by Ryan Baker, Fred Chasen, Christina Pham, Rohan Salantry
A new study by Nottingham Trent University study describes “trolling” as “intentionally provoking or antagonizing users in an online environment” and found that 60% of gamers had engaged in this behavior[i]. However, the definition of what constitutes trolling has evolved as new opportunities to interact have developed online. The behavior now has several faces which depend on the community, and on the motivation of the trolling user. Anonymous users of low social standing may troll to disrupt existing communities, whereas community members of high social standing may use trolling to alienate new users, behavior that could be described as bullying. Internet groups sometimes act collectively to troll other communities or targets to make political statements, or simply for amusement. This essay will examine several of these different troll types, and the motivations behind them.
The Mole – Trolls as Infiltrators
The most common exploit of the traditional troll is stirring up controversial discussions on news sites and message boards, in what one might consider “mole” trolling. In “Identity and deception in the virtual community,” Donath describes trolling behavior as inciting discussion through bait arguments, thereby diverting the discussion in the community towards a heated argument[ii]. In message boards specifically, trolls attempt to establish credibility by means of “conventional signals” – ones that have a low cost of entry –and harness this credibility to express viewpoints intended to disrupt.
This behavior is frequently seen on political discussion sites like Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com). Often on Daily Kos, pseudonymous users with low community credibility post controversial diaries or comments presumably intended to elicit arguments, often engaging in category deception to formulate credibility. For instance, a user might declare that, while they’ve voted Democratic all their life, they are rabidly against Obamacare and wonder why others aren’t. If this user has a consistent history of posting diaries in such opposition, without establishing their personal claims (they are actually Democrats) or that they honor site principles (i.e. honest political discourse), they are likely to be labeled “concern trolls,” with their posts being labeled as such through community-applied tags. On Daily Kos and other discussion groups that support freedom of expression on the web, this type of trolling behavior is often combated by policies of community ignoring rather than censoring, as this eliminates the primary rationale and goal of trolling: baiting, waiting for response, then enjoying the fight[iii].
In groups such as Daily Kos where the rate of identity deception might be high, the community is observed to be quite sensitized to trolling, and have mechanisms in place to marginalize them. However, in more “trigger-happy” communities, honest naive users might be quickly rejected as trolls, shunting the community growth. Similar to being rejected in the society by groups one is trying to be a part of, it can have an array of negative effects on the individual in addition to affecting the individual’s online reputation in the virtual world.
The Jester – Trolling for Lulz
Another role that a troll plays in society is that of the “jester”: the being that provides entertainment and laughs for themselves and those around them. While previous roles and past explanations of a troll have been specific to an individual who seeks to disrupt the social order of their virtual community, their roles have evolved to fit a different niche in present day society. Now that online gaming communities have opened up for people to use as a channel for interaction with others, they have created a new means for users to troll others. In a recent study in online gaming trolls, about 2 out of 3 players have admitted to trolling other players online[iv]. This extends to such actions as baiting a large group of monsters to attack a pack of “noobs”, or to give misinformed information or advice to other players. Those who have admitted to it have also revealed that they did it out of boredom, or for the sake of entertainment and breaking the fantasy of play. In this case, the entertainment is for themselves and for those immediately around them, and the users are acting out of positions of power in the community, rather than through feigned membership and deception of the “mole”.
In another example, the 4chan community often uses trolling as entertainment in a different way: they often mobilize their large community membership to pull pranks on powerful celebrities or politicians. For example, in an official Justin Beiber web poll, the 4Chan population went out and voted that he does his tour in North Korea knowing very well that it was unlikely that he would be sent there[v]. This is a classic example of members of a firmly rooted community acting like temporary trolls, not necessarily for disruption but for collective amusement.
The Knight – Trolling for a Cause
Without the risk of being identified, single trolls or groups of anonymous trolls can band together as “Knights on a Crusade”, fighting for a specific cause by causing disruptions. While there have been some high profile unmaskings, for the most part these actions haven’t had repercussions for the majority of participants[vi].
The group Anonymous brought this style of activism to the world’s attention. They took to organizing and spreading the word about protest in Zuccotti Park, as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Other efforts included creating hacker tools for disruption of the stock exchange. These tools may have been purely trolls as the tools never materialized[vii]. One of the strengths of these Crusades is the lack of a set group of participants, or methods used. In other fights, hacker tools have been used effectively against the Church of Scientology, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America and brought major media attention when they attacked the systems of MasterCard, Visa and PayPal[viii].
More recently, a bartender, Scott Prouty, recorded hidden camera footage of Mitt Romney speaking at a fundraiser and released it anonymously on the internet. Releasing an embarrassing video would be trolling in most contexts, but the releaser recently revealed that he didn’t stop there, stating that “[his] goal was that if you put ‘Mitt Romney’ into Google, the video would be the first thing that came up.” Prouty worked on his own to maximize the number of links to the video on both Mother Jones and YouTube, through Twitter and Facebook and other social media[ix]. In his crusade, he put to use the same methods that were used to harass Justin Bieber for laughs to discredit a presidential candidate. His anonymity allowed for the video to speak for itself and became a major topic of discussion in the media for several weeks.
In each of these roles, the troll attempts to affect an online community to advance his own goals, relying on a certain degree of anonymity to protect himself from any social ramifications of his actions. Sometimes this occurs from a position of power, in which a community veteran exerts his influence through bullying activity; others act from powerless positions, using surreptitious and disruptive tactics to steer discussion in a direction of their choosing. In our research, we came across many instances like these where trolling can be used to advance one’s strategic goals. The environments for such behavior, the methods used, and the community responses may vary, but the phenomenon of trolling will continue to manifest itself as long as anonymity and pseudonymity maintain a permanent presence in the social fabric of online communities.
[ii] Donath, Judith S. “Identity and deception in the virtual community.”Communities in cyberspace 1996 (1999): 16.
[iii] Donath, Judith S. “Identity and deception in the virtual community.”Communities in cyberspace 1996 (1999): 14.