You’re wrong about “internet trolls” – dangerously wrong

An item which I’ve been ranting about a lot over the past year or so, and which was scheduled for inclusion in Volume 18 of The Hate List, was the misappropriation of the internet terminology “troll” by the mainstream media. The rant seemed long enough to spin off into its own post on the new tombell.net blog.

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot from newspapers and the like about the growing menace of “internet trolls”: nasty, ignorant cyber-bullies who hide behind the safety of their computer screens and hurl abuse and harassment at politicians, celebrities and ordinary innocent people unfortunate enough to step into their sights.

This article from the Express (a screenshot so you don’t have to boost their revenue by visiting it) is a typical recent example, the term in this case being applied to a forum poster who threatened to shoot Kate McCann at the London Marathon:

It’s not just newspapers and television journalists. Politicians, the police and courts, PR people and others are all now buying in to this trendy new bit of jargon. Except they’ve all got it wrong.

The correct meaning of the word “troll”, within the culture of the internet, is something quite different. It’s the playful idea of saying something in order to provoke a reaction – usually by posting something deliberately controversial, ridiculous, apparently stupid or ill-informed. It DOESN’T mean posting rage and abuse. This is properly known as “flaming”, and is what real trolls are hoping to incite.

A typical example of trolling might be to post to a Playstation forum, asking people to choose their favourite game from the Halo series. Knowing that the Halo games are available only on Microsoft’s XBox systems, the troll would be hoping that the forum users would be enraged at his ignorance, and respond with the sort of hyperbolic, impotent fury that the internet is famous for.

Trolling may not be the most constructive of activities, and it does cause damage, at least in terms of the wasted time and resources spent by administrators trying to keep their forums sane by blocking the trolls, and dealing with their aftermath. Nor, however, is it the brainless, bigoted hate-posting it’s been confused with.

In fact, in many instances its practice can be elevated to the level of brilliance. In an ongoing battle of wits, in which serious forum users are ever-vigilant to identify trolls in order to ignore or block them, the trolls are forced to raise their game in reply, becoming more subtle and convincing in their attempts to pass off as genuine users, while still managing to post something which provokes a frenzied response.

One of my favourite trolls of all time is this notorious article, posted on the satirical news site Adequacy.org back in 2001. Adequacy.org itself was a troll community, created by regular trollers of Slashdot and other tech blogs, so anyone reading it should have been acutely alert to the likelihood of being trolled by every article. Nevertheless, by posing as a concerned parent, clearly not as tech-savvy as he believed himself to be, but smugly lecturing to a highly computer-literate audience, the author of “Is Your Son a Computer Hacker?” managed to dupe enough readers to generate almost 6000 comments, most of them scoffing and equally smug rebuttals of the article, in just the nine months or so before the site was closed and archived. If its host site had remained active, the article would almost certainly still be inspiring outraged responses today.

This is the real trolling: witty and mischievous, clever and crafted, at its best achieving the status of an art form. It’s an insult to these master pranksters to lump them in with the sort of sick individual who would make death threats against grieving mothers.

I’m not the first person to get annoyed at this. Over on the blog Vice, Glen Coco wrote a hilarious reference guide for journalists, with examples from each of the main UK newspapers. It’s even been covered by the papers themselves: James Ball wrote an article for the Guardian making much the same point as I have here. “It’s probably too late for trolling,” he pessimistically concludes, “The term has been misappropriated to the point of being just another bland synonym.”

The mainstream media has form here. In the ’80s, they mistook “hacker” to mean “computer criminal”, leaving an ongoing definition controversy in their wake. Now they’ve done it again. Discovering an interesting new word on the wild frontiers of the internet, they’ve completely failed to grasp its meaning, having clearly not done the most basic research, like checking a standard reference work. It’s not even a particularly complex concept, but apparently it’s still too subtle and nuanced for the average British hack.

They could have chosen from several other terms which would have been closer to the intended meaning: “flamer”, discussed already; “hater”, originating from hip-hop, adopted on the internet for someone who posts persistently negative comments; or probably the most appropriate, “griefer”, coined within online gaming circles, now extended to social networks generally, meaning someone who behaves in such a way as to cause grief and annoyance to others.

Or, as Ball points out in his Guardian article, they could have used any number of everyday English words, like “abuse” or “harassment”. This is the real root of the issue, and why I find it so concerning. If what’s happening is described using existing vocabulary, it’s apparent straight away whether it’s an existing crime like harassment, or just the spouting of offensive opinions by some idiot, which though unpleasant shouldn’t be criminal.

By giving the behaviour a scary new name, “trolling”, the reactionary media make it seem like an entirely new phenomenon, requiring new powers and legislation to deal with it. The state springs into action, protecting us from an imaginary threat, and freedom of speech is curtailed even further as we hand over ever more authority to regulate what we can and can’t post on the internet (or say, or think).

Don’t believe me? The Malicious Communications Act 1988 already criminalises “electronic communication” which is “grossly offensive” for the purposes of causing “distress or anxiety”. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it an offence to “pursue a course of conduct” (ie do at least two things) “alarming” or “causing distress” to a person. Between these two reasonable pieces of longstanding legislation there should be enough power to convict anyone truly abusing or harassing another online.

But that’s not all there is. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it a further offence, punishable by up to six months in prison, to “send by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false … or persistently make use of a public electronic communications network … for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.”

I’d argue that things have already gone too far: it shouldn’t be a criminal act just to annoy someone on Facebook or Twitter. But whether you agree with me on that or not, what’s more certain is that Section 127 gives more than enough power to the authorities to deal with the “internet trolls” of tabloid nightmare.

Yet it’s still not enough. Here’s the Mail Online at it again in May, calling for more laws to fight the troll menace:

So stop misusing the word “troll”. If you want to use terminology from internet culture, read up on it a bit first. If you want to talk about online harassment and abuse, call it that. Stop summoning up bogeymen and keep a sense of proportion before you start calling for the government to police even further what’s acceptable to post online.

7 thoughts on “You’re wrong about “internet trolls” – dangerously wrong

    • Annoyance, definitely. The others probably not.

      I support their freedom to write whatever they want, even if they’re using terminology incorrectly. Getting people to use words correctly should be a matter of persuasion (hence the article), not criminal law. Even if it makes me feel like this.

  1. I am delighted the word troll has been misappropriated.

    The label troll was always a weapon used against trolls. Oh sure troll is kind of a cool label, but the word has always made trolling harder. All someone had to do was post the response “obvious troll is obvious” and the whole group were made aware of exactly what was going on.

    How much easier trolling is now that they don’t have a label.

    When someone accuses me of trolling now I can act offended that they are calling me a bully. I haven’t insulted or abused anyone, so why are you calling me a troll? And of course many other people will agree with me because they’ve read what trolling is in the newspaper and I clearly wasn’t trolling.

    The other person might splutter something trying to explain that trolling is really something different. But yeah good luck with that…

    So what has happened with the word troll couldn’t be more perfect. It’s amazing what the power of words can do. Without a label it’s like people’s very minds are changing and becoming unable to detect real trolling. They don’t have a word for it so they don’t know it exists…

  2. Wonderful article, you know when you read something that just clears your stress headache with its good common sense, clearly and courageously expressed. Thank you. I just wanted to mention the real problems friends and I have had in our online #bds and #freepalestine campaigns with paid israeli trolls, who really are nasty trolls, trained in the art of wasting your time and not just for shits and giggles but for much much higher stakes. In general though, the trolling spirit is one of the things I have always loved about the Internet and the children who run tings ;) … satire is a troll thing, abuse and bullying are a hater thing; there’s a world of difference. Except where justifying genocide’s concerned. Spread the love, increase the peace, and be always aware of the value of your own time xxx Thanks for this article :) xxx

  3. The overuse of the word “troll” is very irritating. It is so dumb to use the word as it has begun to mean nothing. Or maybe just using the word to criticize any criticism is proto-fascist in itself. If having an opinion is being a troll lets all have no opinions and watch the world spiral down in silence. As for bullying; call a bully a bully not a flipping troll. Trolls belong under bridges in Norse folklore.

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