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David Baxter

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Pest control
August 28, 2004
By Edmund Tadros

A few years ago, a man turned up at a regular meeting of American feminists. Before he joined in, however, he told the group they would eventually throw him out because, in his words, all feminists were "bigots and liars".

He then proceeded to undermine many of the group's discussions, using a combination of disingenuous comments, intentionally outrageous claims and, eventually, direct insults.

Despite this, he was not immediately ejected. Instead, group members argued with him, argued about arguing with him, argued that everyone should just ignore him, until the meeting organiser took matters into her own hands and kicked him out.

This drama didn't play out in a real-world meeting place but on an internet-based discussion board. These electronic discussions, which cover almost any imaginable interest, allow like-minded people from around the world to post messages.

And the man, who probably would never have behaved this way in real life, is a classic example of an internet troll - a cyber prankster whose sometimes playful, sometimes abusive, mostly puerile and occasionally useful behaviour can tear an online community apart or leave it more bonded than ever.

Trolls take pleasure in disrupting online discussions by posting controversial messages, explains Susan Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University in the United States, who wrote a paper about the troll attack on the feminist discussion board.

"The group was infiltrated by a couple of different men. One person [who they referred to as Kent] came on the group and announced from the outset that he was going to get kicked off the group. He said that feminists were intolerant," says Herring.

"He said he wanted to discuss the issues but all he really wanted to do was disrupt the group. He actually manipulated the ideologies of feminism, which is open and tolerant, and if people in the group tried to shut him up overtly they would prove they were intolerant. He won either way."

Kent's posts to the feminist discussion group, which had about 200 active participants, were provocative enough that someone would inevitably take the bait. In one post, Kent the troll, oozing false sincerity, wrote: "Incidentally, I take the silence over the gender wage gap hoax to mean that no feminist here even wants to TRY to defend their biggest lie: that men are paid more for the same work than women are."

Fighting with Kent was difficult because he was never specifically offensive, just subversive. In another message, he challenged the group: "In summary, what exactly is offensive about my posts? If you can tell me I will either stop doing it or leave the board. If, however, you refuse to tell me, and I've not been shy about asking SPECIFICALLY what standards I'm supposed to live by, then I will carry on doing it, of course."

Then, when people tried to ignore him, he would write: "Every poster here has told me that I'm wrong and they are right about feminism. Do you see that? I at least offer proof. I want to discuss, not just drop a slogan and ride out throwing dismissive insults."

The result was chaos, Herring says.

"They didn't know about trolling and I think that would have helped them act more actively. Half the people said ignore him because they figured out he was getting off on the attention. But there were always newcomers or someone else who would take the bait.

"There was another group that said we should just ban him. Then they had the whole discussion about banning him. Finally, the webmistress took matters into her own hands and did ban him. In the process they devised guidelines on how to deal with disruptive people."

Kent the troll focused his energy on upsetting feminists but other trolls are happy to upset a wider range of people. "Ari" told Icon his favourite technique was to write messages that were nominally on-topic.

"For example, I had an argument with one gentleman from alt.fan.ronald-reagan whether the title 'the Great Communicator' belongs to the Gipper [Reagan] or Nokia's 9210 Communicator mobile phone," Ari says.

The comparison between the late former president and Nokia's latest mobile communication device disturbed many of Reagan's fans, resulting in a spirited (and totally pointless) debate in the message board.

"Another good one was the 'Trent Reznor [of the band Nine Inch Nails] got his inspiration from the Sledge Hammer! [an '80s TV show)] theme song thread," Ari says. "That one got me an email from the TV series' creator."

Other trolls are a little more sick and twisted than Ari. On a discussion board about pet rabbits, one troll wrote the message: "Please post rabbit recipes." Unaware it was a troll, one of the rabbit lovers reacted in horror: "How inhuman can you be? This is a rabbit LOVERS newsgroup not a rbbit EATER [sic] newsgroup." Others, confused by the message, actually provided their favourite food-for-rabbits recipes.

So why do it? Why purposely find people who have a common interest and upset them? Like bullies, trolls feel alienated and want attention, says Rebekka Sommer, from the health psychology unit at the University of Technology, Sydney.

"If you're a troll, you're feeling fairly disconnected. Because you're not feeling OK, you go into a discussion group where people are sharing vulnerabilities or passions but you're not experiencing any sense of belonging, so you trivialise that sense of belonging and you feel better about yourself. It is a kind of power trip. It comes down to self-esteem."

Herring says trolling is the cyber version of schoolyard or workplace bullying. "The analogue for trolling is bullying at school but rather than overt bullying, the far more insidious type of bullying. The victim gets a sense that something is going on but you can never confront anyone. I think it's driven by the same thing, which is jealousy." The impersonal nature of the internet also gives rise to this anti-social behaviour.

"There is less accountability online because trolls don't know what you look like and in some ways they can disassociate from the effect they're having on people. It's almost dehumanising," Sommer says.

"I can say something nasty because I don't have to look you in the face. If I don't have to look at you it's easier for me to be hurtful and it still serves my purpose which is to make what you're doing look silly and make me feel better about myself."

Ari tells us he trolls because: "It's fun and easy. Also, it makes me feel all superior and stuff. I like feeling all superior and stuff. It's comforting."

Trolls are most common on open internet discussion boards but have also invaded closed online communities such as orkut.com, an invitation-only social networking service. Michael Jones, an active Orkut member, says he has a troll stalking him online.

"I'm not sure where I got this guy from but he's got this doctored photo of me [on his profile]," says the 32-year-old PhD student. "The guy shows up and randomly invites people to my apartment for large amounts of group sex and I don't even know who [he or she] is. Why me?"

Jones believes trolls can be a problem but says they also spice up an otherwise dull discussion: it's no fun when a group of people who agree with each other get together. "If everyone is there to agree with each other, no one is doing anything. You can be a devil's advocate and stir things up then."

Trolls become a nuisance when they descend into direct abuse, he says. "They're just being outright stupid, it's not even entertaining. It's abusive language for the sake of abusive language."

Another Orkut user, 19-year-old university student Yi Shi, says she has helped track down trolls on the site. Orkut trolls will typically create a fake identity before finding discussion groups to disrupt and people to upset.

" 'Leonie Obermeier' was a troll we collectively hunted down," she says. "The German-speakers concluded that none of her posts sounded feminine. Others were getting upset that she kept spamming people to get profile views."

The proof Leonie was a troll came when a sharp-eyed web-surfer discovered Leonie's profile photo actually came from a copyrighted website by typing "blond teen" into Google.

"The trolls are generally not very intelligent," Shi says. "A quick Google images search will yield their photo on a copyrighted website, their grammar/syntax/punctuation is often atrocious and they slip up in many places."

As for dealing with trolls, that's simple: ignore them, says Jones. "Ignore it and delete it without any further comment if you can. The worst thing you can do is give them the attention that they are seeking. It's a kind of social terrorism - if you really appease them and give them what they want, they'll terrorise you."
 

sammy

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The victim gets a sense that something is going on but you can never confront anyone. I think it's driven by the same thing, which is jealousy."

yes, I would agree with that.
On a couple of boards I have been on, there was mutually understandable debate going on, which was quite peaceful, then someone would come along and disrupt it, but it was hard to pinpoint why...and sometimes the impression that I have got is...the person just doesn't like the fact that you get on well with people and is jealous...
..recently I have seen someone write that he doesn't want to belong to 'admiration clubs' and will be deciding whether to stay on the forum over the weekend...
..well of course all those who fell for it, and didn't read between the lines, wrote...oh please don't go... etc...
 

David Baxter

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sammy said:
..recently I have seen someone write that he doesn't want to belong to 'admiration clubs' and will be deciding whether to stay on the forum over the weekend... ..well of course all those who fell for it, and didn't read between the lines, wrote...oh please don't go... etc...
Yes, though you only get one (or maybe two if you're lucky) kicks at that can. I saw that happen on another board too... the last time the threat was made, the silence was deafening... you could almost hear the writing on the wall...
 

Ash

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I'm a moderator on a board and there is absolutely NO MERCY for those who troll or flame. You get two or three warnings and your IP is blocked. Luckily most of the people on there agree to disagree and are very respectful.
 

thegreatdecay

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Some people just like to cause chaos and watch it unfold in the very comforts of their own computer chair.

I've done it. Usually at places I once respected, then after things started going, as we say "down hill", and the admin became a brute tyrant of pure idiotic nature (closing threads because he thought the insults it contained were about him, closing threads for no reason at all, taking the board down for days, and in extreme cases, weeks, because of seemingly pointless reasons)...so...I gave into the dark side and spammed the hell out of it. I was banned and haven't been back since. =)

It's like therapy.
 

RBM

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Trolling random people you don't know is sadistic. Once I realize a poster is a troll I try not to even read their messages.
 

Sea Swirl

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Trolls are a big problem at so many forums, maybe all of them. Their classic moves are pretty recognizable, though, and people have learned to just ignore them. Sometimes, though, there are troll-like people that seem to be there just to cause disruption, but they really do have a great interest in the subject matter. It's not always easy to tell if they're genuine trolls or not.
Like TheGreatDecay mentioned, too, sometimes a former member will start trolling for various reasons. If the forum is poorly moderated or there are a lot of flamers running the place, a troll like that will specifically troll to expose that or get the moderators to flame. So... trolls are usually pests, but every now and then, a troll will actually show us the way.

There are a lot of really bad mods out there, and awful forums populated by flamers. In those cases, the few reasonable people there who question the situation and demand change can be seen as trolls.

I'm always so surprised, though, at how often people fuel trolls with their outraged responses and just give them exactly what they want. I guess as long as there are people willing to be trolled, there will be trolls to troll them.
 

seeking33

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On the messageboard i frequent, a bunch of people got banned for trolling all at once because one of the trolls had his own messageboard where they (the trolls) would post their plans to troll certain other members and send them abuse via private messages. The mod found out their little scheme and banned the lot of 'em. Some of them actually ASKED to be banned, so the mod eagerly obliged them! lol! Be careful what you ask for!
 

stargazer

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I had a really painful encounter with a troll last December who posted a reply to a post of mine, calling me an "idiot" and a "musical elitist." I was having a hypomanic episode at the time, and it triggered a night-long exchange of insults and offenses. It turned out he had not even read my original post, but was just insulting me at random, for the sake of doing so. Then he got a friend of his in on it the following night. The combination of his and her troll behavior, and my manic behavior over the Internet, was horrible. I wound up cussing and yelling at him in comments to his blog, and she wound up posting an article on her web site stating that I had passed out free drugs to strangers, by that time knowing my full name and certain facts about me.

I had no idea what a troll was until this episode. A friend of mine watched the whole thing and then explained that these people were "trolls," and that they bluster and blare behind their computers, but otherwise have no power. It makes them feel important to do these kinds of things, because otherwise their lives have no meaning. By commenting back at them, I was not only giving them the desires of their perverse hearts, I was stooping to their level, and becoming like them.

The whole thing caught me totally by surprise, but now I know.
 

stargazer

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I had another encounter with a troll a few weeks ago, and tonight I came back and saw what I wrote several months ago. What occurs to me now is that it's not so much that I'm shaken up by the trollish behavior, but I become disturbed by my reaction to it. I still remember that night when I engaged the troll in all kinds of dialogue and wound up getting angry at him over the Internet. It just seems that the healthy thing to do is to ignore the troll completely, and I'm not sure why it is that I chose instead to engage in all that negativity. Even this time, just a few weeks ago, I felt I had to say *something* before I finally let go.
 

stargazer

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Last night I heard from that same troll for the first time in several months. I'd almost forgotten all about him. For some reason, it was again difficult for me not to reply. I guess part of it is that I felt I had to say something, as though to let him know that he wasn't succeeding in bothering me. But that's absurd. Of course he bothers me! I really hope that if he shows up again, I will just ignore him. The problem also is that his post was brief and innocent enough, and it seemed to suggest a brief response. But having identified him, and knowing what he's capable of, I ought to have ignored him. I feel somewhat foolish for not having done so. I definitely don't want to engage with him, knowing that it could just become totally negative and pointless, not to mention distracting and hurtful. I feel a little stupid that I don't seem to have the self-control I need in this area.
 

David Baxter

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One of the things that helps me to refrain from responding to trolls is to understand that the troll WANTS me to respond and that he/she is probably waiting and checking and re-checking to see my response. Knowing that, I realize that by NOT responding, I am going to drive the guy crazy. It's a little devious and cruel in some ways but it gives me a kind of sadistic pleasure to know that i am bothering the troll more than the troll is nothering me by reacting that way. :eek:

Well, that and I've always had a perverse reluctance to do the obvious... :eek:
 

stargazer

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Interesting.? I sort of think that while the troll wants me to respond, and feeds upon my responses to fuel his nefarious agenda, he probably isn't particularly disgruntled when I don't respond.? He simply seeks out another target.? Maybe he's bothered after a time if he receives no response whatsoever from any of his trollish efforts, but I doubt that my mere lack of response in a single instance will really annoy him.

In any case, the combination of my sometime tendency to respond hastily--even to friendly comments from those whom I like--and the troll's desire to elicit a response, can be disheartening if not dangerous.? I better get a grip.? My friends in 12-Step programs tell me it's a matter of exercising what they call "restraint of tongue and pen."? Usually, after a short while, I realize that I don't really care too much about the troll's agenda, and so there's no real reason to feed or fuel it.? On to better things.?
 

foghlaim

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interesting thread.. i've never heard of trolls.. as in the type reffered to here.

the only trolls i've seen are little doll type figures with hair that stands up on it head.? craze here years ago.. lol.

makes me wonder about an email i received recently.... i know where the guy came from.. and deleted his email without responding.? hmmm...
 

stargazer

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It also sort of seems that the nature of the Internet gives rise to the trollish phenomenon: the irresistable temptation to pull something naughty if one feels one can't possibly be caught or hurt, that no consequences will ever have to be paid.? I think Dr. Baxter once told me that it's a combination of three pathologies (is that right, David?) the pathology having to do with "bullying," the one having to do with "anonymity" (as in people who enjoy of planning a crime in an unknown town which they visit only for the purpose of committing the crime there) and the one having to do with "stalking."? I'm not enough of a psych person to know the technical terms for those particular pathologies, however.
 

foghlaim

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the word sociopath comes to mind... don't know why.. just reading your post Stargazer and the word popped into my head. Probably not the right term at all..

educate me someone.. lol.
 

stargazer

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There are a number of people on this forum whom I'm sure could provide the right word or words, but unfortunately I am a mere musician who dabbles in psychology as a diversion.? To me, "sociopath" seems to be along the right lines, if as I understand it, a sociopath is a person who lacks a conscience.? But it might be too strong.? Maybe "antisocial?"? I don't know.? I know that those who have studied this kind of thing have used the term "pathology" in this context, but I'm not certain of the distinctions.
 

David Baxter

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I don't know if there's a syndrome/disorder that covers it... attention-seeking and bullying come to mind though.
 

stargazer

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And maybe a stalking element, as I think you suggested earlier, as well as something to do with a sense of power that comes from committing a wrongdoing anonymously. I used the word "pathology" in an earlier post because my friend Tim has been studying this, and he said it was a "pathology." He seems to know about these kinds of things. I'm not entirely sure what "pathological" means, though. The word seems to be used loosely among those of us in the laity.
 

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