posted by Howard Fosdick on Wed 25th Jan 2012 06:58 UTC
IconWhy do people troll? Can we prevent trolling or limit the damage trolls do? Here are some thoughts on trollology derived from academic studies and web research.


Identifying Trolls

Trolls divert online discussions into non-productive, off-topic venues. They pose as part of a community only to disrupt it. Trolling is anti-social behavior.

Some of the techniques trolls use to accomplish their objectives are:
  • Pithy put-downs
  • Name-calling and insults
  • Ad hominem attacks that try to negate an opinion by alleging negatives about the person supporting it
  • Impugning other's motives
  • Emotional rants
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Completely off-topic posts
  • Posting inaccurate "facts"

The traditional definition of trolling includes intent. That is, trolls purposely disrupt forums. This definition is too narrow. Whether someone intends to disrupt a thread or not, the results are the same if they do.

For example, here at OS News, the purposefully disruptive don't get far. The community self-moderates pretty effectively, and thumbs-up or thumbs-down voting on comments supports this effort. Yet we do see cases where people -- who would never consider themselves trolls -- unintentionally disrupt threads just as effectively those who would try to. Sometimes they offend others with snappy put-downs. Other times they question others' intelligence or motives. Though not meant as trolling, the results are the same. Thoughtful discussions degenerate into insults.
 
Intentional trolls purposely disrupt threads. Those who unintentionally troll do so without meaning to. Motivations differ but the results are the same.
 

Why Do People Troll?

Let's talk about intentional trolls.

Some are motivated by political, financial, or ideological gain. For example, political trolls participate in forums run by opponents to disrupt them. Sometimes this takes the form of a concern troll, a person who appears sympathetic to the cause being discussed but who is actually trying to sow doubt among the believers. In 2006 a Republican Congressional staffer was forced to resign after he posted to liberal blogs as a Democrat who thought the party should fold in the contest for his boss's seat.

How about financial and ideological trolling? Trolls posted falsely about a corporate buy-out at Yahoo Finance that caused an immediate 31% gain in the stock of telephone equipment company PairGain. The hoax was quickly exposed and the stock deflated. Wired claims that anti-Scientology protests sometimes take the form of trolling. We're all familiar with Linux trolls who disrupt Windows threads, and Windows trolls who disrupt Linux discussions.

Then there are the cases of astroturfing, also called astrotrolling. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was caught doing this. His anonymous self "quickly became an outspoken regular on the board, praising and defending Whole Foods with the equally enthusiastic virulence used to attack and shame the company's competitors and nay-sayers."

Trolls sometimes defame individuals. One victim was the late 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney, whose name was signed to a racist rant he didn't write. Another was John Seigenthaler, eminent journalist and former Kennedy aide, who was implicated in the Kennedy assassinations by a false Wikipedia post. The perpetrator was caught. Few of us non-famous folks would have had the resources to counteract such "Internet character assassination." Some trolls even mock the dead and deface online memorials.

Claire Hardaker explores the psychological motivations of trolls in her Ph.D. thesis Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication. She concludes that "trolls intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement."

Dr. Tom Postmes, Dutch professor of social psychology and book editor of Individuality and the Group, has a contrarian take. He argues that instead of contravening social standards, trolls conform to them. It's just that the social standards to which they're attuned are specific to a certain web subculture.

Another way to consider trolling from is Dr. Phil's viewpoint: People only engage in repeated behavior if it pays off for them. What is the pay-off for trolling? Experts and online discussions cite:
  • Attention and recognition, even if negative
  • The emotional release of venting
  • Power (the power to disrupt)
  • Vandalism
  • The thrill of breaking social conventions
  • Sabotaging groups the troll dislikes
  • Immaturity

Intentional trolls brag that they do it for the lulz. Their braggadocio usually masks these reasons.

Unintentional Trolling

Most of us have unintentionally trolled at one time or other. Perhaps we posted while in a bad mood or under stress. Or we posted hastily or without editing. We've all written something at 3 am that we might not have upon reflection.

Where unintentional trolling becomes a problem is when a person engages in such behavior repeatedly because he doesn't recognize that he's trolling. Some people think it's cool to post snappy put-downs. Or they casually question the intelligence or sincerity of others. Or they name-call. Often these people would be surprised to be called trolls. Yet when they post like this they are trolling just as surely as the intentional troll. Why? Because their posts have the same effect. They sidetrack useful discussion into offensive, heated exchanges. They destroy threads.

Some who repeatedly troll but don't mean to lack social sensitivity. Discussion requires give-and-take. Some aren't socially mature. Some can't accept or handle disagreement. We've all been too thin-skinned on occasion.

While most participants consider forums to be for the equal interchange of ideas, some people don't. They see them as vehicles to meet their personal needs. They place their needs above useful interaction or concern for others. Their motto is "I'll post whatever I want, deal with it." This is a selfish understanding of social interaction. If this isn't obvious, try treating people like this in real life. You won't have many friends or much success in dealing with people. Acting this way online has the same effects. It's a form of trolling.

Unintentional trolling can be as destructive as the purposeful kind. "By their fruits ye shall know them."

How to Stop Trolls

The problem with trolling is that a small minority can destroy a web site's usefulness for the majority of well-intentioned, well-behaved participants.

Some web sites eliminate trolls by not allowing comments. For certain kinds of blogs or online magazines this can be a good solution. But for most sites this is unacceptable because it prevents the growth of online community. At OS News, for example, community is vital and much of the value from the articles appears in the comments. Many other web sites have the same need for reader participation; online forums wouldn't exist without it.

A few web sites defeat trolls by posting only a selected comments. Print newspapers followed this model for years. Advice columns come to mind. The columnist selects a few reader comments to which to reply. No others make print.

What do you do if you want to allow all comments but eliminate trolling? One approach is to pre-moderate. Only after a moderator approves comments are they posted. This is very effective with competent moderators but it requires lots of time. It also hampers discussion if it delays postings. Post-moderating comments eliminates the time lag but still incurs the labor costs. Inappropriate comments may get brief airplay.

Software can eliminate the labor requirement for moderators while still imposing some order. The software has to integrate compatibly with the comment software. For example, those with WordPress blogs can use tools like Bad Behavior, Spam Karma 2, and Akismet. In my experience many programs do better at stopping spam than policing trolls. Skillfull trolls can outwit programs.

Many communities informally police themselves to curtail trolls. The common maxim "Please don't feed the trolls" argues that if troll comments are ignored intentional trolls will leave and go where they provoke results. "Don't take the troll bait" works best when the bait is obvious and the forum participants are more sophisticated than the trolls.

Forum participants can complain about trolls to board adminstrators. Even sites lacking hands-on moderation will often respond if they get feedback indicating that trolls threaten the forum. Admins can warn trolls and/or drop their user ids. IP addresses help identify intentional trolls who post under multiple ids, or who create new ids after their original one is terminated. How effective these techniques are often depend on the respective skills and persistence of the adminstrators versus the trolls.

Some forums offer tools that allow readers to filter out troll comments. killfile and filters on Usenet discussion groups and the Ignore function on some boards come to mind. OS News features a specially-written thumbs-up/thumbs-down voting mechanism that allows users to vote down posts that are then hidden from the default view. Individuals can set their comment threshold to suit their own preferences. The voting mechanism allows users to specify why they voted against a post (Inaccurate, Troll, or Off-topic). This enables the collective wisdom of OS News readers to reduce trolling.

One can think of many ways to fine-tune such voting mechanisms -- but at the cost of increasingly complex and sophisticated algorithms. Here at OS News, readers offered many good ideas on voting moderation systems in response to Thom Holwerda's excellent article On the Virtues of Comments.

With unintentional trolls, often just bringing inappropriate behavior to their attention will solve the problem. After all, they are not purposely being disruptive. Where I've moderated as admin, I've found that polite but direct communication works best: "We value your contributions but you need to be more respectful of others in how you express them." If someone won't respond to polite entreaties they are trolls (of whatever kind) and are stopped from posting.

Intentional trolls are a different story. They won't stop if you ask them. They hide behind anonymity. Most would not post the way they do if they were not anonymous. Thus mechanisms that undermine anonymity and enforce personal responsibility deter them.

Amazon deters trolling through a qualification system. One has to qualify in order to post. Their system requires personal information, a verifiable email address, and a verifiable credit card. Other web sites qualify commenters through paid memberships, technical quizzes, or using real names in posts.

The WELL is one of the oldest online forum communities. It maintains a high level of discourse by requiring a paid subscription and the use of one's real name in postings. Most WELL comments can only be read by fellow members but there are designated exceptions.

Facebook and Google executives argue that we should eliminate anonymity on the web. The cite trolling as the reason but their real motives are commercial.

The problem with eliminating anonymity is that its benefits outweigh the damage trolls do. Most people do not want their real name on every comment they ever post, which would then be available to every person, corporation, or government entity for the rest of their lives. Even innocuous comments could have unanticipated consequences. Whistleblowers and dissidents would be exposed and penalized. Destroying privacy is not a solution to trolling.

Some countries have legislated against trolling. In the U.K., section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 says it is an offence to send messages that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character." Several people have been jailed under its provisions. In the U.S., 1st Amendment rights make prosecution for troll speech rare. But trolls take heed: all 50 states have passed laws against cyberharassment, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking.

The Bottom Line

Trolling isn't going away. Yet there are some good techniques to reduce trolling and its impact. Your ultimate recourse is to leave a trolled forum and participate in a community more to your liking.

Unintentional trolling is an essential but overlooked part of the problem. It is rarely discussed or even acknowledged, which is why I've specifically identified it here. Sometimes people troll and don't realize it. Unless a forum can get them to understand that their behaviors are inappropriate, those who unintentionally troll can do every bit as much damage to useful discussion as those who troll with malicious intent.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Read more on trolling in New York Magazine's feature article or in these profiles of infamous trolls.

Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. His hobby is refurbishing computers as a form of social work and environmental contribution. Read his other articles here.
e p (8)    84 Comment(s)

Technology White Papers

See More