In Cyber Safety, The Digital World

The Art of Trolling

The art of trolling (and trolls do consider it an art) is considered the act of deliberately and deviously angering people on the Internet by using rude or antagonizing dialogue. It differs from “flaming” (which generally entails using swear words to arouse animosity) and spamming (using pointless or repetitive verbiage calculated to annoy), in that the troll tries not to be discovered, or worse, ignored. The Internet troll wants to harass other posters to the point that they lose their sense of composure and either retaliate with a personal attack (often “screaming” in all caps) or are driven off the thread in humiliation.

Internet trolling is really the art of shaming, humiliating, and controlling other posters on a thread for the sadistic pleasure of the troll. It can turn into a vindictive, cruel experience, and has, in certain situations, resulted in more permanent consequences. Trolls have been prosecuted for their actions, and occasionally, victims turn in desperation to harming themselves or committing suicide. It’s definitely a subject that needs to be addressed by parents, school administrators, and teachers.


The term “trolling” in its traditional English language meaning is a reference to fishing with a baited line pulled along in the water (often behind a slow-moving boat). The modern Internet terminology has a similar meaning, in that the troll “fishes” for “victims” by dangling a form of “Internet bait” calculated to inflame posters on a thread. The bait is generally an inflammatory comment which invites argument, at which point the troll retaliates with a blend of rapid-fire information (or misinformation), taunts, and veiled threats. It is a form of “blitz” attack that is calculated to leave the victim of the troll exasperated and defeated.

Trolling Sites

Trolls comprise a large subculture of Internet users who operate outside the lines of conventional social media. There are a number of well-known trolling sites on the Internet.

  • Anonymous – The name of this site perfectly illustrates the aim of the Internet troll. They revel in their anonymity because often in real life they are unable to bully or control others, but on the Internet they can accomplish this goal and feel powerful and superior. The Anonymous site originated in 2003 as a group of “hacktivists” loosely aligned through an international network whose aim is to create publicity stunts and DDos (distributed denial-of-service) attacks on websites for governmental agencies, religious entities, and corporations. Anonymous supports such enterprises as WikiLeaks and the Occupy Movement, but has attracted the attention of law enforcement because of its attacks on the military, the government, the police, and the media. Some Internet users consider Anonymous as a group of “digital Robin Hoods,” while their critics consider them cyber terrorists.
  • 4chan – This is an image board with anonymous posting created in 2003 by a 15-year-old student going by the screen name “moot” (revealed as Christopher Poole in 2008). Influenced by Japanese image boards, 4chan was responsible for creating the “Rickrolling” trend in 2007 that directed posters to a site with a supposed ad for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV, but instead substituted a video of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” 4chan has also been involved in the recent scandalous release of nude photos of a number of celebrities.
  • /b/ – 4chan’s first and busiest forum, /b/ is a “random” board with minimal rules on what can be posted. People visiting this board try to shock and entertain. There is a “no rules” policy which thankfully stops short of allowing child pornography.

The 4chan domain has a number of sub-listings for image boards that encourage images and discussion in anime and manga (/a/), animals and nature (/an/), comics and cartoons (/co/), foreign culture/international (/int/), music (/mu/), as well as a number of other subjects.

Both Anonymous and 4chan were involved in 2008’s Project Chanology, a program of “hacktivism” that targeted the Church of Scientology with pranks, protesting, and hacking. Anonymous also began a process of political protests and hacking against such entities as PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, and several countries, including the United States and Israel. They also mounted a campaign against the Westboro Baptist Church, a right-wing religious group notorious for picketing the funerals of U.S. servicemen.


Internet trolls have their own lexicon of terms to describe posters and posting behavior.

  • Lulz – This is perhaps one of the most important terms, as it defines the reason for the troll’s existence. Lulz is an alteration of the term LOL (laughing out loud) and denotes laughing at the expense of another person. Trolls often claim they perform their actions “for the lulz.”
  • Grammar Nazis – Since trolls often have poor grammar and spelling skills (sometimes intentional, as part of their baiting of other posters), they are criticized by posters who insist on correct grammar and/or spelling. The term has grown to include other terms for moderators or people who report trolls and/or offensive posts, i.e. Network Nazi, Facebook Nazi, and Forum Nazi.
  • Snipe Hunting – Also known as a “fool’s errand,” snipe hunting involves sending someone on a search for a term or product that does not exist, for example, headlight fluid (a non-existent item) or download more RAM (RAM is hardware and can’t be downloaded).
  • Lurker – One who looks in on a site, but does not post. This is annoying to trolls, who prefer engaging other posters in arguments.

The Troll Mindset

While some trolls may feel they have altruistic motives for their behavior (political protest, anti-censorship, etc.), many of them are just in it for the lulz, and have no compassion for their victims. There have been a number of cases in which trolls have hounded their victims into harming or killing themselves. These trolls are in it for the sheer kick they get out of humiliating people and for the powerful feeling they receive in dominating a defenseless person. And they can accomplish this because, more often than not, they do it anonymously.

Their anonymity is what makes trolls feel that they can accomplish these feats of cruelty with impunity. It’s often a substitute for feeling powerless in regular life. Online trolls are able to exude a certain superiority, especially if they are intelligent to begin with, and their ability to direct a belittling tirade of invective at their victims makes them feel supremely powerful and in control.

A study of trolls and trolling conducted by Erin Buckels and colleagues at the University of Manitoba has made a connection between trolling and sadism (infliction of pain), as well as with narcissism (self-obsession), psychopathy (lack of empathy), and Machiavellianism (manipulation/deceit). The study did show, however, that trolls are a small minority of Internet users. Some sites have taken steps to curb the behavior of trolls. Popular Mechanics has completely eliminated its comments section and YouTube is taking measures to restrict trollish behavior. Some observers, however, believe this will not be enough to hinder the trolls, including the author of the study, Erin Beckels. She has stated that this sadistic behavior may not be curtailed with the institution of controls by websites seeking to eliminate trolling, and she feels the allure of this sadistic behavior may be too much for trolls to pass up.

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