Internet Trolling: How Do You Spot a Real Troll?

How internet trolling affects us all online

If you consider yourself to be pretty active on social media or other types of online communities, you may have experienced what many savvy internet users call "internet trolls" or “being trolled.” Being trolled, or the act of trolling, is something we all have to deal with increasingly as the internet becomes more social.

An illustration of a troll on a laptop monitor
 Maddy Price / Lifewire

What Is Internet Trolling?

In simple terms, trolling is when someone comments or responds to something you post, usually in a confrontational way that is designed to garner a strong, emotional reaction. Although many people use the term in contexts where a sense of humor is appreciated, the truth is that internet trolling can get pretty nasty and isn't always a laughing matter.

The Urban Dictionary has a bunch of definitions under the term “trolling,” but the first one that pops up seems to define it as simply as possible. So, according to the Urban Dictionary’s top-rated definition for “trolling,” it can be defined as:

"the deliberate act, (by a Troll – noun or adjective), of making random unsolicited and/or controversial comments on various internet forums with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting readers to engage in a fight or argument."

Wikipedia defines it as:

"a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord 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, whether for the troll's amusement or a specific gain.”

Those who aren’t quite as familiar with the internet slang definition of “troll” or “trolling” might automatically think of the mythical creature from Scandinavian folklore. The mythological troll is known to be an ugly, dirty, angry creature that lives in dark places, like caves or underneath bridges, waiting to snatch up anything that passed by for a quick meal.

The internet troll is a modern version of the mythological version. They hide behind their computer screens, and actively go out of their way to cause trouble on the internet. Like the mythological troll, the internet troll is angry and disruptive in every possible way — often for no real reason at all.

Where the Worst Trolling Happens Online

You can find trolls lurking around almost every corner of the social web. Here are some specific places that are well known to attract trolls.

  • YouTube video comments: YouTube is notorious for having some of the worst comments of all time. Go and have a look through the comments of any popular video, and you’re bound to find some of the worst comments ever. The more views and comments a video has, the more troll comments it’ll probably have as well.
  • Blog comments: On some popular blogs and news sites that have comments enabled, you can sometimes find trolls cursing, name-calling and just causing trouble for the heck of it. This is particularly true for blogs that cover controversial topics or for the ones that tend to rack up a lot of comments from people who want to share their opinions with the world.
  • Forums: Forums are made for discussing topics with like-minded people, but every once in a while, a troll will come in and start spewing negative words all over the place. If forum moderators don't ban them, other members will often respond and before you know it, the thread gets thrown completely off topic and becomes nothing but one big pointless argument.
  • Email: There are lots of trolls who actively take the time and energy to write up horrible email messages in response to people they disagree with, were offended by, or just get a kick out of picking apart for no significant reason at all.
  • Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Tumblr or practically any social networking site: Now that almost anyone can comment on a status update, reply to a tweet, converse in a community thread or send an anonymous question, trolling is absolutely everywhere that people can use to interact. Instagram is especially bad because it's a very public platform that people use to post photos of themselves — inviting everyone and anyone to judge their appearances in the comment section.
  • Anonymous social networks: Anonymous social networks basically act as an invitation to be nasty, because users don't have to worry about their identities being tied to their bad behavior. They can take their anger or hatred out without suffering the consequences because they can hide behind a faceless, nameless user account.

Big brands on Facebook, celebrities on Twitter and Tumblr teens with lots of followers face trolling every day. Unfortunately, as the web becomes more social and people can access social sites wherever they are from their smartphones, trolling (and even cyberbullying) will continue to be a problem.

Why Do People Troll on the Internet?

Every internet troll has a different backstory and therefore different reasons for feeling the need to troll a community or an individual on the internet. They may feel depressed, attention-starved, angry, sad, jealous, narcissistic or some other emotion they may not be entirely conscious of that's influencing their online behavior.

What makes trolling so easy is that anyone can do it, and it can be done from a safe, isolated place as opposed to interacting with others in person. Trolls can hide behind their shiny computers, screen names and avatars when they go out trolling for trouble, and after they’re all done, they can carry on with their real lives without facing any real consequences. Trolling makes a lot of cowardly people feel stronger.

Dealing With Trolls

If a troll tries to provoke you, just ignore them. They’re not worth your time or emotional distress. Try not to take anything personally and remind yourself that their bad behavior does not change who you are.

Remember that a person who seems like a troll is actually the one suffering in some way and is trying to distract themselves and make themselves feel better by taking it out on you. If you can, try to have a good laugh and think about how sad it is that people actually feel the need to insult complete strangers on the internet.

If you're feeling strong enough, you might even consider responding to them with kindness by complimenting something about them (such as their profile picture, their username, etc). This is the last thing they'll expect from you, and while you'll have to risk being trolled again, there's always a chance that your unexpected kindness could move them in a way that changes their behavior for the better.

  • How prevalent is internet trolling?

    It's very common. One survey indicates that 41 percent of U.S. adults have experienced online harassment. The survey also reports that 66 percent of those surveyed observed trolling behavior toward others.

  • How can I filter out and prevent trolling on Twitter?

    You can unfollow or mute users or block Twitter users altogether. The Twitter Safety Mode feature is another tool you might be able to use. If this tool is available to you from Privacy and safety settings, you can temporarily automatically block a user for posting harassing tweets.

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