What Is an Internet Troll? (and How to Handle Trolls)

Internet trolls are people who want to provoke and upset others online for their own amusement. Here’s how to spot the signs that someone is a troll, and how to handle them.

What Are Internet Trolls?

If you’ve been on the internet for any period of time, you’ve likely run into a troll at some point. An internet troll is someone who makes intentionally inflammatory, rude, or upsetting statements online to elicit strong emotional responses in people or to steer the conversation off-topic. They can come in many forms. Most trolls do this for their own amusement, but other forms of trolling are done to push a specific agenda.

Trolls have existed in folklore and fantasy literature for centuries, but online trolling has been around for as long as the internet has existed. The earliest known usage of the term can be traced back to the 1990s on early online message boards. Back then, it was a way for users to confuse new members by repeatedly posting an inside joke. It’s since turned into a much more malicious activity.

Trolling is distinct from other forms of cyberbullying or harassment. It is normally not targeted towards any one person and relies on other people paying attention and becoming provoked. Trolling exists on many online platforms, from small private group chats to the biggest social media websites. Here’s a list of places online where you’re likely to see online trolls:

  • Anonymous online forums: Places like Reddit, 4chan, 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. This is especially true if the forum has lax or inactive moderation.
  • Twitter: Twitter also has the option to be anonymous, and has become a hotbed for internet trolls. Frequent Twitter trolling methods involve hijacking popular hashtags and mentioning popular Twitter personalities to gain attention from their followers.
  • Comment sections: The comment sections of places such as YouTube and news websites are also popular areas for trolls to feed. You’ll find a lot of obvious trolling here, and they frequently generate a lot of responses from angry readers or viewers.

You’ll find trolls anywhere online, including on Facebook and on online dating sites. They’re unfortunately pretty common.

Signs Someone Is Trolling

It can sometimes become difficult to tell the difference between a troll and someone who just genuinely wants to argue about a topic. However, here are a few tell-tale signs that someone is actively trolling.

  • Off-topic remarks: Completely going off-topic from the subject at hand. This is done to annoy and disrupt other posters.
  • Refusal to acknowledge evidence: Even when presented with hard, cold facts, they ignore this and pretend like they never saw it.
  • Dismissive, condescending tone: An early indicator of a troll was that they would ask an angry responder, “Why you mad, bro?” This is a method done to provoke someone even more, as a way of dismissing their argument altogether.
  • Use of unrelated images or memes: They reply to others with memes, images, and gifs. This is especially true if done in response to a very long text post.
  • Seeming obliviousness: They seem oblivious that most people are in disagreement with them. Also, trolls rarely get mad or provoked.

The list above is by no means definitive. There are a lot of other ways to identify that someone is trolling. Generally, if someone seems disingenuous, uninterested in a real discussion, and provocative on purpose, they’re likely an internet troll.

How Should I Handle Them?

The most classic adage regarding trolling is, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Trolls seek out emotional responses and find provocation amusing, so replying to them or attempting to debate them will only make them troll more. By ignoring a troll completely, they will likely become frustrated and go somewhere else on the internet.

You should try your best not to take anything trolls say seriously. No matter how poorly they behave, remember these people spend countless unproductive hours trying to make people mad. They’re not worth your time of day.

If a troll becomes spammy or begins to clog up a thread, you can also opt to report them to the site’s moderation team. Depending on the website, there’s a chance nothing happens, but you should do your part to actively dissuade them from trolling on that platform. If your report is successful, the troll may be temporarily suspended or their account might be banned entirely.

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