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A prank cake using common troll motifs such as the acronym 'YHBT' (You Have Been Trolled), the term 'pwned', and Guy Fawkes masks.

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into a desired emotional response[1] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[2] In addition to the offending poster, the noun troll can also refer to the provocative message itself, as in "that was an excellent troll you posted". While the term troll and its associated action trolling are primarily associated with Internet discourse, media attention in recent years has made such labels highly subjective, with trolling being used to describe intentionally provocative actions outside of an online context. For example, recent media accounts have used the term troll to describe "a person who defaces internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families."[3][4]


As described by Robert Bond in The International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, trolls usually exhibit a typical pattern of behavior:

In The Art of Trolling, published on the web, it is suggested that in Usenet usage, a "troll" is not a grumpy monster that lives beneath a bridge accosting passers by, but rather a provocative posting to a news group intended to produce a large volume of frivolous responses. The content of a "troll" posting generally falls into several areas. It may consist of an apparently foolish contradiction of common knowledge, a deliberately offensive insult to the readers of the news group or a broad request for trivial follow-up postings.[5]

Trolling is an old problem[6]

Even in the fourth century B.C., Plato touched upon the subject of anonymity and morality in his parable of the ring of Gyges. That mythical ring gave its owner the power of invisibility, and Plato observed that even a habitually just man who possessed such a ring would become a thief, knowing that he couldn’t be caught. Morality, Plato argues, comes from full disclosure; without accountability for our actions we would all behave unjustly.

and is getting worse today[6]

After Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old Long Island girl, committed suicide earlier this year, trolls descended on her online tribute page to post pictures of nooses, references to hangings and other hateful comments. A better-known example involves Nicole Catsouras, an 18-year-old who died in a car crash in California in 2006. Photographs of her badly disfigured body were posted on the Internet, where anonymous trolls set up fake tribute pages and in some cases e-mailed the photos to her parents with subject lines like “Hey, Daddy, I’m still alive.”

As a result, many web sites (Reuters, Facebook, Gizmodo, etc.) now require commenters to register their names and e-mail addresses to "curb 'uncivil behavior'".[6].


File:Trolling drawing.jpg

Artist's conception of trolling for tuna.

The verb troll originates from Old French troller, a hunting term. The noun troll, however, comes from the Old Norse word for a mythological monster.[7]

In modern English usage, the verb form of troll refers to a fishing technique of slowly dragging a lure or baited hook from a moving boat, waiting for fish to strike.[8] The word also evokes the trolls portrayed in Scandinavian folklore and children's tales, where they are often creatures bent on mischief and wickedness.

The contemporary use of the term is alleged to have first appeared on the Internet in the late 1980s,[9] but the earliest known example is from 1992.[10] Early non-internet related use of trolling for actions deliberately performed to provoke a reaction can be found in the military; by 1972 the term trolling for MiGs was documented in use by US Navy pilots in Vietnam.[11]

Early history

The most likely derivation of the word troll can be found in the phrase "trolling for newbies", popularized in the early 1990s in the Usenet group, alt.folklore.urban (AFU).[12][13] Commonly, what is meant is a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users, presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone that only a new user would respond to them earnestly. For example, a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster's name and know that the topic had been discussed a lot, but new subscribers to the group would not realize, and would thus respond. These types of trolls served as a practice to identify group insiders. This definition of trolling, considerably narrower than the modern understanding of the term, was considered a positive contribution.[12][14] One of the most notorious AFU trollers, Snopes,[12] went on to create his eponymous urban folklore website.

By the late 1990s, alt.folklore.urban had such heavy traffic and participation that trolling of this sort was frowned upon. Others expanded the term to include the practice of playing a seriously misinformed or deluded user, even in newsgroups where one was not a regular; these were often attempts at humor rather than provocation. In such contexts, the noun troll usually referred to an act of trolling, rather than to the author.

In other languages

In Japanese, arashi (あらし) means "laying waste" and can also be used to refer to simple spamming.[citation needed]

In Korean, nak-si (낚시) means "fishing", and is used to refer to Internet trolling attempts, as well as purposefully misleading post titles. A person who recognizes the troll after having responded (or, in case of a post title nak-si, having read the actual post) would often refer to himself as a caught fish.[citation needed]

In Thai, the term "krean" (เกรียน) has been adopted to address Internet trolls. The term literally refers to a closely cropped hairstyle worn by most school boys in Thailand, thus equating Internet trolls to school boys. The term "tob krean" (ตบเกรียน), or slapping a cropped head, refers to the act of posting intellectual replies to refute and cause the messages of Internet trolls to be unintelligent.[citation needed]

Published research on trolling

In academic literature, the practice was first documented by Judith Donath (1999). Donath's paper outlines the ambiguity of identity in a disembodied "virtual community" such as Usenet:

In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity ... The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter.[15]

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

Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns; the newsgroups members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they — and the troll — understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll's enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.

Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the newsgroup community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling — where the rate of deception is high — many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trollings. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll is quite damaging to one's online reputation.[15]

Susan Herring et al. in "Searching for Safety Online: Managing 'Trolling' in a Feminist Forum" point out the difficulty inherent in monitoring trolling and maintaining freedom of speech in online communities: "harassment often arises in spaces known for their freedom, lack of censure, and experimental nature".[16] The broadly accepted ethic of free speech may lead to tolerance of trolling behavior, further complicating the members' efforts to maintain an open yet supportive discussion area, especially for sensitive topics such as race, gender, sexuality, etc.[16]

Concern troll

A concern troll is a false flag pseudonym created by a user whose actual point of view is opposed to the one that the user claims to hold. The concern troll posts in web forums devoted to its declared point of view and attempts to sway the group's actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with professed "concerns". The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt within the group.[17]

An example of this occurred in 2006 when Tad Furtado, a top staffer for then-Congressman Charles Bass (R-NH), was caught posing as a "concerned" supporter of Bass's opponent, Democrat Paul Hodes, on several liberal New Hampshire blogs, using the pseudonyms "IndieNH" or "IndyNH". "IndyNH" expressed concern that Democrats might just be wasting their time or money on Hodes, because Bass was unbeatable.[18][19]

Although the term "concern troll" originated in discussions of online behavior, it now sees increasing use to describe similar behaviors that take place offline.

For example, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair accused a conservative New York Daily News columnist of "concern troll" behavior in his efforts to downplay the Mark Foley scandal. Wolcott links what he calls concern trolls to Saul Alinsky's "Do-Nothings", giving a long quote from Alinsky on the Do-Nothings' method and effects:

These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, 'I agree with your ends but not your means.'[20]

In a more recent example, The Hill published an op-ed piece by Markos Moulitsas of the liberal blog Daily Kos titled "Dems: Ignore 'Concern Trolls' ". Again, the concern trolls in question were not Internet participants; they were Republicans offering public advice and warnings to the Democrats. The author defines "concern trolling" as "offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient".[21]

Troll sites

While many webmasters and forum administrators consider trolls to be a scourge on their sites, some websites welcome them. For example, a New York Times article discussed troll activity at 4chan and at Encyclopedia Dramatica, which it described as "an online compendium of troll humor and troll lore".[9] This site and others are often used as a base to troll against sites that their members can not normally post on. These trolls feed off the reactions of their victims because "their agenda is to take delight in causing trouble".[22]

Media coverage and controversy

Mainstream media outlets have focused their attention on the willingness of some Internet trolls to go to extreme lengths in their attempts at eliciting reactions.

On March 31, 2010, the Today Show ran a segment detailing the deaths of three separate adolescent girls and trolls’ subsequent reactions to their deaths. Shortly after the suicide of high school student Alexis Pilkington, anonymous posters began trolling for reactions across various message boards, referring to Pilkington as a “suicidal slut,” and posting graphic images on her Facebook memorial page. The segment also included an expose of a 2006 accident, in which an eighteen-year old fatally crashed her father’s car into a highway pylon; trolls emailed her grieving family the leaked pictures of her mutilated corpse.[4]

In February 2010, the Australian government became involved after trolls defaced the Facebook tribute pages of murdered children Trinity Bates and Elliot Fletcher. Australian communications minister Stephen Conroy decried the attacks, committed mainly by 4chan users, as evidence of the need for greater Internet regulation, stating, “This argument that the Internet is some mystical creation that no laws should apply to, that is a recipe for anarchy and the wild west.”[23] Conroy has been noted in the past for his advocacy of Internet censorship. In the wake of these events, Facebook responded by strongly urging administrators to be aware of ways to ban users and remove inappropriate content from Facebook pages.[24]


Application of the term troll is highly subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. The term is often used as an ad hominem strategy to discredit an opposing position by attacking its proponent.

Often, calling someone a troll makes assumptions about a writer's motives. Regardless of the circumstances, controversial posts may attract a particularly strong response from those unfamiliar with the robust dialogue found in some online, rather than physical, communities. Experienced participants in online forums know that the most effective way to discourage a troll is usually to ignore him or her, because responding tends to encourage trolls to continue disruptive posts — hence the often-seen warning: "Please do not feed the trolls".

Examples of trolling

So-called Gold Membership trolling originated in 2007 on several 4chan boards, with some users posting fake images claiming to offer upgraded 4chan account privileges; without a “Gold” account, one could not view certain content. This turned out to be a hoax designed to fool board members, especially newcomers. It was quickly copied and became an Internet meme. In some cases, this type of troll has been used as a scam, most notably on Facebook, where fake Facebook Gold Account upgrade ads have proliferated in order to link users to dubious websites and other content.[25]

As reported on April 8, 1999, investors became victims of trolling via an online financial discussion regarding PairGain, a telephone equipment company based in California. Trolls operating in the stock’s Yahoo Finance chat room posted a fabricated Bloomberg News article stating that an Israeli telecom company could potentially acquire PairGain. As a result, PairGain’s stock jumped by 31%. However, the stock promptly crashed after the reports were identified as false.[5]

The case of Zeran v. America Online, Inc. resulted primarily from trolling. Six days after the Oklahoma City bombing, anonymous users posted advertisements for shirts celebrating the bombing on AOL message boards, claiming that the shirts could be obtained by contacting Mr. Kenneth Zeran. The posts listed Zeran’s address and home phone number. Zeran was subsequently harassed.[5]

Anti-Scientology protests by Anonymous, commonly known as Project Chanology, are sometimes labeled as "trolling" by media outlets such as Wired,[26] and the participants sometimes explicitly self-identify as "trolls".

Trolls, many of them from 4Chan, hacked into the website of the Epilepsy Foundation and posted flashing images to cause seizures among epileptic users. Journalist Jonathan Kay has written in the National Post describing this attack and other 4Chan-based attacks as "evil to the point of inhuman".[27]

See also


  1. "Definition of: trolling". PCMAG.COM. Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc. 2009.,2542,t=trolling&i=53181,00.asp#. Retrieved 2009-03-24.
  2. Indiana University: University Information Technology Services (2008-05-05). "What is a troll?". Indiana University Knowledge Base. The Trustees of Indiana University. Retrieved 2009-03-24.
  3. "Police charge alleged creator of Facebook hate page aimed at murder victim". The Courier Mail (Australia). 2010-07-22. Retrieved 2010-07-27.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Trolling: The Today Show Explores the Dark Side of the Internet", 31 March 2010. Retrieved on 4 April 2010.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Bond, Robert (1999). "Links, Frames, Meta-tags and Trolls". International Review of Law, Computers & Technology 13: pp. 317–323.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 J. Zhao, Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt, NY Times, 29 Nov 2010.
  7. Template:OEtymD
  8. "troll". Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Retrieved 7 January 2010.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Schwartz, Mattathias (2008-08-03). "The Trolls Among Us". The New York Times: pp. MM24. Retrieved 2009-03-24. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "nyt" defined multiple times with different content
  10. troll, n.1. Oxford University Press. 2006. Retrieved 1 March 2010. OED gives an example from alt.folklore.urban (Usenet newsgroup), 14 December 1992
  11. John Saar (February 4, 1972). "Carrier War". Life.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Tepper, Michele (1997). "Usenet Communities and the Cultural Politics of Information". In Porter, David. Internet culture. New York, New York, United States: Routledge Inc. p. 48. ISBN 9780415916837. Retrieved 2009-03-24. "... the two most notorious trollers in AFU, Ted Frank and Snopes, are also two of the most consistent posters of serious research."
  13. Template:Cite newsgroup
  14. Zotti, Ed; et al. (2000-04-14). "What is a troll?". The Straight Dope. Retrieved 2009-03-24. "To be fair, not all trolls are slimeballs. On some message boards, veteran posters with a mischievous bent occasionally go 'newbie trolling.'"
  15. 15.0 15.1 Donath, Judith S. (1999). "Identity and deception in the virtual community". In Smith, Marc A.; Kollock, Peter. Communities in Cyberspace (illustrated, reprint ed.). Routledge. pp. 29–59. ISBN 9780415191401. Retrieved 2009-03-24.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Herring, Susan; Job-Sluder, Kirk; Scheckler, Rebecca; Barab, Sasha (2002). "Searching for Safety Online: Managing "Trolling" in a Feminist Forum". Center for Social Informatics — Indiana University. Retrieved 2009-03-29.
  17. Cox, Ana Marie (2006-12-16). "Making Mischief on the Web". TIME.,9171,1570701,00.html. Retrieved 2009-03-24.
  18. Saunders, Anne (2006-09-27). "Bass aide resigns for fake website postings". Associated Press. Retrieved 2010-02-05.
  19. "Bass Aide Resigns After Posing As Democrat On Blogs". 2006-09-26. Retrieved 2010-02-05.
  20. Wolcott, James (2006-10-06). "Political Pieties from a Post-Natal Drip". James Wolcott's Blog — Vanity Fair. Condé Nast. Retrieved 2009-03-25.
  21. Moulitsas, Markos (2008-01-09). "Dems: Ignore 'concern trolls'". Capitol Hill Publishing Corp. Retrieved 2009-03-25.
  22. "How to be a Great Internet Troll". Fox Sports. Retrieved 2009-12-13.
  23. "Internet without laws a 'recipe for anarchy', 1 April 2010. Retrieved 5 April 2010.
  24. "Facebook takes (small) step against tribute page trolls", TG Daily, 30 March 2010. Retrieved 5 April 2010.
  25. "All that glisters is not (Facebook) gold", CounterMeasures: Security, Privacy & Trust (A TrendMicro Blog). Retrieved 6 April 2010.
  26. Dibbell, Julian (September 21, 2009). "The Assclown Offensive: How to Enrage the Church of Scientology". Wired. Retrieved October 5, 2010.
  27. Jonathan Kay (August 5, 2008). "Jonathan Kay on Internet trolls, The New York Times, and the (predicted) end of print media". Retrieved 18 November 2010.

External links

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Troll FAQs

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