What is Trolling and Why do they do it?

Note: I wrote this post in 2012. Please forgive my rough writing. I am actually quite proud of this one.

The SBS Insight program “Trolls” (Oct 16th 2012) was very insightful on trolling, and why trolls do it.

To be clear, I mean harrassment and bullying as well as posting annoying comments.

Meet the self-confessed Trolls interviewed:

Andrew Auernheimer aka ‘weev”: Andrew says trolling is about taking what people make public and using it to infuriate them.
Jaime Cochran: explains trolling as doing something inflammatory that invokes an emotional reaction from someone. She says she doesn’t target anyone in particular, just “whoever takes the bait”.
Steven: Steven says trolling has deteriorated from just ‘stirring people’ to hurting them..
Asher Wolf: Asher says that trolling can actually be “beautiful”.

Definitions of Trolling Vary

Whitney Phillips: Whitney has interviewed and studied trolls extensively as part of her doctorate in digital culture. She thinks the term ‘trolling’ is often used incorrectly by the media.
Her research paper can be found here.

Personally I consider all online harrassment and bullying as trolling. I call deliberately making someone very upset and angry trolling. This includes being abusive and Gaslighting.

You can see how they deliberately rile you up in the chart below shared on Twitter by Professor and Author @CalestousJuma

To some people “trolling” isn’t defined as the same as “cyber bullying”. They may say that cyber bullying and trolling have common elements, but are not the same. For instance that cyber bullying more often involves people already known to the victim, whereas trolling is more often from someone unknown to them.

This is how The Urban Dictionary defines trolls.

This is how the Australian Communications and Media Authority distinguishes the two.

JAIME COCHRAN: “Trolling is just basically …invoking emotional reaction from someone.”

Another definition which is on the SBS Insight webpage includes: “To elicit a responce of a increasingly distressing (and strong) nature for the amusement of yourself and others.”

Engagement & Bait Comments

WHITNEY PHILLIPS: “It’s this desire to incite an emotional reaction and the stronger the emotional reaction, the more amusing the behaviour, the more gratifying the behaviour is. And as for what we just heard from the three trolls, there’s a huge spectrum of behaviours.”

The trolls on the program do not care about, or have strong veiws of the statements that they are typing.
They are merely saying what they say to provoke a responce.

They do not target anyone in particular, a trolling conversation can start by posting a comment that is mildly inflamitory, then waiting to “see who takes the bait”.

2017 Edit: Since writing this in 2012, I’ve been learning how to recognise bait comments and questions.

The first comment, say on Twitter or Facebook, will be reasonable if a little misguided.

Then they will try to make you defensive. For instance bait questions can be:

  • Why don’t you…? 
  • … but don’t you think?
  • Shouldn’t we….?
  • I  fully agree but…

STEVEN: “I don’t specifically set out to target somebody. They kind of put their hands up and volunteer. You post something really mildly inflammatory on a forum somewhere.

So in most cases of me, you have to respond to me, you have to kind of pick yourself as a target. I don’t specifically go looking for you”.

ANDREW ‘WEEV’ AUERNHEIMER: You know, I think that I don’t necessarily target a specific person. Trolling is a dialogue and it’s impossible to do without the participation of the party that you’re trolling. They have to – they have to somehow engage in a process of communication with you.”

Refusal to Take Responsibility

They seem to think that if someone takes offence at, or finds their comments distressful, that that person ‘has issues, takes things too seriously, and can’t take a joke”.

ANDREW ‘WEEV’ AUERNHEIMER: “If somebody can’t handle somebody not liking them on the internet, they have some deep seated problems that should have been addressed in their childhood but that’s not really my problem.”

ANDREW ‘WEEV’ AUERNHEIMER: “…like learn to be real people in a real world and not these insulated morons who can’t ever hear anything that might hurt their feelings. Like get over it, get over it, grow up, grow up and learn to deal with people on the internet not liking you and if you don’t like it shut down your Facebook page, make your Twitter private, don’t engage in a public discussion and you’ll never run into a conversation where I can say something that will hurt your feelings.”

JENNY BROCKIE: And what sort of bait do you throw out?

JAIME COCHRAN: “Anything inflammatory, getting people to expose the banality of the things that they hold dear. Like especially calling out people for, like their tastes in music or something, just super trivial, like gets them really upset about it and it’s hilarious. Why would somebody get mad about something like that?”

They don’t consider themselves as bullies, because they don’t regard trolling as *intentionally* set out to harm people. They don’t regard “winding someone up” as harmful behaviour or bullying.

STEVEN: “It’s not to the extent where I’m deliberately trying to upset people. It’s just, it’s a wind up, it’s just about leading somebody down the garden path, spinning them a story and getting them maybe angry about something and at times making people look stupid and at other times it’s about exposing people for what they are.”

MASOOD: “… Like in a situation where it’s like say on a Facebook status or something, you’re just thinking something, you just say it and then everyone just gets riled up and angry. But you don’t intentionally do it to like make them angry.”

WHITNEY PHILLIPS: “Some of the behaviours are on one end, I don’t know if I would say exactly harmless but don’t really mean to cause any permanent emotional damage. It’s silly, it’s absurd, it’s intended to be kind of amusing – both to the troll and for those who may be witnessing the behaviours.”

Aparent Ethics

There are trolls who regard themselves as having ethics.

ASHER WOLF: Well every troll is individual. For me I have limits – I have ethical and moral limits on my behaviour. I, you know – try to stay within the law. I try not to harm others.”

STEVEN: “In my case, it’s like I said before, it’s getting arise out of somebody but you can you get a rise out of somebody without resorting to calling them, you know, saying that you’re autistic, you’re fat, something like that.”

JENNY BROCKIE: Have you done stuff you regret?
SANJEET KHERAY: Never, because you know, we have values and moral ethical values that we stick to. I would say that satire, sarcasm and all those kind of things are involved in trolling and you can have very tasteful trolling and on the other hand you can have trolling that is very inappropriate.
For example, the Beaconsfield miners’ page for the memorial for people who had passed away in the Beaconsfield mining accident, I remember there was very irrelevant information on that page and any amount of trolling on a memorial page on a Facebook forum, on asocial network, is totally inappropriate.”

JAIME COCHRAN: “I draw the line ethically for myself, like I’m not a malicious person, like I like to say things that are just. I have a sardonic wit but I don’t attack people. I don’t attack people.”

Overall, a very insightful program, (particularily the interviews) and one that everyone who has replied to one of these trolls should find very helpful.

What worked for me

What can you do about it?

  • Don’t engage or reply,
  • Learn to recognise ‘bait’ comments (Why don’t you? … but don’t you think, shouldn’t we…., I fully agree but…)
  • Don’t read their whole comment when you recognise a trolling comment,
  • Don’t engage or reply,
  • Block them immediately,
  • Report them immediately.
  • Don’t engage or reply.

I’ll leave you with a few words on why not to engage:

STEVEN: “In most cases of me, you have to respond to me, you have to kind of pick yourself as a target”.

ANDREW ‘WEEV’ AUERNHEIMER: Trolling is a dialogue and it’s impossible to do without the participation of the party that you’re trolling. They have to – they have to somehow engage in a process of communication with you.”

Further Reading

You can read Twitters advice and policies regarding trolling and bullying at https://support.twitter.com/articles/15794#

You can view the full episode of “Trolls” on YouTube.

Whitney Phillips’ research paper can be found here.

Definition posted on SBS insight website:
What is trolling?
There are many definitions of trolling but generally it’s the act of inciting an emotional reaction from someone online, on sites such as Facebook, chat rooms, blogs, reddit and Twitter.

It can be done through irrelevant and stupid questions, false accusations, personal attacks, silly pranks and other inflammatory comments.

This is how The Urban Dictionary defines trolls.

Most of the time, people troll for a bit of a laugh and harmless fun: ‘Rickrolling’ is an example of this. But other sorts of trolling can cause a lot of distress. (See an example of weev’s trolling here)

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