Why People Troll and How to Stop Them

Why 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

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
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
, 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
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

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

Another way to consider trolling from is Dr. Phil’s viewpoint: People only engage in repeated behavior if
it pays off for them.
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

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
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
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
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 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
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
the bait is obvious and the forum participants are more sophisticated
than the trolls.

Forum participants can complain about trolls to board adminstrators.
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
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
anonymity and enforce personal responsibility deter them.

Amazon deters trolling through a qualification
. 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
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
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
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
‘s feature article
or in these profiles
of infamous trolls.

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


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