What behaviors do you consider “trolling”? Insults on Twitter? Lewd messages? Posting someone’s personal information? If someone makes a death threat, is it still “just trolling?”
Often, trolling is considered an annoying but ultimately inconsequential part of internet culture. But misunderstanding “trolling”—and other words like “cyberbullying” and “online harassment”—can quickly undermine the seriousness of the behavior it describes.
“Trolling” has its roots in deliberately provoking angry or distressed reactions, but what we often call trolling today goes much further, causing very real damage to individual targets and our public discourse. Since the word “trolling” was originally associated with online arguments and discord, vicious online abusers have been allowed to hide behind the image of a trickster troll. While even the earliest forms of trolling weren’t harmless, it has evolved into a weapon to abuse and silence people.
In recent years, some journalists, researchers, and targets of harassment have argued against using the word “trolling.” Although not all experts find the term detrimental, language often shapes how we perceive an issue and how we respond to it. That’s why stakeholders in the struggle against online harassment should understand and communicate its severity. When journalists, organizations, platforms, and authorities describe online harassment accurately, it affirms that this behavior is neither normal nor inconsequential.
What is Trolling?
Even the earliest trolls wanted to upset people. They aimed to cause emotional distress. As writer and University of Melbourne lecturer Jennifer Beckett explains, "'Trolling' refers to a specific act: throwing bait into the internet water in the form of deliberately provocative statements (not personal attacks, that's 'flaming') and waiting for someone to bite.”
Origins of Trolling
Typically, a troll would enter a discussion and post a purposely inflammatory comment to provoke outrage or uproar from the online community. Researcher Ben Radford argues that trolls see themselves as a kind of digital clown, exposing the foibles and folly of a community. Whatever noble view trolls hold of themselves, however, they are still acting with the intent to create an unpleasant experience for others online.
An Example of Trolling:
Entering an online discussion on astronomy and insisting that the earth is flat in order to provoke an emotional and verbal response from community members.
This may be a relatively tame example,but the intent is still to disrupt and incite outrage. It’s important to note, however, that early “trolling” wasn’t often targeted at specific individuals. The goal was to derail conversation, not torture particular commenters.
Trolling Has Been Weaponized
As the idea of trolling spread, online community members came to expect this emotional instigation, but aggressors also became more inventive, collaborating and escalating their efforts to not only destroy online discussions but to punish and silence participants. Instead of inciting arguments within a community for the sake of entertainment, online actors might attack an individual with whom they disagree by bombarding them with insults or spreading false information about them.
From there trolling was used as a tool for ideological battles. For example, in 2013 a group of so-called “men’s rights activists” flooded Occidental College’s online reporting system for sexual assault with more than 400 false reports. The effort was organized on Reddit and 4Chan. The group used trolling strategies like impersonating a member of a community in order to provoke an outpouring of emotional and administrative energy. In perhaps the most influential example thus far, the swirl of false information and conspiracies used to influence the 2016 presidential election used many tools of trolling: outrageous statements, purposeful misinformation, and false online identities.
While the original trolls acted with the intent to create discord for the sake of discord, their strategies have been adapted to target specific points of view and populations. Trolling was never harmless, but the gravity of online harassment today has gone far beyond trolling’s prank-like beginnings.
The Scope and Severity of Online Harassment
While people use many terms to describe malicious online behavior, “online harassment” (or its synonym, cyberharassment) is one of the broader terms that encompass many forms of online attack. For instance, Tactical Tech defines online harassment as “the use of the digital technology to harass, intimidate, threaten or attack a person or community." Similarly, PEN America explains that online harassment includes a number of harmful online behaviors, including cyberstalking, doxxing, hacking, and more.
A Spectrum of Abuse
The fact that online harassment can encompass so many different behaviors and types of abuse is part of what makes it difficult to properly categorize and describe individual cases. Furthermore, there is a perceived spectrum of severity that sometimes leads to the minimizing of cases deemed “less serious.”
For example, insulting or vulgar messages is one form of online harassment, but they may not elicit action from platform administrators or law enforcement. When abuse is ignored, or its context isn’t properly assessed, it could escalate to physical stalking or violence. Even if online abuse doesn’t escalate to offline threats or violence, that doesn’t make it acceptable.
“I think it’s always important to hear the target’s perspective, and their description of how they felt violated or victimized or threatened or abused,” said Dr. Sameer Hinduja, a Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University and the Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “We should take them at their word, and allow their sentiments to motivate us to do more to help them and others,” he continued.
"I think it's always important to hear the target's perspective, and their description of how they felt violated or victimized or threatened or abused. We should take them at their world, and allow their sentiments to motivate us to do more to help them and others."
— Dr. Sameer Hinduja
Because “trolling” is associated with online arguments and discord, targeted and even threatening attacks have been lumped in with impoliteness. It’s akin to a woman facing street harassment being told her abusers are simply “flirting.” This attitude reinforces the idea that some types of harassment are normal and not worthy of attention.
“Cyberbullying” is another term that may be used to undermine the seriousness of online harassment, either knowingly or unknowingly. Researchers often refer to the online harassment of children and youth as cyberbullying. While this can be useful for distinguishing one population’s experience, journalists and experts should be conscious of the terms they to avoid implying that cyberbullying, or trolling, is not a serious issue. Dr. Hinduja noted he doesn’t think the terms “trolling” or “cyberbullying” minimize cases, but that these terms “are specific types of online harassment, and I hope they are used specifically and not generally.”
“Trolling” Now Describes a Wide Range of Behaviors
Trolling now describes a wide range of behaviors, the impact of which can vary in severity (although none are harmless). Each type of attack carries troubling effects, ranging from the psychological to the physical. As Bailey Poland writes, “The concept of trolling is no longer useful for describing an online environment that includes actively damaging, frightening, and illegal behaviors unless we dramatically change our understanding of the term.”
When we can be more specific about harassing behaviors and content, we can more accurately describe the experience of abuse and, therefore, more effectively express its seriousness.
Some examples of harassing behaviors and content include:
- Written messages: From tweets to Facebook comments to emails, written messages are perhaps the most common form of online harassment. Their content can range from rude remarks to messages encouraging suicide.
- Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking is using digital or online tools to invade a target’s privacy and access personal images and information and often involves repeated unwanted contact. It can also involve identity fraud and financial hacking
- Doxxing: Doxxing is when an online actor posts someone’s personal information (such as their home address or phone number) with the intent to cause harassment. It puts targets at risk for stalking, violence, and physical intimidation.
- SWATing: Originating among gamer, SWATing is when a harasser reports an emergency at their targets location so that authorities invade their home. It not only wastes the time of first responders but puts targets (and innocent bystanders) in harm’s way.
- Mob harassment: Some harassers recruit others to help them hurt a target. One method is to encourage an entire online community to inundate someone with hateful messages. Mob harassment is often used to silence journalists, activists, and marginalized groups.
- False information and impersonation: Since online identity and reputation is now so important to our standing in a community or profession, harassers may post false accusations and information to attack a target. These attacks can have vast personal, professional, and financial consequences.
The Words We Use Matter
One of the greatest challenges to preventing and addressing online harassment is coming to a shared understanding of its consequences and what behaviors are severe enough to elicit action from communities, digital platforms, and law enforcement. Both those working to address online harassment and the public at large would benefit from a more precise understanding of the terms used to describe the issue.
Although the term “trolling” has become a part mainstream conversation, it’s connotations can undermine the seriousness of the abuse targets face. The language we use to describe a problem has a huge impact on how we approach it, and ultimately, how we solve it.