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Know Thy Enemy, Know Thy Internet Troll

Updated on May 11, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

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“Nobody likes Internet trolls. Much like the mythological ones, they are lowly people who do nothing but disrupt, agitate and attack innocent people who are trying to express their views in their perspective chat rooms, blogs, or forums. Their secret identity, unmitigated verbal attacks and insidious insults are just a few things that anger the typical Internet users.”

The sentiment mentioned is an example of how people feel about Internet trolls. It’s a stereotype; however, some of it is not far from the norm. Internet trolls – or to be precise, those who create conflicts on the internet with or between other users – are reviled by many. But, in reality, these trolls aren’t what they appear to be.

They are not your average agitator. Many do not hide under assumed names and others have been misidentified as being trolls because of their political affiliations. In addition, many perceived trolls don’t realize they are trolls.

Internet trolls don’t fit a particular mode. There is actually a variety of them. In fact, the term itself is often misused.

Most trolls earn their reputation. There’s no doubt about that. But, it helps to understand where the term comes from, who they are, and motives that drive them.

Origin of the Term (from action to person)

The myths and realities of the Internet troll are profound. For starters, there is a misconception about the word’s origin. Many believe that the term “troll” is a pejorative that equates these individuals with the roguish and lowly mythological beasts. The term seems to fit, considering that mythological trolls and the Internet ones exhibit the same behaviors, albeit in their own “realms.”

But, that’s not where the term came from. Troll actually started as a verb. It was the action -- not the person -- where upon the name derived. Not only that, it came from the least likely place.

This following sentence is an example how the verb, trolling, is used:

“We trolled the ocean and pulled up all kinds of fish.”

The reference to action made to the ocean is no accident. Trolling is a fishing term. Some accounts differ slightly. One definition stated it is the act of using a net to rake the ocean and the ocean bottom to capture fish. Another stated it is the act of “dragging a baited hook or lure behind a moving boat (Rationalwiki.org, 2018).”

Trolling for responses on the Internet dredged up a lot of vitriol from commentators agitated by the intrusions of others

The term -- when used in reference to the Internet -- wasn’t offensive, in the beginning. In many cases, it referred to one “fishing” or trolling for comments off the Internet. Some people posed questions for people to answer or sought to respond to comments made in a chat room or forum.

Eventually, trolling devolved into something negative. Trolling for responses on the Internet dredged up a lot of vitriol from commentators agitated by the intrusions of others. In addition, some of those who purposely trolled the Internet found such reactions to their attacks entertaining. Thus, trolling started its evolution as a negative connotation. Eventually, those that purposely trolled for the sake of conflicts or ridicule became known as trolls.

Who Exactly Are These Trolls?

Many jaded writers and Internet users attempted to define the Internet troll (this is particularly true on sites such as Hubpages.com). Here are some popular depictions that emerged from writers (Hubbers) to the site:

  • Internet trolls are liberals!
  • They target political sites and writers
  • They are Anonymous, for fear of being exposed
  • They do it for nefarious reasons
  • Trolls are just jealous and insecure people who need attention

Misconceptions about the identity of Internet trolls frequently floats around the web-verse. Some believe that politics plays a part while others think mental health as a factor. The truth (excuse the cliché) lies between the two.

Motivation for trolls simply differs. Religion, politics (including liberals and conservatives), personal vendettas against others, play huge roles. Over the years, this writer alone has dealt with right-wingers, conspiracy theorists, fundamentalists (of nearly every religion and cult) and folks simply offended by something I wrote.

As a side note, topics pertaining to climate change, the Trump presidency, and ideological issues attract the most trolls. Paranormal topics and conspiracy theories are not far behind, either.

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The way they respond differs, too. Some rely on name-calling while others try to “politely” debate. And, on certain occasions, they give out bad advice – most likely on purpose.

A select few, on the other hand, do it for the "sport", looking for situations to hone their rhetorical skills (as a classmate of mine that currently works for a radio station and as a recurrent guess on CNN admitted to doing).

Most importantly -- and contrary to popular belief -- trolls don't always conceal their identity. There are plenty of them out there that want the attention and credit for stirring up battles on the Internet. Of course, those that use their real name or connection to their social media site often face the real possibility of retaliation from the offended users and/or ban from the sites. It makes one wonder if they thrive of negative reinforcement.

Some Trolls Become Legends (Briefly)

Many trolls are repeat offenders. So much so that they become regulars in certain chat rooms, forums or writing sites. Members of certain Internet communities -- as with Hubpages and other writing sites -- come to know these trolls, albeit by their alias, pen-mane or avatar handle. And, these communities either love them or hate them (mostly the latter). In fact, it's not uncommon at Hubpages to have threads dominated by these trolls or other Hubbers on the site conversing about them or battling them.

This is not uncommon in other parts of the world-wide web. The infamous comment sections for articles on Yahoo! News were filled with the likes of Sleeping Giants or Phoenix Rising who spent hours -- even days and weeks -- pestering anyone that disagreed with them.

Some Trolls Don't Realize They're Trolls

Hard to believe, but some people don't view themselves as trolls. One example comes to mind; a known agitator that went by the name Sgt. Prepper made a spurious comment on my article about climate change. In response, I called him a Troll (a term I'm sure many writers on the site would call him). His rebuttal was that he wasn't a troll and that he was just trying to send the message that the Antichrist (according to him it was President Obama) was real and that he was using the climate change debate to enslave people.

The example of Sgt. Prepper brings up something else: many are serious. Another misconception is that the sole purpose a Troll attacks is for personal entertainment. Prepper was serious and believed every word he wrote.

As mentioned, many communities on the Internet tend to know a lot about each other, including the trolls that lurk among them. Hubbers from Hubpages were aware of him. They had to deal with him for over a year before he was finally banned from the site.

Another commentator took issue with me calling him a troll. He went as far as attempting to get me banned on Hubpage for that reference. Ironically, this particular person had been reported numerous times and was eventually banned for life from the site.

Hubpages isn't the only place where oblivious trolls reside.Twitter is notorious for this. And on numerous occasions, I've ended up in pitched battles with ultra conservative and religious users who were convinced that their actions were righteous and not "troll-like" at all.

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Be Careful of Calling Out Trolls

In the past, I've called out certain people as trolls. In many cases, the title was appropriate. However, there are times I misidentified someone with differing opinions as being an Internet troll. This is a problem. trolls have indirectly created a situation in which simple debates between those with opposing ideas can be mistaken for a troll act.

Often, the most ardent trolls usually (but not always) use:

  • Derogatory or insulting language;
  • off-topic remarks; or
  • questionable names, and identity to hide their identity.

As mentioned, much of this is not set in stone. Internet trolls, like the mythological counterpart, can be sneaky, slippery, and unpredictable.

The Many "Species" of Trolls

Not all trolls are alike. This is something that contributors to the site, Rationalwiki, revealed. The site listed several types of Internet trolls. And, in some cases, they've mentioned that some agitators on the Internet may not be trolls at all, but a whole different breed of annoyance. Here are a few examples. The first group are not considered trolls, but share some of the same qualities. The others are names given to particular types of trolls.

The Troll-like agitators are:

  • Agent provocateur: those that secretly join an Internet Group or discussion with the intent to weaken it from within. Often, as Rationalwiki states, they will be a “representative of another group opposed to the interests of their apparent allies.” They work, to some respects, as the Internet version of a saboteur and/or spy. They gain the trust of the targeted group before creating some form of harm to it. Often, some of them are influenced by ideological causes and their intent is to do more than disrupt; they want to destroy the other group from within. In addition, many provocateurs work within law enforcement – thus, this goes beyond any form of trolling found on the Internet. In other cases, conspiracy theorists tend to accuse someone within their ranks; especially when paranoia within these groups are at an all-time high.
  • Internet Tough Guy: Essentially, a cyberbully that’s all talk, no action. Rationalwiki describes them as “a person who acts big and tough and ferocious and opinionated from behind the shield of Internet anonymity, but is most likely a pathetic loser in actual life.” Similar to trolls, the Internet Tough Guy (also known as armchair warriors or member of the 101ST Chairborne Division), love to agitate Internet users on forums or social media. Unlike trolls, however, they want to intimidate and rarely use anonymity. They don’t joke around. Often, they have a connection to their own website or social media site despite using menacing nicknames or avatar handles. The Rationalwiki article continues to state: “The mere act of threatening someone, and the chance someone might be intimidated by that charade, as opposed to actually winning a fight, provides the threat-maker with the ego-boost they need.”

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Now, for the “official” trolls. They are:

  • Concern Troll: Subtle but sneaky and snarky, these trolls like to visit sites with an opposing point-of-view in an attempt to disrupt it by offering faulty, less effective “improvements” for an issue the opposing group may have. Often, Concern trolls play with their opponents by using rhetorical tactics. Usually they are not intimidating; they’re just annoying enough to be disruptive.
  • Proll: That’s a neologism for professional troll. Professional trolls are becoming a real nuisance on Facebook, Twitter and 4chan.

The Real Dangers of Internet Trolls

The last entry, Proll, should set off alarms. Trolling is becoming a profession. And in many respects, they may do more harm to the Internet than anyone else. Instead of creating agitation, they are now fostering a sense of distrust and chaos among Internet users.

On top of that, trolls are increasingly becoming a part of numerous propaganda campaigns for corporations and governments. In fact, Prolls have been a focus in the current special counsel investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The problem with trolls and trolling has increased over the years. As a result, some countries have toyed with the idea of passing laws to outlaw them.

A Return to its Roots

Interestingly, numerous articles on the subject rarely use the term Internet trolls. Instead, the verb “troll” has come back into use.

Either way, the people and act are here to stay. Some are aware of their actions while others aren’t.

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Extra: Are You an Internet Troll?

As mentioned, some people who partake in trolling don’t realize they are trolls. However, some people are coming to terms with it, according to a surprising reaction readers had to a Psychology Today blog.

In a 2014 piece, author Jennifer Golbeck Ph.d revealed that a study defined the typical Internet Troll as being “ narcissistic, sadistic and psychopathic.” The article had a profound among its readers. Many wrote to the author, wondering if they were, by definition, Internet trolls.

In a second blog, Golbeck wrote about an organization that helped to create survey questions for the study. Global Assessment of Internet Trolling (GAIT) was created to measure one’s “trolliness.” They came up with the following four questions:

  • I have sent people to shock websites for the lulz (form of amusement).
  • I like to troll people in forums or the comment sections of websites.
  • I enjoy griefing (sic) other players in multiplayer games.
  • The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt.

According the Golbeck, the first three statements are meant to measure “enjoyment and experience” one may get from trolling. The last one pertains to how one “identifies with the trolling culture.”

Rating for each ranges from “1” (strongly disagree) to “5” (strongly agree). The scores are averaged and they become the person’s GAIT score (high score indicating trolliness).

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© 2018 Dean Traylor

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    • Dean Traylor profile imageAUTHOR

      Dean Traylor 

      11 months ago from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story)

      vlad, it is correct that the best way to deal with them is to ignore them; however, there are times when some of them don't get a clue that you're ignoring them. For those trolls, Ive engaged them and discovered that they really don't know what to do...and they go away. I guess it's a matter of reading them and figuring out the right course. Luckily, many sites offer something to block people like that. That always help.

      John: I attracted a lot of trolls on my climate change articles. But I get a lot from people who are generally passionate on the subject and are not big time trolls. However, most of the trolls I get on these articles are coming from Twitter. They're easy to spot: bizarre handle, poor spelling and a lot of exclamation points. For a while, I'd get some real nasty ones from there.

      Virginia: When I wrote that some people believe trolls have to do with ideology, I was thinking of an article on Hubpages in which the author incorrectly called trolls liberals. In truth, this person (a conservative) reacted to people that were just pointing out a mistake or offering a differing opinion to the one he made in his article or in a forums. Rarely, did I see derogatory words or rudeness being aimed at him. The person was extremely thin skinned and often lashed out in his responses at them. His situation may be an example of something called the backfire effect; something I may write about one of these days. Simply put, this person doubled down on his belief based on his perception that his core value was being attacked rather than being countered with sound logical evidence from the opposing party.

      Any how, I've noticed that there are a lot of trolls that tend to lean to the right...in some cases all the way to the right. Those with fervent religious beliefs, climate change denialists, or ardent Trump supporters have been the most aggressive. But, I get a lot of conspiracy theorists (both left and right), too. I write a lot of articles debunking something pertaining to the paranormal and there are a lot of people -- trolls included -- that react to it the meanest (and unintentionally funny) ways.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 

      11 months ago from Canada

      Considering their common mentality traits which hint at something pathological, the best way to deal with them is to ignore them completely.

      Like little kids seeking, what is sometimes called "negative strokes" in psychology, they only become effective when given the attention, plus scolding that defines those "negative strokes". When they don't get that much desired trophy of pushing our buttons, they are disarmed. Then they may try something of a bigger caliber, like insults--but again, to stay nonresponsive is the thing to do.

      Their biggest power is in their ability to suck us into their game. And our biggest weakness is our trying to "teach the bastard a lesson." Big mistake, for by definition they are incapable of interpreting anything as a lesson. Actually, the only lesson they get from our response is that "yet another sucker fell in their nets". Then trolling as you defined it makes sense--"fish is in".

      It's a very interesting article you wrote, Dean, I enjoyed it a lot.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      11 months ago from Queensland Australia

      I am a member of one online chat community and there are a number of really regular trolls there who try to antagonise continually. Mostmare well known to other users, but some hide under guest IDs so they have that extra anonymity.

      Most don’t admit to being trolls just that they are there to play the game and make the site interesting so people keep coming lol. If you antagonise them it is usual for them to threaten to find out your personal details and make your life hell. In most cases they are all talk and no substance but you still have to be careful in dealing with them.

      The best defence is no to get upset with what they say but to laugh at them. They don’t like being made the but of the joke.

      The only time I was attacked here at HP with troll like behaviour was also with a climate change article I wrote.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      11 months ago from Central Florida

      I'm a progressive, and I assure you, liberal groups and pages online get trolled quite heavily. Who are the trolls? Likely those on the right who think it their mission to disrupt the left, Russian paid trolls tasked with creating division in America, and people in general who just are filled with hate and find the Internet an easy place to spew it.

      Your 3 types of trolls probably fit most situations. One must be careful calling out a troll online, as they can be vindictive and use your online information to attack you personally. It's best to report them to an administrator or just ignore them.

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