In Internet slang, a troll is a person who starts flame wars or intentionally upsets people on the Internet by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses and normalizing tangential discussion, either for the troll's amusement, or to achieve a specific result such as disrupting a rival's online activities or manipulating a political process.
Both the noun and the verb forms of "troll" are associated with Internet discourse. However, the word has also been used more widely. Media attention in recent years has equated trolling with online harassment. For example, the mass media have used "troll" to mean "a person who defaces Internet tribute sites with the aim of causing grief to families". In addition, depictions of trolling have been included in popular fictional works, such as the HBO television program The Newsroom, in which a main character encounters harassing persons online and tries to infiltrate their circles by posting negative sexual comments.
Application of the term troll is subjective. Some readers may characterize a post as trolling, while others may regard the same post as a legitimate contribution to the discussion, even if controversial. Like any pejorative term, it can be used as an ad hominem attack, suggesting a negative motivation.
As noted in an OS News article titled "Why People Troll and How to Stop Them" (25 January 2012), "The traditional definition of trolling includes intent. That is, trolls purposely disrupt forums. This definition is too narrow. Whether someone intends to disrupt a thread or not, the results are the same if they do." Popular recognition of the existence (and prevalence) of non-deliberate, "accidental trolls", has been documented widely, in sources as diverse as Nicole Sullivan's keynote speech at the 2012 Fluent Conference, titled "Don't Feed the Trolls" Gizmodo, online opinions on the subject written by Silicon Valley executives and comics.
Regardless of the circumstances, controversial posts may attract a particularly strong response from those unfamiliar with the robust dialogue found in some online, rather than physical, communities. Experienced participants in online forums know that the most effective way to discourage a troll is usually to ignore them, because responding tends to encourage trolls to continue disruptive posts – hence the often-seen warning: "Please don't feed the trolls". Some believe this to be bad or incomplete advice for effectively dealing with trolls.
At times the word is incorrectly used to refer to anyone with controversial, or differing, opinions. Such usage goes against the ordinary meaning of troll in multiple ways. While psychologists have determined that the dark triad traits are common among Internet trolls, some observers claim trolls don't actually believe the controversial views they claim. Farhad Manjoo criticises this view, noting that if the person really is trolling, they are more intelligent than their critics would believe.
The English noun "troll" in the standard sense of ugly dwarf or giant dates to 1610 and comes from the Old Norse word "troll" meaning giant or demon. The word evokes the trolls of Scandinavian folklore and children's tales: antisocial, quarrelsome and slow-witted creatures which make life difficult for travellers. Trolls have existed in folklore and fantasy literature for centuries, but online trolling  has been around for as long as the internet has existed.
In modern English usage, "trolling" may describe the fishing technique of slowly dragging a lure or baited hook from a moving boat, whereas trawling describes the generally commercial act of dragging a fishing net. Early non-Internet slang use of "trolling" can be found in the military: by 1972 the term "trolling for MiGs" was documented in use by US Navy pilots in Vietnam. It referred to use of "...decoys, with the mission of drawing...fire away..."
The contemporary use of the term is said to have appeared on the Internet in the late 1980s, but the earliest known attestation according to the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1992.
The context of the quote cited in the Oxford English Dictionary sets the origin in Usenet in the early 1990s as in the phrase "trolling for newbies", as used in alt.folklore.urban (AFU). Commonly, what is meant is a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users, presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone that only a new user would respond to them earnestly. For example, a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster's name and know that the topic had been discussed repeatedly, but new subscribers to the group would not realize, and would thus respond. These types of trolls served as a practice to identify group insiders. This definition of trolling, considerably narrower than the modern understanding of the term, was considered a positive contribution. One of the most notorious AFU trollers, David Mikkelson, went on to create the urban folklore website Snopes.com.
By the late 1990s, alt.folklore.urban had such heavy traffic and participation that trolling of this sort was frowned upon. Others expanded the term to include the practice of playing a seriously misinformed user, even in newsgroups where one was not a regular; these were often attempts at humor rather than provocation. The noun troll usually referred to an act of trolling – or to the resulting discussion – rather than to the author, though some posts punned on the dual meaning of troll.
In Chinese, trolling is referred to as bái mù (Chinese: 白目; lit. 'white eye'), which can be straightforwardly explained as "eyes without pupils", in the sense that whilst the pupil of the eye is used for vision, the white section of the eye cannot see, and trolling involves blindly talking nonsense over the Internet, having total disregard to sensitivities or being oblivious to the situation at hand, akin to having eyes without pupils. An alternative term is bái làn (Chinese: 白爛; lit. 'white rot'), which describes a post completely nonsensical and full of folly made to upset others, and derives from a Taiwanese slang term for the male genitalia, where genitalia that is pale white in colour represents that someone is young, and thus foolish. Both terms originate from Taiwan, and are also used in Hong Kong and mainland China. Another term, xiǎo bái (Chinese: 小白; lit. 'little white') is a derogatory term for both bái mù and bái làn that is used on anonymous posting Internet forums. Another common term for a troll used in mainland China is pēn zi (Chinese: 噴子; lit. 'sprayer, spurter').
In Japanese, tsuri (釣り) means "fishing" and refers to intentionally misleading posts whose only purpose is to get the readers to react, i.e. get trolled. arashi (荒らし) means "laying waste" and can also be used to refer to simple spamming.
In Korean, nak-si (낚시) means "fishing", refers to Internet trolling attempts, as well as purposefully misleading post titles. A person who recognizes the troll after having responded (or, in case of a post title nak-si, having read the actual post) would often refer to himself as a caught fish.
In Portuguese, more commonly in its Brazilian variant, troll (produced [ˈtɾɔw] in most of Brazil as spelling pronunciation) is the usual term to denote Internet trolls (examples of common derivate terms are trollismo or trollagem, "trolling", and the verb trollar, "to troll", which entered popular use), but an older expression, used by those which want to avoid anglicisms or slangs, is complexo do pombo enxadrista to denote trolling behavior, and pombos enxadristas (literally, "chessplayer pigeons") or simply pombos are the terms used to name the trolls. The terms are explained by an adage or popular saying: "Arguing with fulano (i.e., John Doe) is the same as playing chess with a pigeon: it defecates on the table, drops the pieces and simply flies off, claiming victory."
In Thai, the term krian (เกรียน) has been adopted to address Internet trolls. According to the Royal Institute of Thailand, the term, which literally refers to a closely cropped hairstyle worn by schoolboys in Thailand, is from the behaviour of these schoolboys who usually gather to play online games and, during which, make annoying, disruptive, impolite, or unreasonable expressions. The term top krian (ตบเกรียน; "slap a cropped head") refers to the act of posting intellectual replies to refute the messages of Internet trolls and cause them to be perceived as unintelligent.
Early incidents of trolling were considered to be the same as flaming, but this has changed with modern usage by the news media to refer to the creation of any content that targets another person. The Internet dictionary NetLingo suggests there are four grades of trolling: playtime trolling, tactical trolling, strategic trolling, and domination trolling. The relationship between trolling and flaming was observed in open-access forums in California, on a series of modem-linked computers. CommuniTree was begun in 1978 but was closed in 1982 when accessed by high school teenagers, becoming a ground for trashing and abuse.
Some psychologists have suggested that flaming would be caused by deindividuation or decreased self-evaluation: amongst individuals. Others have suggested that although flaming and trolling is often unpleasant, it may be a form of normative behavior that expresses the social identity of a certain user group. According to Tom Postmes, a professor of social and organisational psychology at the universities of Exeter, England, and Groningen, The Netherlands, and the author of Individuality and the Group, who has studied online behavior for 20 years, "Trolls aspire to violence, to the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want it to kick off. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure." Someone who brings something off topic into the conversation in order to make that person mad is trolling.
The practice of trolling has been documented by a number of academics as early as the 1990s. This included Steven Johnson in 1997 in the book Interface Culture, and a paper by Judith Donath in 1999. Donath's paper outlines the ambiguity of identity in a disembodied "virtual community" such as Usenet:
In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity ... The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter.
Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players. The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group's common interests and concerns; the newsgroup's or forum's members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings, and upon judging a poster a troll, make the offending poster leave the group. Their success at the former depends on how well they – and the troll – understand identity cues; their success at the latter depends on whether the troll's enjoyment is sufficiently diminished or outweighed by the costs imposed by the group.
Trolls can be costly in several ways. A troll can disrupt the discussion on a newsgroup or online forum, disseminate bad advice, and damage the feeling of trust in the online community. Furthermore, in a group that has become sensitized to trolling – where the rate of deception is high – many honestly naïve questions may be quickly rejected as trolling. This can be quite off-putting to the new user who upon venturing a first posting is immediately bombarded with angry accusations. Even if the accusation is unfounded, being branded a troll may be damaging to one's online reputation.
Susan Herring and colleagues in "Searching for Safety Online: Managing 'Trolling' in a Feminist Forum" point out the difficulty inherent in monitoring trolling and maintaining freedom of speech in online communities: "harassment often arises in spaces known for their freedom, lack of censure, and experimental nature". Free speech may lead to tolerance of trolling behavior, complicating the members' efforts to maintain an open, yet supportive discussion area, especially for sensitive topics such as race, gender, and sexuality.
A 2016 study by Harvard political scientist Gary King reported that the Chinese government's 50 Cent Party creates 440 million pro-government social media posts per year. The report said that government employees were paid to create pro-government posts around the time of national holidays to avoid mass political protests. The Chinese Government ran an editorial in the state-funded Global Times defending censorship and 50 Cent Party trolls.
A 2016 study for the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence on hybrid warfare notes that the Ukrainian crisis "demonstrated how fake identities and accounts were used to disseminate narratives through social media, blogs, and web commentaries in order to manipulate, harass, or deceive opponents."(p3) The NATO report describes that a "Wikipedia troll" uses a type of message design where a troll does not add "emotional value" to reliable "essentially true" information in re-posts, but presents it "in the wrong context, intending the audience to draw false conclusions." For example, information, without context, from Wikipedia about the military history of the United States "becomes value-laden if it is posted in the comment section of an article criticizing Russia for its military actions and interests in Ukraine. The Wikipedia troll is 'tricky', because in terms of actual text, the information is true, but the way it is expressed gives it a completely different meaning to its readers."(p62)
Unlike "classic trolls," Wikipedia trolls "have no emotional input, they just supply misinformation" and are one of "the most dangerous" as well as one of "the most effective trolling message designs."(pp70, 76) Even among people who are "emotionally immune to aggressive messages" and apolitical, "training in critical thinking" is needed, according to the NATO report, because "they have relatively blind trust in Wikipedia sources and are not able to filter information that comes from platforms they consider authoritative."(p72) While Russian-language hybrid trolls use the Wikipedia troll message design to promote anti-Western sentiment in comments, they "mostly attack aggressively to maintain emotional attachment to issues covered in articles."(p75) Discussions about topics other than "attracted very aggressive trolling" and became polarized according to the NATO report, which "suggests that in subjects in which there is little potential for re-educating audiences, emotional harm is considered more effective" for pro-Russian Latvian-language trolls.(p76)
The New York Times reported in late October 2018 that Saudi Arabia used an online army of Twitter trolls to harass the late Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other critics of the Saudi government.
In October 2018, The Daily Telegraph reported that Facebook "banned hundreds of pages and accounts which it says were fraudulently flooding its site with partisan political content – although they came from the US instead of being associated with Russia."
Researcher Ben Radford wrote about the phenomenon of clowns in history and modern day in his book Bad Clowns and found that bad clowns have evolved into Internet trolls. They do not dress up as traditional clowns but, for their own amusement, they tease and exploit "human foibles" in order to speak the "truth" and gain a reaction. Like clowns in make-up, Internet trolls hide behind "anonymous accounts and fake usernames." In their eyes they are the trickster and are performing for a nameless audience via the Internet. Trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Trolls take pleasure from causing pain. Their ability to upset or harm gives them a feeling of power.
A concern troll is a false flag pseudonym created by a user whose actual point of view is opposed to the one that the troll claims to hold. The concern troll posts in web forums devoted to its declared point of view and attempts to sway the group's actions or opinions while claiming to share their goals, but with professed "concerns". The goal is to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt within the group often by appealing to outrage culture. This is a particular case of sockpuppeting and safe-baiting.
An example of this occurred in 2006 when Tad Furtado, a staffer for then-Congressman Charles Bass (R-N.H.), was caught posing as a "concerned" supporter of Bass's opponent, Democrat Paul Hodes, on several liberal New Hampshire blogs, using the pseudonyms "IndieNH" or "IndyNH". "IndyNH" expressed concern that Democrats might just be wasting their time or money on Hodes, because Bass was unbeatable. Hodes eventually won the election.
Although the term "concern troll" originated in discussions of online behavior, it now sees increasing use to describe similar offline behaviors. For example, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair accused a conservative New York Daily News columnist of "concern troll" behavior in his efforts to downplay the Mark Foley scandal. Wolcott links what he calls concern trolls to what Saul Alinsky calls "Do-Nothings", giving a long quote from Alinsky on the Do-Nothings' method and effects:
These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, 'I agree with your ends but not your means'.
The Hill published an op-ed piece by Markos Moulitsas of the liberal blog Daily Kos titled "Dems: Ignore 'Concern Trolls'". The concern trolls in question were not Internet participants but rather Republicans offering public advice and warnings to the Democrats. The author defines "concern trolling" as "offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient".[better source needed] Concern trolls use a different type of bait than the more stereotypical troll in their attempts to manipulate participants and disrupt conversations.
Another example of concern trolling is when fatphobia is disguised as concern for the health of overweight people. Contrary to common misconception, concern trolling contributes to stigma, and is not harmless.
A The New York Times article discussed troll activity at 4chan and at Encyclopedia Dramatica, which it described as "an online compendium of troll humor and troll lore". 4chan's /b/ board is recognized as "one of the Internet's most infamous and active trolling hotspots". This site and others are often used as a base to troll against sites that their members can not normally post on. These trolls feed off the reactions of their victims because "their agenda is to take delight in causing trouble". Places like Reddit, 4chan, Kiwi Farms, and other anonymous message boards are prime real-estate for online trolls. Because there's no way of tracing who someone is, trolls can post very inflammatory content without repercussion.
Mainstream media outlets have focused their attention on the willingness of some Internet users to go to extreme lengths to participate in organized psychological harassment.
In February 2010, the Australian government became involved after users defaced the Facebook tribute pages of murdered children Trinity Bates and Elliott Fletcher. Australian communications minister Stephen Conroy decried the attacks, committed mainly by 4chan users, as evidence of the need for greater Internet regulation, stating, "This argument that the Internet is some mystical creation that no laws should apply to, that is a recipe for anarchy and the wild west." Facebook responded by strongly urging administrators to be aware of ways to ban users and remove inappropriate content from Facebook pages. In 2012, the Daily Telegraph started a campaign to take action against "Twitter trolls", who abuse and threaten users. Several high-profile Australians including Charlotte Dawson, Robbie Farah, Laura Dundovic, and Ray Hadley have been victims of this phenomenon.
In the United Kingdom, contributions made to the Internet are covered by the Malicious Communications Act 1988 as well as Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, under which jail sentences were, until 2015, limited to a maximum of six months. In October 2014, the UK's Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, said that "Internet trolls" would face up to two years in jail, under measures in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill that extend the maximum sentence and time limits for bringing prosecutions. The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications had earlier recommended against creating a specific offence of trolling. Sending messages which are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" is an offence whether they are received by the intended recipient or not. Several people have been imprisoned in the UK for online harassment.
Trolls of the testimonial page of Georgia Varley faced no prosecution due to misunderstandings of the legal system in the wake of the term trolling being popularized. In October 2012, a twenty-year-old man was jailed for twelve weeks for posting offensive jokes to a support group for friends and family of April Jones.
As Phillips states, trolling embodies the values that are said to make America the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, due to the liberty and freedom of expression it encourages.
On 31 March 2010, NBC's Today ran a segment detailing the deaths of three separate adolescent girls and trolls' subsequent reactions to their deaths. Shortly after the suicide of high school student Alexis Pilkington, anonymous posters began performing organized psychological harassment across various message boards, referring to Pilkington as a "suicidal slut", and posting graphic images on her Facebook memorial page. The segment also included an exposé of a 2006 accident, in which an eighteen-year-old fatally crashed her father's car into a highway pylon; trolls emailed her grieving family the leaked pictures of her mutilated corpse (see Nikki Catsouras photographs controversy).
In 2007, the media was fooled by trollers into believing that students were consuming a drug called Jenkem, purportedly made of human waste. A user named Pickwick on TOTSE posted pictures implying that he was inhaling this drug. Major news corporations such as Fox News Channel reported the story and urged parents to warn their children about this drug. Pickwick's pictures of Jenkem were fake and the pictures did not actually feature human waste.
In August 2012, the subject of trolling was featured on the HBO television series The Newsroom. The character of Neal Sampat encounters harassing individuals online, particularly looking at 4chan, and he ends up choosing to post negative comments himself on an economics-related forum. The attempt by the character to infiltrate trolls' inner circles attracted debate from media reviewers critiquing the series.
The publication of the 2015 non-fiction book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett, a journalist and a representative of the British think tank Demos, attracted some attention for its depiction of misunderstood sections of the Internet, describing interactions on encrypted sites such as those accessible with the software Tor. Detailing trolling-related groups and the harassment created by them, Bartlett advocated for greater awareness of them and monitoring of their activities. Professor Matthew Wisnioski wrote for The Washington Post that a "league of trolls, anarchists, perverts and drug dealers is at work building a digital world beyond the Silicon Valley offices where our era's best and brightest have designed a Facebook-friendly" surface and agreed with Bartlett that the activities of trolls go back decades to the Usenet "flame wars" of the 1990s and even earlier.
In February 2019, Glenn Greenwald wrote that a cybersecurity company New Knowledge "was caught just six weeks ago engaging in a massive scam to create fictitious Russian troll accounts on Facebook and Twitter in order to claim that the Kremlin was working to defeat Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones in Alabama. The New York Times, when exposing the scam, quoted a New Knowledge report that boasted of its fabrications: “We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the [Roy] Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.'"
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has faced criticism for the behavior of some of his supporters online, but has deflected such criticism, suggesting that "Russians" were impersonating people claiming to be "Bernie Bro" supporters. Twitter rejected Sanders' suggestion that Russia could be responsible for the bad reputation of his supporters. A Twitter spokesperson told CNBC: "Using technology and human review in concert, we proactively monitor Twitter to identify attempts at platform manipulation and mitigate them. As is standard, if we have reasonable evidence of state-backed information operations, we’ll disclose them following our thorough investigation to our public archive — the largest of its kind in the industry." Twitter had suspended 70 troll accounts that posted content in support of Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign.
So-called Gold Membership trolling originated in 2007 on 4chan boards, when users posted fake images claiming to offer upgraded 4chan account privileges; without a "Gold" account, one could not view certain content. This turned out to be a hoax designed to fool board members, especially newcomers. It was copied and became an Internet meme. In some cases, this type of troll has been used as a scam, most notably on Facebook, where fake Facebook Gold Account upgrade ads have proliferated in order to link users to dubious websites and other content.
The case of Zeran v. America Online, Inc. resulted primarily from trolling. Six days after the Oklahoma City bombing, anonymous users posted advertisements for shirts celebrating the bombing on AOL message boards, claiming that the shirts could be obtained by contacting Mr. Kenneth Zeran. The posts listed Zeran's address and home phone number. Zeran was subsequently harassed.
Anti-scientology protests by Anonymous, commonly known as Project Chanology, are sometimes labeled as "trolling" by media such as Wired, and the participants sometimes explicitly self-identify as "trolls".
In 2012, after feminist Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a series of YouTube videos chronicling misogyny in video games, she received bomb threats at speaking engagements, doxxing threats, rape threats and an unwanted starring role in a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian.
In 2020, the official Discord server and Twitch channel for the U.S. Army Esports team became a target of trolling, as people sent anti-U.S. Army messages, memes, and references to war crimes committed by the United States to both. When the team started banning users from their Twitch channel for trolling, they were accused of violating the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by the ACLU and Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. The team has since denied these allegations.