What is a Troll?
An Internet "troll" is a person who delights in sowing discord on the Internet. He (and it is usually he) tries to start arguments and upset people.
Trolls see Internet communications services as convenient venues for their bizarre game. For some reason, they don't "get" that they are hurting real people. To them, other Internet users are not quite human but are a kind of digital abstraction.
As a result, they feel no sorrow whatsoever for the pain they inflict. Indeed, the greater the suffering they cause, the greater their 'achievement' (as they see it). At the moment, the relative anonymity of the net allows trolls to flourish.
Trolls are utterly impervious to criticism (constructive or otherwise). You cannot negotiate with them; you cannot cause them to feel shame or compassion; you cannot reason with them. They cannot be made to feel remorse. For some reason, trolls do not feel they are bound by the rules of courtesy or social responsibility.
Perhaps this sounds inconceivable. You may think, "Surely there is something I can write that will change them." But a true troll can not be changed by mere words.
Why does it Matter?
Some people -- particularly those who have been online for years -- are not upset by trolls and consider them an inevitable hazard of using the net. As the saying goes, "You can't have a picnic without ants."
It would be nice if everybody was so easy-going, but the sad fact is that trolls do discourage people. Established posters may leave a message board because of the arguments that trolls ignite, and lurkers (people who read but do not post) may decide that they do not want to expose themselves to abuse and thus never get involved.
Another problem is that the negative emotions stirred up by trolls leak over into other discussions. Normally affable people can become bitter after reading an angry interchange between a troll and his victims, and this can poison previously friendly interactions between long-time users.
Finally, trolls create a paranoid environment, such that a casual criticism by a new arrival can elicit a ferocious and inappropriate backlash.
The Internet is a wonderful resource which is breaking down barriers and stripping away prejudice. Trolls threaten our continued enjoyment of this beautiful forum for ideas.
What can be Done about Trolls?
When you suspect that somebody is a troll, you might try responding with a polite, mild message to see if it's just somebody in a bad mood. Internet users sometimes let their passions get away from them when seated safely behind their keyboard. If you ignore their bluster and respond in a pleasant manner, they usually calm down.
However, if the person persists in being beastly, and seems to enjoy being unpleasant, the only effective position is summed up as follows:
The only way to deal with trolls is to limit your reaction to reminding others not to respond to trolls.
When you try to reason with a troll, he wins. When you insult a troll, he wins. When you scream at a troll, he wins. The only thing that trolls can't handle is being ignored.
What Not to Do
As already stated, it is futile to try to "cure" a troll of his obsession. But perhaps you simply cannot bear the hostile environment that the troll is creating and want to go away for a while.
If you do that, then for the sake of the others on the system, please do not post a dramatic "Goodbye!" message. This convinces the troll that he is winning the battle. There is, perhaps, no message you can write on a message system that is as damaging as an announcement that you are leaving because of the hostility that the troll has kindled.
If you feel you must say something, a discreet message to the system operator (and some of the others users, if you have their email addresses) is the best course of action. Incidentally, if you are writing the letter in an agitated state, it is a good idea to wait an hour and then give it one last review before you actually send it. That might spare you the pain of saying things that you don't really mean to people you like.
One technique used by trolls to generate chaos is to pretend to be a well-liked person. On some systems there is nothing to prevent somebody from signing your name to a distasteful message. On other systems the troll may have to be a bit more wiley, perhaps by replacing one character with another. Here are some examples of various spoofing gimmicks that could be used against a person named Brenda Q. O'Really:
Brenda Q. O"Really Brenda Q. 0'Really Brenda Q O'Really
Brenda Q. O'Rea11y Bredna Q. O'Really 8renda Q. O'Really
Note: "Brenda Q. O'Really" is a made-up name used to illustrate spoofing and is not intended to refer to a particular person.
If you react with anger, the troll wins. So if you see a message impersonating you on a message board, simply write a follow-up reply entitled "That Wasn't Me" and type only this:
I did not write that message -- it is a fake.
Of course, sometimes you will find that people who know you well have already identified the message as a fake and have tagged it as such. After all, one of the troll's goals is to make you look bad. If you have a good reputation, people will be tipped off if a message that you apparently wrote is completely out of character.
Trolls have been known to become so irritated at having their spoofs identified that they have learned to write in another person's style. They may end up writing an intelligent message that is indistinguishable from your own golden words. If that happens, you can always just let the post stand and take credit for it!
Trolls will also sometimes write a "That Wasn't Me" message after a genuine one, attempting to elicit a denial. There really is no reason to give him what he wants, since a "That Wasn't Me" warning merely reminds people to be skeptical. That is to say, it is of no real consequence if somebody isn't sure that you wrote a normal message, since in the long run it is the ideas that are important.
The Webmaster's Challenge
When trolls are ignored they step up their attacks, desperately seeking the attention they crave. Their messages become more and more foul, and they post ever more of them. Alternatively, they may protest that their right to free speech is being curtailed -- more on this later.
The moderator of a message board may not be able to delete a troll's messages right away, but their job is made much harder if they also have to read numerous replies to trolls. They are also forced to decide whether or not to delete posts from well-meaning folks which have the unintended effect of encouraging the troll.
Some webmasters have to endure conscientious users telling them that they are "acting like dictators" and should never delete a single message. These people may be misinformed: they may have arrived at their opinion about a troll based on the messages they see, never realizing that the webmaster has already deleted his most horrific material. Please remember that a troll does have an alternative if he has something of value to say: there are services on the net that provide messaging systems free of charge. So the troll can set up his own message board, where he can make his own decisions about the kind of content he will tolerate.
Just how much can we expect of a webmaster when it comes to preserving the principles of free speech? Some trolls find sport in determining what the breaking point is for a particular message board operator. They might post a dozen messages, each of which contains 400 lines of the letter "J". That is a form of expression, to be sure, but would you consider it your duty to play host to such a person?
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for a webmaster is deciding whether to take steps against a troll that a few people find entertaining. Some trolls do have a creative spark and have chosen to squander it on being disruptive. There is a certain perverse pleasure in watching some of them. Ultimately, though, the webmaster has to decide if the troll actually cares about putting on a good show for the regular participants, or is simply playing to an audience of one -- himself.
What about Free Speech?
When trolls find that their efforts are being successfully resisted, they often complain that their right to free speech is being infringed. Let us examine that claim.
While most people on the Internet are ardent defenders of free speech, it is not an absolute right; there are practical limitations. For example, you may not scream out "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, and you may not make jokes about bombs while waiting to board an airplane. We accept these limitations because we recognize that they serve a greater good.
Another useful example is the control of the radio frequency spectrum. You might wish to set up a powerful radio station to broadcast your ideas, but you cannot do so without applying for a license. Again, this is a practical limitation: if everybody broadcasted without restriction, the repercussions would be annoying at best and life-threatening at worst.
The radio example is helpful for another reason: with countless people having a legitimate need to use radio communications, it is important to ensure that nobody is 'monopolizing the channel'. There are only so many clear channels available in each frequency band and these must be shared.
When a troll attacks a message board, he generally posts a lot of messages. Even if his messages are not particularly inflammatory, they can be so numerous that they drown out the regular conversations (this is known as 'flooding'). Needless to say, no one person's opinions can be allowed to monopolize a channel.
The ultimate response to the 'free speech' argument is this: while we may have the right to say more or less whatever we want, we do not have the right to say it wherever we want. You may feel strongly about the fact that your neighbour has not mowed his lawn for two months, but you do not have the right to berate him in his own living room. Similarly, if a webmaster tells a troll that he is not welcome, the troll has no "right" to remain. This is particularly true on the numerous free communications services offered on the net. (On pay systems, the troll might be justified in asking for a refund.)
Why Do They Do It?
Regular net users know how delightful it is when somebody responds to something they have written. It is a meeting of the minds, which is an intellectual thrill, but it is also an acknowledgement of one's value -- and that can be a very satisfying emotional reward.
Trolls crave attention, and they care not whether it is positive or negative. They see the Internet as a mirror in which they can gaze in narcissistic rapture.
If you want a deeper analysis than that, perhaps a psychologist can shed some additional light on the matter.
Next time you are on a message board and you see a post by somebody whom you think is a troll, and you feel you must reply, simply write a follow-up message entitled "Troll Alert" and type only this:
The only way to deal with trolls is to limit your reaction to reminding others not to respond to trolls.
By posting such a message, you let the troll know that you know what he is, and that you are not going to get dragged into his twisted little hobby.
The Internet is a splendidly haphazard collection of both serious and silly material. Because it is so free, there are bound to be problems. I think that we can best enjoy it if we deal with everything that happens online with a wry grin and a ready shrug.
Note to Webmasters
Webmasters are invited to link to this article. It is part of a set of related web sites that have been active since 1995 and should be around for many years to come. You may also find this site interesting -- it is a 10-minute writing course that can help new Internet users write better messages and email.
Incidentally, if you have a troll problem, I would like to recommend that you check out my Parse-O-Matic utility. It is a programmable data utility that can filter system logs and other text. It runs under either DOS or Windows.