inclusive or exclusive you want a forum to be. The term troll is simply applied to anyone who fails to observe the norms of the forum as set by the owner and a core set of posters who define the community.

    If you want your blog to be an intimate group of people who share a common point of view and behavior, perhaps verging on group-think, and coffee clatch you will want to exclude people who don’t conform to the tight norms of the core group of commentators.

    If you really want an on-topic and intimate discussion you are better off on a private channel where detailed expositions are possible without the intrusion of the wider public. Old school I tend to format my posts as self contained units. They are snapshot of may thinking, and desired contribution, at the time. I don’t really expect a reply even if they are welcome.

    And no, I don’t stick to the narrow subject. Framing defines outcome and a whole lot of discussions are crippled from the start because the terms of debate are set up to reach the same tired conclusions. If I hear one more characterization of women as victims I shall puke. It is like defining a well as a hole in the ground, as opposed to a source of water. Redefine the terms and you get different results.

    Yes, there are trolls who may be best ignored. I may be one of them. But beware too easily excluding and discounting people and their points of view. Trolls can be very beneficial. Like a slap in the face. Even if they don’t intend to, they can shake things up and shift the context enough to allow new and interesting conclusions.

    Pretty much everyone has a message. Even if that message isn’t contained in the text as read. A drive-by insult points out the unthinking cruelty of the surrounding society and obdurate resistance you face. Forget that and your arguments will be weak and uninspired. An attack on the discussion is both impertinent to that particular narrow subject, and a very real expression of the wider situation. Trolls are useful training for a violent world that doesn’t play by debate society rules. They train you to focus and work under fire. And they keep you honest.

    Kill the trolls and you kill your access to new people and new ideas. Life is inherently messy and unstructured. Trolls are the vital embodiment of that fact. They are inconvenient and problematic but, in the ecology of the web, they are indispensable.

  35. says

    Wait, you put this up seven minutes ago and have 39 comments? You obviously are sockpuppeting your audience. Also, your post is too short and does not provide the details I wanted to see. Your inability to provide flexible width in your main column shows me that you are likely to violate my first amendment rights. I know you are going to delete this comment so I made a copy of it and I am now constructing a Wiki that will be all about you and your repressive behaviors and I will put the comment there. Plus, there’s the wayback machine. The wayback machine is my friend.

  36. says

    I just realized that “trolling” is more of a linke between bridge trolls and fishing than I had previously thought, if you think about it a certain way and make the metaphor just right.

    Trolling is commenting to elicit a response that will catch the blogger or other commenters, hook them, make them jump, but using something that at first glance looks real but is actually a fake lure.

  37. says

    Matthew Morse @21 — As an occasional “accidental troll”, um, yeah, I’m sorry. Sometimes I over-think things and go into this weird anxious-obsessive “I MUST have an ANSWER” mode. I’m learning to catch and redirect myself, though, and I’m getting better at it, but I’m not perfect.

    I, for one, appreciate it when others give me a (figurative) Gibbs-slap and help snap me out of it.

    Nepenthe @35 — I am loving “Sarcasm is really helpful!” (100% serious, no snark!)

  38. Katalina says

    I think trolls are defined by their attempts to derail discussions, and they are generally characterized by their general anger and/or repellent habits (such as all-caps, name-calling, linking to or citing irrelevant information, terrible spelling and grammar, repetition of tired arguments, total lack of sense of humor and/or compassion, etc).

    I don’t think you really can be an accidental troll. I’ve seen some overly quick judgments in lots of fora, but if we don’t immediately jump on an honest newbie, it is easier to tell who’s really trying to participate and who’s trying to derail.

  39. Cimorene says

    I typically define a troll as someone who posts things simply to get a rise out of people. No real interest in debate, just posting something in order to get people angry and yelling over the internet.

  40. says

    WMDKitty, accidents happen. I hope that I’ll learn from them and move on. I’ve been in online discussions and realized after the fact that I was mansplaining. Um, oops. The lesson I’ve tried to take away is that just because I know (or think I know) a couple of factoids, that doesn’t mean that I know more than the other people in the discussion.

    Speaking of, I absolutely consider mansplaining to be trolling, because it involves steamrolling the discussion so one person can prove how smart they are. And in many cases, the mansplainer does not know they are doing it. “I’m not derailing the conversation, I’m stating an obvious truth which everyone else is inexplicably overlooking.”

    While I’m here, I’ll say that D4M10N was trolling, but it took me a while to figure out why that behavior is trolling. First, D4M10N appeared to be addressing the topic of the post, but was really continuing another argument by different means. Second, I’m now wondering if satire is always a form of trolling. There’s something about the cognitive process of decoding satire which feels like the process of recognizing that a troll isn’t sincerely interested in the conversation.

  41. says

    I readily admit to having Foot-in-Mouth disease, and my processing ability varies day to day — some days I’m, like, totally on the ball and quick-witted, some days are more like this.

    So, um… if I open my big mouth and say something stupid/offensive — LET ME KNOW! I’m trying NOT to be That Guy!

  42. AnyBeth says

    I’ll focus on how I identify trolls. If someone falls outside the standard of the community, insists on being heard, won’t listen, and if attempts at discussion with them get nowhere, I’ll presume that person is a troll. I don’t think all that’s a good definition for what a troll is, per se, but it’s the means by which I determine that someone is a troll without having to presume any particular motivation. I think one can be a troll on a specific subject, an entire community, or a range of communities. One doesn’t always have to wait for someone to do trollish behavior if the person is already well-known for trolling.

  43. says

    I’d also like to add that a lot of trolls insist that you must be patient with them, no matter what they say, no matter what things they’re known to do, no matter how serious the subject, no matter that they didn’t bother to read or understand or even pay attention to anything going on in the situation, as if you were a vending machine of information for them.

  44. KT says

    I see trolling as a type of psychological bullying of the type that often happens in adolescent social circles, where the troll or bully gains a sense of superiority to provoke a reaction in someone as a display of social dominance. It reflects a mentality where sincerity is seen as somehow inferior or weak while cynicism is somehow strong.

    Trolls always make me think of a particular type of bullying that happened in junior high where a group of “cool kids” would create a fake joke that actually was nonsense, seek out a person of less social power and try to get them to laugh along with the group and if they did, turn around and ask “what’s so funny?”

    They derived power not only from knowing they were influential enough to make someone laugh at something that wasn’t funny, but also humiliate them as well. I think the troll derives power from the idea that they can not only provoke reactions in people but then also embarrass them for their sincere response when they reveal themselves as a troll.

  45. says

    @Nepenthe in #35:

    It seems that much of FtB has adopted an expanded version of “troll” that means “disagreeing in a way that displeases us” in addition to “being a jerk in order to get a rise out of internet commenters”.

    Uhm, no. Obviously, disagreeing is a large part of what trolls do – either it’s the reason they troll in the first place, or the pretext for them being in the thread. That doesn’t mean that everyone who disagrees is a troll, but it certainly doesn’t mean that the presence of disagreement is evidence of an honest participant either. Nor does disagreement, by itself, invalidate the accusation that someone is a troll.

    Besides, the “you just hate me because I disagree” is such an common trolling tactic that anyone claiming that this happens a lot in reality, rather than in the minds of the trolls or people already predisposed to dislike a forum or blog, should have the burden of proof.

    Finally, there is also a large class of trolls whose modus operandi is actually to say/pretend they agree with you, they just have a problem with your style/this one analogy you made/this thing you did two years ago or something else completely irrelevant to the topic of the discussion.

  46. says

    @KT:

    I see trolling as a type of psychological bullying of the type that often happens in adolescent social circles, where the troll or bully gains a sense of superiority to provoke a reaction in someone as a display of social dominance.

    Yes. For example, you may have noticed that a lot of trolling actually explicitly takes the form “I am more reasonable/moderate/dispassionate/unemotional/impartial/skeptical about this than you”.

  47. says

    @Katalina in #45:

    I don’t think you really can be an accidental troll.

    What may come close, though, is the person lashing out after unfair treatment by other threat participants (where the unfairness can either perceived or real) – for example an honest newbie who gets flamed for a question that the regulars think they should have been expected to know not to ask. It’s no more than human to want to fix the butt-hurt, but it can still seriously derail a thread, despite the fact that it wasn’t the intention with which they came to the discussion in the first place. We’ve probably all been flamed and reacted badly to it at one point or another before we learned that the proper response is to simply (sheepishly) admit we didn’t RTFM, and we understand why that would be a problem, so we will try and fix that.

    Of course, a real troll will often pretend to be an honest newbie too, but like Nepenthe said in #35, actual trolls will usually show their hand after a while.

  48. Nepenthe says

    @44 WMDKitty

    That’s definitely my second favorite wiki-essay, after “Newbies are delicious, so go ahead and bite them“.

    @52

    It’s unclear to me how we’re in conflict. It’s not (necessarily) the disagreement that elicits accusations of trollery, it’s disagreeing in a way that is against community norms. Here, that’s called trolling (or tone trolling, or concern trolling, or JAQing off, etc.), but that’s not a universal definition. (Because Wikipedians are generally obsessive, we have a lot of terms for various kinds of disruption [e.g., wiki-lawyering, POINTy, POV pusher]; “trolling” is a pretty uninteresting subset of disruptive behavior because it gets squashed as soon as it’s detected. Then the only problem is squashing the trolls when they come back. If only there were an internet version of the double-tap, a la Zombieland.)

  49. eric says

    Nepenthe,
    I don’t think disagreement necessarily has anything to do with trolling. For example, D4M10N could easily have made his point without benig a troll. Say, instead: “I think the term ‘troll’ has been defined too broadly, here’s why [reasons], and [examples], and [what I think are the negative consequences of an overbroad definition]” nobody would have called him a troll. That could’ve added to the discussion. But in contrast, he’s just opining that we’re being jerks, and he’s using a cover of thread-related words to say that. Its all sacrasm, no content.

    Or maybe he’s a poe and is poking fun at the people who might object to Stephanie’s attempt to define a troll. Apeing their arguments. If so, I fell for it, I admit it.

  50. says

    @55: Tone trolling, or concern trolling, or JAQing off are not merely “disagreeing in a way that is against community norms”. Unless with “community norms” you mean a dislike of derailing, because that’s what these are: derailing techniques. After all, they all change the topic away from the content of the thread to something the poster is apparently more interested in, whether it’s tone, some other favorite concern (real or fake), or their demands for answers to irrelevant questions. These techniques are used by trolls all the time to derail discussion threads.

    Of course, thread derailing by itself isn’t trolling, threads can be derailed with the best of intentions too (although intent isn’t magic). But it doesn’t mean that these behaviors can’t be justly seen as (part of) trolling behavior either. If you want to say that some people are sometimes too quick to judge someone as being a troll, or that this is a problem of FtB in particular, you can try to make that argument, but that’s a whole different discussion (and might actually be a thread derail in this context, especially if you want to make this about FtB).

  51. says

    I think, and it seems to be the consensus, that “disingenuous” is the key word for trolling, but that there is a whole taxonomy of trolling within the broader category of “people posting disingenuously with the intent of redirecting attention.”

    And what’s more, they all have counterparts in the real world.

    The classic trolls for whom the term was originally coined are the Internet’s prank callers and ding-dong-ditchers. They’ll stop by in the comments to play the Poe’s Law game or something, just seeking attention, or maybe they just dropped by to leave a flaming bag of poop on the doorstep and run away as fast as they can. Or somewhere in between, they came with several bags of poop and have no intention of actually leaving until the walls are painted with it.

    There are concern trolls, who usually claim to agree with your position, but have all sorts of reasons why ur doin it rong. These are the people who, during a Q&A session at a speech or conference or lecture, will stand up at the mic for several minutes with a speech that begins “Don’t you think…” so it still superficially has the form of a question.

    There are tone trolls, who are similar to concern trolls, except that they don’t necessarily agree with your position but definitely don’t agree with how you express it. In the real world, these are the little siblings or classmates who ran off to [authority figure] at the drop of a hat to say “Billy made a swear!”

    Both concern trolls and tone trolls are trying to remove discussion of the actual topic and instead focus efforts on a metadiscussion of how the topic should be discussed. This is a derailing tactic, further annoying because they often think they have the one true way of discussing things (usually stemming from the grade-school notion that “bad words” are worse than reprehensible positions or beliefs and a gross style-over-substance fallacy), or they recognize that different people have different preferences and are trying to argue you out of your preferences. They might as well be trying to tell you that you’re wrong to like chocolate.

    There are the lecture trolls or filibuster trolls (there may be a more generally accepted term for this), who are like a more boring version of the classic troll. They’re the ones who just have to have a particular off-topic discussion in the comments or wherever, and will not relinquish the floor. They’ve got a bone to pick or a personal testimony to give or a pet argument to harp on, and by gosh, you’ll listen to it, by gum. Back to the Q&A example from above, they’re the ones who get up to the mic and give a long personal anecdote, or refuse to leave when their question’s answered, or read from something they copied from someone else.

    In all cases, the point is to enter a conversation with the intent of refocusing attention, usually on the troll itself, but sometimes on the troll’s pet topic. And the disingenuousness lies in the refusal to actually consider and respond as if they were in a conversation.

    To the “accidental trolls” from above in the thread, I think that last bit is the key point. Much of trolling is in the follow-through. If you cluelessly JAQ and are called on it, and then apologize and move that conversation elsewhere; if you respond to people’s points thoughtfully and with consideration of their viewpoints, then you’re probably not trolling. Trolls don’t listen and respond, they raise volume and repeat.

  52. says

    mouthyb #30:

    I would like to add something to the definition and say that trolls actively enforce, through a variety of methods and general disingenuous behavior, cultural norms. In my years on the internet, I’ve noticed that trolls function to stifle conversations which buck cultural norms.

    Not only that, but I’ve also found that there are decidedly few, if any liberal trolls. Almost every troll I’ve run into has taken up a decidedly regressive position.

    (Of course, in my experience “trolling” a conservative requires nothing more than applying basic skepticism…and, furthermore, when conservatives engage in “discussion” the tactics they use are very similar to the tactics that trolls use. Funny, that.)

  53. says

    Setar, speaking as a liberal, I disagree. Are you sure that you’re not defining “trolling” as “interfering with a conversation I agree with?” I read a lot more liberal blogs than conservative blogs, so most trolls I see are conservative. My first conclusion is that this is confirmation bias, and if I started reading more conservative blogs, I would see more liberal trolls. I am extremely skeptical of claims that “my side is better than their side.” indeed, one of the themes of the harassment discussion is that this is shattering the belief that atheists are less sexist than religious believers.

  54. says

    I’ve decided to write down some of my thoughts about trolling and moderation, even though this is late to this discussion. This is likely to be long.

    One idea I keep coming back to is the difference between “nice” and “polite”. At my job, I have to work with some people in other departments who are very difficult to work with. When I have talked about this with my coworkers, some are surprised and say things like, “but they’re so nice!” They are not nice. They are polite. They say things in a pleasant tone of voice, smile when they are talking, and use polite language.

    However, they do this while making completely unreasonable demands that cost me hours of work for trivial ends. They are extremely difficult to work with, but at least they are polite. However, I will not agree that they are nice.

    Some trolls are experts at exploiting this distinction. They post something which looks friendly and like an open attempt the engage in friendly discussion. However, when you try to respond, you come to the realization that while their tone was polite, their content is actually wildly offensive.

    This came up recently when the poster at Ask An Atheist objected to trolls being banned at FTB. Part of the issue was that the original comment by the troll looked polite, if argumentative. However, the implied context of the comment was nastier than it appeared, and given that poster is a known troll, the blogger was correct to swiftly ban the poster.

    However, that context wasn’t visible to the poster from Ask An Atheist. She saw someone politely disagreeing who was aggressively shut down. The critical realization is that polite does not equal nice. Being polite can be a trolling strategy, and we should resist giving a possible troll the benefit of the doubt because they are polite.

    Since deliberately getting banned can also be a trolling strategy, I also want to talk about my thoughts on comment moderation, even though I recognize my position is extremist. I participate in an online forum about music. This forum has significant moderation. Inflammatory topics like politics and religion are forbidden. Insulting and threatening other posters is forbidden, and profanity is forbidden. I don’t actually care about profanity, but I think the rule serves a useful purpose in that people who are unable to follow it are people I generally don’t want to be reading anyway. (This is more obviously true when you consider that most topics likely to produce justifiable profanity are already off the table.)

    The forum also allows blocking individual posters. My block list is long. I consider it a victory when I load a new page of comments and every single comment is blocked. I assume that some day I will end up blocking every user of the forum, and at that point I will have to stop reading. Although there is significant moderation, there are also lots of unmoderated comments which I have realized I am much happier if I just don’t read them.

    There are certain topics that I consider offensive that tend to slip by the moderators. For example, statements about not liking a band because it has women, with the implication that women can’t be good musicians, can avoid moderation. If that’s what you think, I really don’t want to hear what you have to say.

    And then there are the posters which are more annoying than offensive or trollish

  55. says

    I’ve decided to write down some of my thoughts about trolling and moderation, even though this is late to this discussion. This is likely to be long.

    One idea I keep coming back to is the difference between “nice” and “polite”. At my job, I have to work with some people in other departments who are very difficult to work with. When I have talked about this with my coworkers, some are surprised and say things like, “but they’re so nice!” They are not nice. They are polite. They say things in a pleasant tone of voice, smile when they are talking, and use polite language.

    However, they do this while making completely unreasonable demands that cost me hours of work for trivial ends. They are extremely difficult to work with, but at least they are polite. However, I will not agree that they are nice.

    Some trolls are experts at exploiting this distinction. They post something which looks friendly and like an open attempt to engage in discussion. However, when you try to respond, you come to the realization that while their tone was polite, their content is actually wildly offensive.

    This came up recently when the poster at Ask An Atheist objected to trolls being banned at FTB. Part of the issue was that the original comment by the troll looked polite, if argumentative. However, the implied context of the comment was nastier than it appeared, and given that poster is a known troll, the blogger was correct to swiftly ban the poster.

    However, that context wasn’t visible to the poster from Ask An Atheist. She saw someone politely disagreeing who was aggressively shut down. The critical realization is that polite does not equal nice. Being polite can be a trolling strategy, and we should resist giving a possible troll the benefit of the doubt because they are polite.

    Since deliberately getting banned can also be a trolling strategy, I also want to talk about my thoughts on comment moderation, even though I recognize my position is extremist. I participate in an online forum about music. This forum has significant moderation. Inflammatory topics like politics and religion are forbidden. Insulting and threatening other posters is forbidden, and profanity is forbidden. I don’t actually care about profanity, but I think the rule serves a useful purpose in that people who are unable to follow it are people I generally don’t want to be reading anyway. (This is more obviously true when you consider that most topics likely to produce justifiable profanity are already off the table.)

    The forum also allows blocking individual posters. My block list is long. I consider it a victory when I load a new page of comments and every single comment is blocked. I assume that some day I will end up blocking every user of the forum, and at that point I will have to stop reading. Although there is significant moderation, there are also lots of unmoderated comments which I am much happier if I just don’t read.

    There are certain topics that I consider offensive that tend to slip by the moderators. For example, statements about not liking a band because it has women, with the implication that women can’t be good musicians, can avoid moderation. If that’s what you think, I don’t really want to hear what you have to say.

    And then there are the posters who are more annoying than offensive or trollish. Some people are extremely hung up on a single idea, and every post they make comes back to the same topic. Others love to argue, and will happily go back and forth indefinitely without making any conversational headway. When people argue too much, I will block them even if I agree with them. Their willingness to argue means that they take up lots of space without saying anything new.

    As a result, the forums as I experience them are fairly focused. People say interesting things, and while I see plenty of comments I disagree with, I see few which are beyond the pale. And the conversation keeps moving forward, because comments which insist on repeatedly covering the same ground turn into pages of blocked comments.

    That provides the background for my theory of blog moderation. The first rule is that the blog owner chooses what kind of comments section to run, and commenters who disagree with the blogger’s style should go elsewhere. This runs in both directions. I think it’s reasonable for a commenter to decide that the moderation policy is overly permissive and allows too much negative posting, and they should stay away. I also think it’s reasonable to decide that the policy is overly restrictive and conversation has been cut off. However, I tend to look unfavorably on complaints that the moderation policy is wrong. If you don’t agree with the moderation policy at one blog, you can always find a blog you do agree with, or just set one up yourself. The blog owner is entitled to wide discretion to run the blog how they would like.

    When I see blogs that are struggling with trolls, I wish the blogger would clamp down on the moderation policy. Not all blogging platforms support all possible policies, but one way to control trolls is to set comments on full moderation with a whitelist. This obviously stifles conversation, but I would think it would be possible to keep the conversation going among the blog regulars, who would be unmoderated, while moderating all other comments and allowing them through on an individual basis.

    Depending on the blog, it might be possible to leave most threads basically unmoderated, while turning on full moderation on known controversial topics. I would think it would also be possible to set a blog standard which allows for moderating even regular members if they get out of control. Sometimes when reading comments it’s clear that a commenter would benefit from a time out, and turning on individual moderation for short periods of time seems like it should be an effective way of keeping comments both active and controlled.

    For me this is theoretical. My blog has few readers and almost no comments. But these are my conclusions about how I would attempt to run an online community, based on my experiences as a participant in online communities.

  56. says

    Matthew Morse #60: Before I came to Pharyngula (which was before FTB), I spent my time on open discussion forums. I saw lots of people trolling from conservative positions. I never saw anyone who could have been identified as a “liberal” troll.

    Of course, based on the discussion taking place here, it would seem that trolling is anathema to liberalism itself, as liberalism is supposed to be for open and reasonable discussion which trolling prevents by its own nature. It would thus be impossible to be a ‘liberal’ troll, because once one engages in trolling one has moved from discussion to silencing.

  57. ischemgeek says

    I’m coming in late to it because I’ve been thinking about it for a few days. My definition of a troll is anyone who purposefully derails threads, employs sophistry, and/or does not answer opposing arguments in good faith.

    Someone who asks loaded questions to try to argue through their questions while pretending to just not have a good understanding of the subject matter (someone who’s JAQing off, in other words) is trolling because they’re purposefully derailing, employing sophistry by loading their questions, and not answering in good faith.

    Someone who screams insults is derailing and engaging in sophistry, so they’re trolling.

    Someone criticizing someone else’s tone may or may not be trolling. It depends on whether the tone is relevant to the subject at hand, I think. For example, in a discussion about safe spaces, calling Jason an his comment that came off as homophobic was not trolling – pointing that out was relevant to whether or not that subset of the community is a safe space. In a discussion on a court battle to get creationism out of the schools (again), criticising the OP for being too nasty to Christians is trolling because the tone of the OP is irrelevant to getting creationism out of school.

    Someone who engages in logical fallacies, but when called on it either attempts to justify in good faith, shuts up, or admits their fault is not trolling because they were not trying to be dishonest, derail or otherwise act in bad faith.

    That’s my working definition, anyway.

  58. says

    I totally missed this post.

    After reading ischemgeek @ 64, I feel like most of my points were addressed in that comment.
    I think that the key to being a troll is a pattern of behavior, and not strictly one comment- but I think it is fair to take any given comment and describe it as “trollish”. Trolls exhibit consistently trollish behavior, and I think that distinction helps me to feel comfortable with the projection of intent that normally makes me uncomfortable with the classic definition of a troll. We are not mind readers, but a pattern of behavior clears up that immediate objection.

    As an aside, I would point out to ischemgeek that not a single person called Justin a troll for calling out the “homophobic” comment. He was a troll waaaaaay before he managed to make one slightly useful point of interest.

  59. Smhlle says

    I want to answe the deep philosophical question – why do trolls love strawmen? And… isn’t it scratchy?

  60. Emptyell says

    While I’ve been vaguely aware of trolling in other contexts, my first real taste of it was from EG with the main course served over TAM harassment policies. My naive observations (largely reiterations, variations and compilations what others have said):

    A Taxonomy of Trolls:

    The Classic Troll: Someone who provokes for the perverse pleasure they get from the negative reaction. Real life corrolaries include phone prankers and certain types of bullies who are starved for attention and are out to get it the only way they know. I knew some of the latter types in elementary and high school. I have good reason to believe that negative attention was all they knew at home as well. There is a disingenuousness to this type due to the disconnection between their motivation (generally unconscious) and their intent.

    The Concern Troll: Another commonly but often unconsciously disingenuous type who pretends (and may actually believe) that they really care about the topic but are really concerned that there are people who actually disagree with their fundamentally held beliefs and will twist and turn their arguments over finer and finer points until it loses all coherence. Of course by the time they reach this point (if they’re any good at it) they have substantially derailed the comment thread. To me they resemble real life religious apologists and those who are sincerely concerned for our immortal souls (love the sinner…)

    The JAQ Off: This was a new one to me. I’m having a hard time gauging their level of conscious intent to derail. Sometimes they seem to be legitimately clueless folks who really are just asking questions and get really miffed when when people object to answering 101 level questions in the middle of a 401 conversation. Other times they seem more like a Classic Troll just using this technique. I have also seen a similar sort of behavior at real life community meetings.

    The Tone Troll: This one is my favorite. At least for now, since it ties in so well to my current efforts to adjust the view through my privilege blinders. My impression is that the Tone Trolls really do believe that they are making a legitimate argument about an important aspect of the subject. That a civil tone is essential to constructive argument. What they’re missing is that civility is a luxury of privilege and that on some topics if you aren’t angry you’re not paying attention.

    I don’t think they are, at least by in large, disingenuous. I think they really do believe that without proper tone and civility that nothing substantive can be accomplished so they will go on and on about bad language, angry comments and piling on while continuing to ignore the substance of the vehement arguments.

    . . .

    Trolling with Intent

    As has oft been repeated, intent is not magic, and on the internet it is cloudy to opaque. For this reason alone I am inclined to judge trolling soley by effect and outward appearance. Discerning others’ intentions may be interesting or pertinent to the discussion but it is not necessary for identifying trolling behavior.

    The other reason intent and motivations are irrelevant to the definition of trolling is that people are often unaware of or deluded about their own intentions and motivations. In the same way that many (perhaps most) sexual harassers don’t see themselves as harassers (“it was just coffee for chrissakes”), I think most people who exhibit trolling behavior do not consider themselves trolls.

    In the same way that I feel there are no stupid people, just people who do more or less stupid things (ie all of us) and are more or less aware of their (our) stupidity, I also feel there are few, if any, actual trolls. There are just people who behave at times more or less like trolls with greater or lesser degrees of awareness.

    There is another parallel to sexual harassment and rape culture which is the aspect of plausible deniability. Given the sliding scales of intent and motivation and the difficulty that even the actor has in discerning these it seems that behavior and effect at the only reasonable measure of trolling. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, trolling is as trolling does.

    . . .

    The Response to Trolls

    Don’t feed the trolls? This old meme seems to be a remnant of the days when the internet

  61. Emptyell says

    . . . damn iPad. The submit button got too close to the delete key. GRRRRR!!!

    Conclusion to follow. . .

  62. Emptyell says

    Continued from above. . .

    The Response to Trolls

    Don’t feed the trolls? This old meme seems to be a remnant of the days when the internet was young and trolls were just pranksters in it for the lulz. Or so we imagined anyway. Now that we are older and trying to act more like adults and do real work and address serious issues on the internet I don’t think this applies so much any more.

    The Fuckskrieg(tm): One of my guilty pleasures in all this was watching LeftSidePositive eviscerate trolls with hir patented blend of serious spices. The combination of ferocious invective with impeccable logic left most of them babbling about tone or just ignoring hir replies and repeating their points ad nauseum.

    The value I see in this approach is that it quickly sorts the trolls from the truly interested. It also demonstrates that it is possible to be passionate and angry about something without losing focus and reason. In cases of privilege blindness and power disparities this can be essential to effective argument.

    The downside is that the passion and vehemence does seem to get them all excited and may tend to extend their stay. Sometimes this is not such a bad thing as it can provide some very effective examples for the lurkers and every gym needs a good punching bag.

    The Reasoned Response: This is my personal method of choice. Given my extensive experience with genteel civility I find it easiest. What I attempt to do is respond clearly and rationally to any actual substance I can pick out from the cracks in their arguments, point out calmly the problems with tone and concern trolling and generally try to engage them in the way they claim to want. This can give the truly unintentional troll a way into the actual discussion while also sorting those whose claimed desire for a civil tone is belied by their lack of response.

    This approach seems to work best in a tag team approach with the Fuckskrieg or equivalent. When the respondent ignores civility to keep going off about (getting off on?) all the bad words and angry tone then we know we have a true kneejerk on our hands.

    . . .

    That’s all I’ve got for now. I hope it’s of some small value. I’m still kinda new to all this.

  63. Emptyell says

    Moderator, if you please, it would do the OCD side of me a great service if you could fix the bolding on the Classic Troll and Tone Troll headings. My misfit on the submit preempted my usual preview. TIA.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>