The term “troll” gets thrown around quite a lot, especially on high-traffic blogs and discussion forums. At least half the time, in my experience, it’s not even accurate. So what is an internet troll anyway?
An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who posts controversial and usually irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the intention of baiting other users into an emotional response or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.
Notice this does not define trolling as posting something controversial which happens to provoke an emotional response. The difference is intent.
All too often, participants in online discussions carelessly accuse others of trolling when it is clearly not the case. Many times, the accusation is in response to something which is clearly on topic that simply makes the accuser uncomfortable or angry. That is not trolling. Having an emotional response does not mean you were baited into one, and disagreeing with someone, however strongly, does not make that person a troll.
But why does this even matter? Well, for someone who genuinely attempts to make meaningful points only to be dismissed as a troll, it can matter a lot. On high-traffic discussion forums where there is often an cliquish atmosphere, accusations of trolling can be particularly damaging to the credibility of newcomers. And when administrators jump on the name-calling bandwagon, it only compounds the problem.
So why do people do it? Why do some people cry “troll” at the drop of a hat?
I see it as an intimidation tactic:
One person says something that someone else strongly disagrees with or cannot counter with a reasonable argument, so the former is declared a troll. Now the alleged troll has a choice: to defend against the accusation and try to explain, which carries the risk of “validating” the accusation, or to be silenced. It’s often a no-win situation for the accused.
The bullying doesn’t stop there. Members of online communities, especially those in cliques, usually will not risk losing allies by engaging the accused. “Feeding the trolls” can be an offense punishable by exclusion. So, one member of a clique cries “troll” and the others follow suit. The accused is either attacked from all sides for stating an unpopular, but on topic, relevant comment, or is completely ignored and ultimately ostracized.
This kind of bullying , ironically, amounts to little more than trolling on the part of the accuser. It derails he discussion, and often results in angry comments from other participants, sometimes to the point of having to close off comments altogether.
The worst part about it is that it suppresses open discussion. Preconceived ideas go unchallenged and critical thinking is impaired as a result. Some of life’s most valuable lessons are learned by discussing things that make us uncomfortable. Challenging ourselves to consider things from a different perspective lets us grow as individuals and gain greater understanding and compassion for our fellow humans.
Keep in mind that discomfort on your part does not constitute trolling on the part of another. By dismissing an idea out of hand because it makes you uncomfortable you could be cheating yourself and others out of an opportunity to learn something new which could very well have a positive and lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved.