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Internet meme depicting a Troll, often accompanied by the phrase, "You mad, bro?"

Troll is a term used on the Internet referring to a person who makes incendiary remarks or provocative comments with malicious intent. Their statements are usually purposefully offensive or completely off-topic, in order to draw attention to themselves and engage others in pointless conversation. Trolls are active users of various websites such as chatrooms, blogs, message boards, online memorials, and are also very abundant in online video game environments. These types of people also tend to blend in with the rest of the community until they decide it is time to start causing havoc. Often times, a discovered troll will be isolated and ridiculed by the community as a whole because their sole intent was to harm and disrupt the community.

A common rendition of a troll that has been foiled.

Term Derivation

The word "trolling" or "troll" comes from a style of fishing. This particular method involves dragging bait through a hole or space in the hopes of getting a bite.[1] This parallels to the Internet-related use of the word because trolls often post seditious comments to provoke reactions from other users or readers. According to Norse mythology, trolls were defined to be creatures with harmful intents, and with the incoming of the digital age, the term "troll" has come to take on a similar meaning in a different context. In describing "trolling" and how it relates to online behavior, the term often carries negative connotations. Someone who trolls online is said to have negative intentions, in addition to wishing harm and discomfort upon the online audience. A victim of trolling in the online environment is defined to be someone who has become the target of a troll's jokes or malicious actions.[2]

Levels of Trolling

Trolls tally their successes from LULZ, a play on the LOL abbreviation for laugh out loud. LULZ are incidents where trolls gain happiness from emotionally damaging others. "Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh," said one ex-troll.[3] The goal of trolls is to maximize LULZ, in other words, maximize the harm brought to others.

Level One

This level is known as "playtime". Trolls operating on this level are simply concerned with instant gratification. They are very blunt with their comments or attacks and are very easy to spot. These attacks are usually pretty unimaginative and posted to simply incite an argument. Playtime trolls tend to lack an in-depth understanding of the topic, personal information, a unique perspective or a shared sense of humor.

Level Two

Also known as the "tactical" level, trolls here are a bit more serious about their purpose. The created persona tends to be more credible and uses recognizable techniques of the particular forum they are posting on. These attacks are more subtle and as a result, more difficult to identify as trolling. They might be inclined to engage in off-site email dialogue. Tactical trolls win trust of others through these e-mails and become harder to detect.

Level Three

"Strategic" trolls take the game of trolling extremely seriously. They tend to employ strategies that have taken months or years to develop. Additionally, trolls at this level may operate in a group or use multiple personalities making it exponentially more difficult to find and isolate the perpetrators. Sometimes, users will use their multiple accounts to attack themselves and further provoke reactions from other users.

Level Four

The final level of trolling is "domination". This is the most rare type of trolling because it is very involved. "Domination" trolling involves creating and running a forum. The reward for these trolls is knowing they are emotionally dominating the lives of their users. These types of trolls sometimes cross into the real-world because they sometimes will contact people outside of the site they operate.

Psychology of Trolling

Disinhibition effect

Psychologists attribute the phenomenon of trolling to the disinhibition effect that emerges in online interaction. The disinhibition effect describes the abandoning of social restrictions commonly found in face-to-face interactions. This effect leads to Internet users “loosening up,” and behaving in ways that would be socially unacceptable in non-Internet contexts.

John Suler, the psychologist who discovered the disinhibition effects, classifies two different forms of disinhibition. Benign disinhibition occurs when users become more willing to share personal things about themselves, become more affectionate, or more willing to help others. Toxic disinhibition, on the other hand, describes user tendencies to be hostile towards others, abuse others, or displaying other qualities of trolling. [4] > Suler argues that six primary factors are responsible for creating the disinhibition effect [5]. They are:

  • dissociative anonymity ("my actions can't be attributed to my person");
  • invisibility ("nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone");
  • asynchronicity ("my actions do not occur in real-time");
  • solipsistic Introjection ("I can't see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent");
  • dissociative imagination ("this is not the real world, these are not real people");
  • minimising authority ("there are no authority figures here, I can act freely").

Sociological perspective

Psychologist Graham Jones comments "In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behavior of others around them and adapt their own behavior accordingly... Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms." Additionally, sociologists speculate that the emergence of aggressive online behavior might be due in part to a lack of online etiquette standards. Due to the young age of the Internet, it might be the case that relevant social norms haven’t yet been developed regarding how to conduct behavior online. Jones states "Over time we may see reductions in trolling and so on as people realize it is unacceptable and also as others "police" the networks more." [5]


One example of trolling happened in 2007 on 4chan boards. The event was known as Gold Membership trolling, where the users posted fake images on the forum claiming to offer upgraded 4chan account privileges, which allows members to view certain content that are exclusive. It turned out that there was no such thing and it was designed to fool board members and newcomers to the site. This type of membership trolling caught on and soon became a meme. In some cases this type of trolling has been used as a scam as in the case of the fake Facebook Gold Account upgrade ads that have popped up in several dubious websites.

Ethical Implications


There are many ethical implications of the mischievous behaviors of Internet trolls and their deliberate abuse of online privacy. Trolls typically hide behind the anonymity provided by online environments, which allows them to act nonsensically and avoid the repercussions. The act of trolling inflicts intentional harm on a online community through the posting of emotionally abusive remarks and/or counterproductive remarks that create confusion between users. Trolls infiltrate an online community and detract others from interacting in the community. The contributions of a troll are not positive. The troll may be entertained or gain satisfaction from his or her actions, but it is at the expense of the rest of the community.[6] Trolls also violate trust created in an online environment and can cause other users to refrain from creating and nurturing trust in various online environments.

Comment Sections

The actions of trolls are also known to shut down message board "comment" and discussion features on,YouTube videos and other social media websites that encourage users to voice their opinion about current events or entertainment. These people use one of social media's most important features, the ability for user-to-user interaction, to their advantage to cause a multitude of issues. During important sports games, message boards are oftentimes bombarded with trolls who slow down the online discussion by purposely creating arguments with other users or writing numerous long posts with emoticons to prevent others from joining the online conversation. Trolls purposely spark arguments between users on topics that are frequently unrelated, untrue, or simply ridiculous arguments. These people make it their goal to evoke some sort of reaction out of the other users posting.

Example of a Troll in's Comment Sections

To prevent trolls from creating further harm in communities where they have posted,, YouTube, and other social media sites delete certain threads of the discussion, revoke the ability of users to comment on their website, and ban users entirely. Though discussion is typically helpful and encouraged on these websites, as they allow users from across the country to share ideas opinions about certain topics. On's website it states, "If you are bothered by someone on the ESPN message boards, such as a 'forum troll,' a spammer, or a person making personal attacks (i.e., 'flaming'), click the Report Violation link on the offending post. All reported posts will be reviewed immediately."[7] However, while this might briefly stop online trolls, it does not completely eradicate the problem, as many websites allow users to easily create log-in email accounts, meaning that the trolls can log-in under a different user-name a continue to troll the message boards until they are banned again and the process continues a cycle.


The accounts of prevalent trolls can be banned on a case by case basis. Additionally, it can be argued that this is a form of unethical censorship. Even though the trolls are preventing normal users from enjoying their message board experience and commenting on stories or other online threads as is their right to free speech, it can also be argued that trolls are exercising their right to free speech by posting comments to troll message boards. Controversy is not necessarily a negative thing but the controversy may be unwarranted. E-community moderators continue to debate whether it is best to permit trolls to take part in a community or ban trolls to foster a balanced community.

Some trolling activities can constitute targeting an individual with insults or degradation. These activities then translate to incidents of cyberbullying.

Morality of Trolling

Trolling by nature is the act of purposefully bothering another user over the internet. Trolls use whatever means necessary to gain sensitive information and then use it on their victim for their own pleasure. In an article published by the New York Times in August 2008, reporter Mattathias Schwartz detailed the reasoning behind personally attacking another user over the internet. In his article, Schwartz found that many trolls justified their actions, such as turning an epilepsy awareness site into a rapidly blinking page of color, as a service to the community.[3] There has to be simpler ways to provide the service of pointing out flaws in a web site's code, likely made by a developer who never dreamed of anyone assaulting the page, than exposing epileptics to a serious threat for their disorder. It has to be considered unethical for people to bother others with the sole purpose of generating humor based on the victim's suffering.

Legal Action

Photo of the perpetrator, Sean Duffy.

In a court case from September 2011, an internet troll, Sean Duffy, was jailed for his remarks made online. Duffy was involved in vandalizing tribute pages of many young victims of crimes and suicides, known as RIP Trolling. Additionally, Duffy created his own YouTube videos and mock tribute pages to further torture the victims' friends and families. After being linked to harassing and creating several of these pages and videos, Duffy was finally punished for his trolling offenses. He plead guilty to two counts of sending vindictive messages relating to one victim, and asked for his other offenses to be considered in the same case. In the end, Duffy was sentenced to 18 weeks in jail in addition to a 5 year antisocial behavior order to prohibit Duffy from utilizing any forms of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. It was reported that Duffy suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, however this was never confirmed. Police commented on the case saying they would continue to track down trolls like Duffy, demonstrating a clear precedent for trolling on the Internet.[8]

Community Reactions

One common way that users deal with a troll is to completely ignore the troll's comments and actions.[9] This way, there is nothing for the troll to feed on, as a troll typically thrives when his target audience is engaged in a conversation or argument. However, in many situations it is difficult to differentiate a troll in an online discussion from the get-go because trolls rarely state their intentions, making it challenging to prevent a case of trolling from happening. Instead, most incidences are those of damage repair, where users with moderator privileges must take administrative action against trolls.

There have been many other attempts at suppressing trolls, such as suspension of accounts, implementing muting features, and adding methods of reporting unacceptable behavior. These attempts seem to be less effective due to the anonymity and sheer volume of trolls in online settings. Trolls are almost impossible to permanently remove as they can easily change their IP addresses and create new accounts at forums, message boards, and other communities.

Poe's Law

"Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing." This social axiom is often applied to the culture of trolling, where it is often difficult to differentiate coyness from sheer, unpretentious idiocy. Questioning whether a potential troll is trolling has different repercussions depending on whether the trolling is true, which is to say, intentional. If the trolling is true, it may be the troll's objective to make onlookers unsure of his seriousness, but if the potential troll is actually an innocent user who is perceived to be in error, the person asking if he is trolling may be asking the question as an intentional insult, as if to say, "Your opinions are so absurd, I cannot differentiate you from an intentionally absurd provocateur."

See Also

External Links


  2. Bergstrom, K. (2011). Don't feed the troll: Shutting down debate about community expectations on First Monday, 16(8), pp. 10. Retrieved from't_feed_the_troll_Shutting_down_debate_about_community_expectations_on_Redditcom
  3. 3.0 3.1 Malwebolence - New York Times. Retrieved from
  4. The Online Disinhibition Effect. Retrieved from
  5. 5.0 5.1 Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling - WIRED. Retrieved from
  6. Internet troll - Wikipedia. Retrived from
  8. Internet troll jailed after mocking deaths of teenagers - The Guardian. Retrieved from
  9. Recognising And Dealing With Trolls. Retrieved from

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