Research What are you Reading...On Trolling

What are you Reading…On Trolling

Over the past week I have been thinking about the topic of ‘internet trolling.’ According to Wikipedia, an internet troll is “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community…with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.” While there may have been a time in the past when internet trolling was an obscure and marginal activity, the fallout from “gamergate,” the Internet’s response to the death of the gorilla Harambe, and Trump’s numerous tweets calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” because “it drives her crazy,” illustrate how it has permeated society.

This type of behavior, whereby people are tracked, harassed, and in extreme situations forced to hide because of hostile online interactions, has led some to claim the internet is an omniopticon, where the many watch the many. Just like Bentham’s panopticon prison, this system enforces a certain type of behavior, and ensures that certain ideas are ‘off the table’ since people who express them are attacked by individuals with no interest in informed, rational discussion. What ideas tend to be off the table? Those outside the norms accepted by the internet community. As many have pointed out, much of what is normal on the internet is both racist and sexist.

There is still much work to be done in order to understand internet trolling, and to combat its dangerous effects. Yet my investigation this week into what motivates online trolls led me to some interesting publications that have begun to examine this question.  I recommend the following:

What are you reading?


  1. I think that definition gives too much credit to trolls. Either that or people use the label too indiscriminately. Much of the ‘starting arguments’ and ‘off-topic messages’ I see in online discussions resemble all too well my Critical Thinking classes (and my conversations with my neighbours). That is to say it’s not that people are intentionally trying to be inflammatory; it’s that they genuinely don’t understand the arguments presented (no doubt they don’t even know they’ve been presented with an argument — a claim supported by specific evidence/reasoning) and so can’t recognize when they’re off-topic.

  2. I think there’s probably some of both (i.e. misunderstanding of arguments and indiscriminate use of the term). As part of my research, I did a search for “In defense of trolling” to see what possible justifications there could be for that type of behavior. What came back were articles from self-identified trolls who wanted to distance themselves from explicitly insulting or naive comments, since they do that they do ‘for the lulz’ and knowing full well that their arguments are poor. They disliked how the term had become a catch-all for bad behavior on the internet.

    What bothered me as much as anything was how some of them claimed to be Socratic gadflies inasmuch as they believed their comments encouraged critical thinking.

  3. Hm. Interesting. I’ve never liked the label ‘devil’s advocate’ either — just b/c you’re presenting a counter-argument, that doesn’t mean you’re a troll or a devil, nor should it even mean you have to AGREE with the argument you’re presenting. (so the ‘distancing’ comment confuses me)


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