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What is a Troll?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Norse mythology tells of a race of beings that were somewhat magical, frightening and troublesome. Trolls of legend take many forms, residing in the forests, seas, and mountains. One commonality is that they were typically comely with long hairy arms and exaggerated facial features, part beast, part human. These unattractive attributes might explain why Internauts adopted the term troll to refer to troublemakers. Today’s troll is someone who disrupts an online arena, such as a USENET newsgroup, chat room, or Web forum.

Unmoderated online discussions rely entirely on voluntary compliance to make social interaction enjoyable for all members. To this end most forums have policies that every participant is supposed to read before posting to the group. The policy lays out the ground rules for the discussion board. A troll is someone who purposely defies the rules of the forum in order to upset members and harbor attention.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Racial slurs, unprovoked personal attacks, and repeated badgering are just a few tools of the trade for an online troll. A troll will commonly post to a group for the sole purpose of blasting the subject matter and demeaning members for their interest in it. A troll will try to start flame wars and thrives on getting deriding replies in return. Soon members will be telling the troll to buzz off, or worse, arguing with him or her, all of which only worsens the situation.

Seasoned Internauts will often post the golden rule when trouble arises: Don’t feed the troll! This simply means, don’t post to a troll. The troll wants attention, and if none is given, he or she will eventually move on. This advice is good, but not everyone learns of it at once, and a handful of people will commonly respond to a troll, while a few more will tell them not to respond, and soon members are fighting among themselves over how to handle the troll.

A troll might also be subtle, starting discussions that lead to flame wars while pretending to be interested in the subject matter. The same advice applies. When you realize you are dealing with a troll, simply stop replying.

Personally moderated forums and newsgroups do not have trouble with trolls because every post goes though an individual (the moderator) before it is sent on. If the post is not in compliance with the rules of the forum, it is rejected before ever reaching the forum.

Nevertheless, some people do not prefer moderated forums. Censorship alone rankles some, while others don’t appreciate the potential lag time between submitting a message and seeing it actually post. This is truer of USENET newsgroups where an actual person reads posts, than of many Web forums where filtering software is utilized to act as moderator. Filtering software cannot always stop trolls, however, as they can easily tailor spelling in such a way as to pass the filters, leaving bad manners and offensive content intact.

No matter the forum, if you come across a particularly obnoxious personality online who seems dedicated to causing trouble, you have likely encountered a troll. Follow the sage advice of Internauts that have come before you, and put them on your ignore list. You’ll be doing yourself a favor and foiling the troll at the same time.

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Discussion Comments


I used to be a moderator for a dating chat room, and I spent most of my time sending out warning letters to Internet trolls. People would be having normal conversations in my "room" and someone would inevitably break into the conversation and say something absolutely obscene. Other trolls would say something provocative just to get people angry at him and each other.

I could only do so much about the problem as a moderator. If a typical troll got reported to me, I could block his or her registered email address or send him or her a "cease and desist" letter. There was nothing to stop that person from re-registering under a different name and start trolling again. All a legitimate user can do is move to a different room and hope the troll doesn't follow.


I found out the hard way about dealing with Internet trolls. Years ago, I participated in a local discussion group that was supposed to be limited to topics about the city. Some users started using it as a bully pulpit to attack or defend local politicians who had been mentioned in the newspaper lately. It turned out that many of those users were either the politicians themselves or very close friends. They were using this discussion forum to stir up trouble, essentially.

I made the mistake of saying I thought one particular politician was indeed guilty of everything mentioned in the paper. That's when I first locked horns with an online troll. He came at me with both barrels. At first, it was just about the politician, but then he started hurling personal insults about my appearance, my employment, my spouse and my choice of churches. He had apparently figured out my real identity and used every bit of public information he could find to harass me online. He even sent letters to my real address. I should have never taken the bait with this evil person.

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