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A Proper Definition of Trolling

Trolling is a art —Anonymous

There has been much confusion and incorrect usage of the word trolling in recent years. I started noticing misuse of the word during the early 2010s, and such misuse became particularly pronounced during the second half of the decade. These days, it seems, anything can be trolling, and anybody can be declared a troll; consequently, the word has lost almost all useful meaning.

In an attempt to rectify this state of affairs, below I provide a precise restatement of the word trolling (along with some other related terms), followed by a clarification (including the use of examples) of the restatement, and then a final acknowledgment of its possible limitations. Note that I do not present a new or original definition of the word here, which is unnecessary; I am merely restating, in more precise terms, the old, correct definition. In writing this, it is my hope to clear the air of the various misconceptions surrounding one of my hobbies.

I should also note that I strongly support freedom of speech, and would therefore never, ever try to police or otherwise control any aspect of any person's speech. My goal here is to convince you to voluntarily adjust your use of the word to conform to the correct definition, not to insist that you must. At the very least, if you remained unconvinced after reading this and do not alter your language, know that whenever I use the word trolling anywhere on this Web site, it is in the sense given below.

Precise Restatement

The verb trolling is correctly defined as

  1. provoking others to anger or otherwise causing them to become upset;
  2. doing so online; and
  3. performing such actions deliberately, and with the sole intention of deriving amusement or entertainment from their reaction.

The noun troll has two meanings: in one sense, it is defined as a person who engages in trolling; in the other, it is defined as an act performed or a thing produced (e.g. a forum post, a text message, or a video) for the purpose of trolling (e.g. That comment he posted is a troll).

Some other related terms can be defined by a slight modification of the above definition:

Clarification

It is important to recognize in the above definition that part (1) concerns the effect, part (2) concerns the medium, and part (3) concerns the intent. Many recent incorrect uses of the word omit the very important intent part of the definition, and consider anything done online that upsets somebody else as trolling. In these cases, the word becomes extremely broad and unacceptably subjective, and is entirely dependent upon whether or not somebody was bothered by the supposed troll. The last comment on WikiWikiWeb's page concerning trolling is quite telling:

The term troll as used on the internet is all, and only, about the troll's internal motivation. The internal motivation that defines a troll is quite narrow and specific: A troll is a person who is amused by the spectacle of people appearing to be made miserable by their perceived inability to convince the troll of the correctness of their positions. The troll does not care about the positions being taken or the opinions being expressed. The troll does not seek attention or recognition. The troll merely wishes to laugh at the apparent discomfort of others whom, the troll believes, s/he has hooked into arguing with them.

It should also be noted that the above definition does not make any mention of the particular methods used to anger or upset somebody. Merriam-Webster defines the verb form in one instance as to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content (emphasis added); Wikipedia defines the noun form as a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages (emphasis added). Trolling, while it often takes the form of flaming, offensive messages, or off-topic remarks, does not have to: so long as the target is made upset through the online actions (whatever they may be) of the troll, then it is trolling. In this regard, including in the definition of trolling the particular types of content or behavior that would provoke somebody actually results in a definition that is too narrow, unlike the previous case, which results in one that is too broad.

The best trolls are those who can most easily spot what bothers a certain person, and then adjust their behavior accordingly; they are masters of deception, and their methods and tricks are manifold. As the same comment on WikiWikiWeb notes,

... the following people are not trolls: Stupid people, people who desire notoriety, people who wish to promote understanding through discussion or even argument, people who are angry, people who wish to proselytize, people who need to preserve a fragile ego, people who want to win an argument. However, trolls will simulate any or all of the above types of people if it produces amusing results for them. ... They will assess the personalities of those involved in the conversation and will tailor remarks to different individuals, aiming outrageousness at some, while attempting subtle inveiglements with others, in order to generate a response.

However, it is still instructive to consider a few well-known examples of the use of the term.

The Russian Troll Farms/Factories/Army

There has been much media attention in recent years concerning the trolls backed by the Russian state who seek to influence public opinion, and who even influenced (to a degree) the 2016 United States presidential election. Certainly their online activities, which very often involve controversial political topics, manage to enrage people, thus satisfying parts (1) and (2) of the definition. However, it must be noted that their motive in doing so is highly unlikely to be solely, primarily, or perhaps even a little bit for their own personal amusement; instead, it is because they are employed to do such things. It is thus very reasonable to assume that their sole (or primary) motivation is money, and that they upset and divide others through political opinions so that they can keep their jobs and receive their pay. Even if some of them might derive some pleasure from the anger of others, it is difficult to argue that this is the sole reason for their actions.

As part (3) of the definition is not satisfied, the Russian trolls are therefore not trolls at all. There are many alternative names by which they can be known: the Wikipedia article I linked to calls them web brigades, I personally like to use the phrase paid political provocateurs, and other terms like state-sponsored Internet propagandists are also fine. They are definitely not, however, trolls in the old, correct sense of the word.

Gamergate Trolls

The supporters of the Gamergate movement were very often labeled trolls by the anti-Gamergaters, but this again results from a misunderstanding of the word which omits the intent part of the above definition. The online actions and the beliefs espoused by the pro-Gamergaters definitely made their opponents upset, and so parts (1) and (2) are satisfied. It is likely, though, that most of the pro-Gamergaters truly believed in the cause and their stated positions, and truly believed that their opponents were wrong; their main motive was quite likely an earnest defense of their hobby and the belief in the moral righteousness of their cause.

I do not deny that actual trolls might very possibly have joined the ranks of the Gamergaters. Gamergate was incredibly contentious, and emotions ran high on both sides, making trolling either one of them very easy; for the enterprising troll, it was a goldmine of entertainment, and if he missed out on such a prime opportunity for trolling, he would forever regret his mistake. Even the anti-Gamergaters might have had many true trolls amongst them, who deliberately provoked the pro-Gamergaters to anger for their own amusement.(3)

The important thing to remember, however, is that the term troll was not applied by the anti-Gamergaters to specific individuals whose motives were suspect, but rather to the entire pro-Gamergate side as a whole. When considering the probable sole (or primary) intent of most of the movement's supporters, part (3) of the definition is yet again not met, and consequently this is yet another misapplication of the word.

Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo Yiannopoulos is often called a troll by his political opponents, and I recall that even he has, on a few occasions, referred to himself as a troll. Unlike the previous two examples, Milo's case is not so clear-cut: he genuinely seems to enjoy arguing with and infuriating those who disagree with him, and it is reasonable to assume that such an attitude carries over into his online messages and activities, which also cause many people to become very mad. For a third time, then, parts (1) and (2) are satisfied, again leaving the question of part (3).

Milo's case is much harder to classify than the other two, as his motive is harder to truly determine. It is my own reasoned opinion that his behavior is motivated partly by a legitimate belief in some of the views he expresses, partly by a desire to obtain money and fame, and partly by the delight he takes in provoking people. The last item is, of course, the intent of the true troll, but it is very doubtful that this his is sole internal motivation, which means that, for the third time, the conditions for part (3) are not met, and therefore Milo cannot be properly called a troll.

Acknowledgment

I readily admit that the old definition of trolling, which includes the individual's intent, is not always practically satisfying and nearly always leaves uncertainty: it can be extremely difficult to ascertain that individual's intent without mind-reading powers, and oftentimes the only person who truly knows that individual's intent is himself. It is much easier to omit intent and define trolling purely by the emotions it stirs in people or the particular methods used, both of which are much more easily observed, but this is laziness. That a person's internal motivations cannot be completely discovered and known does not mean that they are unimportant.

In the examples above, it is important to note that in each case, statements about the motives of the subject(s) were merely my own considered speculation; it is entirely possible (though in my opinion extremely unlikely) that the Russian Internet posters, Gamergaters, and Milo care only about laughing at the anger of those they have provoked, in which case referring to them as trolls is completely correct. Doubtless others might guess at different motivations for their actions, and so, in practical application, the old definition of trolling still results in an element of subjectivity.

This is still far better, though, than today's throwing around of the word so loosely that it has become almost meaningless; it is undoubtedly an improvement over a certain use of the word today that omits intent entirely and instead permits anybody to label anything as trolling so long as they were upset by it, which is laughably subjective.(4) Even though it might not always be possible to establish without a doubt another individual's intent, the intent still exists by itself, meaning that the old, correct definition at least objectively categorizes certain types of actions as trolling in theory (that is, if the individual's intent were to be perfectly known), though it might leave some degree of uncertainty in practice.


Notes

  1. I realize that this might not be a suitably comprehensive definition of the effects of pranking which covers every case, but my intent here is to make it clear that trolling is a certain type of pranking, which requires only that one part of the definition is made more broad; I am not here to precisely define or discuss pranking in general.
  2. Terms like Internet trolling and online trolling are redundant, as the word trolling in its correct sense pertains only to the online world.
  3. The wise troll, when inserting himself into an existing debate, does not pretend to side with the faction he personally agrees with the most, but rather pretends to oppose the one he believes has the most potential to provide him with entertainment. Of course, the troll with more time and energy may find greater satisfaction by trolling more than one side in the debate through the management of multiple online accounts and identities.
  4. This is often done to discredit or insult the supposed troll, and I have noticed that the political left makes this accusation more than other groups.

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This page last modified on 27 November 2019.