An Internet troll is a person who takes pleasure in sowing discord on the Internet. Trolls usually use pseudonyms, and their aim is to provoke biased others to take up their cause. The overarching goal is to damage people, entities, or ideas with which the Internet troll disagrees, or to provoke controversy. Internet trolls are a perennial problem wherever they can find an immediate Internet audience: discussion boards (forums), USENET groups, blogs, wikis, and other Internet venues that allow open access.
The original definition of "troll" was much narrower. When first used, it meant an Internet utterance (or the person making that utterance) that was deliberately incorrect and was intended to lure innocent readers to reply with a correction. The troll or his or her confederates would then ridicule the responder for not having realized that the original statement was a joke. For example, the assertion that "light can't travel in a vacuum" was a frequent troll on the USENET newsgroup alt.folklore.urban in the 1990s.
The word has nothing to do with the mythical creatures of Norse folklore; rather, it is derived from "trolling", a method of fishing, and is a metaphor for attempting to "catch" unsuspecting readers.
Internet trolls are additionally interested in meeting their own attention-needs, which are often unmet in their real life, and may suffer from various psychological disorders. Whether trolling is a protected free speech activity or whether it amounts to libel and defamation depends upon the nature, content, and result of the statements by the troll.
Psychology of trolls
Assertions about the psychology of Internet trolls varies only moderately; there is considerable agreement on certain markers.
Internet trolls have been described as "sad people, living their lonely lives vicariously through those they see as strong and successful." They typically possess a poorly developed set of social skills and have difficulty viewing their actions from the perspectives of their victims. They may be callous to the fact that they are harming real people, instead viewing Internet users as "digital abstractions". They may thus feel no remorse for harm they cause, and in fact may judge their own level of "success" by the amount of that harm. Most are impervious to rationale, mature arguments against their wares, and will protest that their right to free speech is being curtailed if ever there is an attempt to call them on their trolling.
Trolls and psychological disorders
Trolling and the law
Libel and defamation
When the identity of a particularly troublesome Internet troll is known, remedies are much more probable. In a case involving the AudoAdmit discussion board (forum), two women at Yale Law School filed a suit on 8 June 2007 in a U.S. District Court against several Internet trolls, charging they had made false claims about the women that prevented them achieving positions as new, top law school graduates.
- The on-line hacker Jargon File, version 4.0.0, 24 JUL 1996, http://www.ccil.org/jargon/jargon_35.html#SEC42, accessed 2007-11-28.
- A. Gassiot and P. Moron. "Anonymographie", Annales Médico-psychologiques, revue psychiatrique, Volume 160, Issue 4, May 2002, Pages 311-315.
- Jason Szep (17 June 2007). U.S. Internet defamation suit tests online anonymity (HTML). Reuters. Retrieved on 2007-07-25.