What is a troll?

It makes for a cracking headline, but Internet ‘trolling’ is not the abusive behaviour that has been reported in various newspaper articles this week.

Subs from both the Guardian (‘Internet troll told by court to keep away from public figures’, 12 June) and the Telegraph (‘Trolling abuse got worse for victim Nicola Brookes after Facebook victory’, 11 June) have had fun with this word in the last few days.

The truth is though that the word ‘trolling’ has been widely used in Internet circles for years to refer to the act of tying up online forums, and other social media, in meaningless and time wasting discussions. The idea is to post something that is deliberately incorrect and lure other users, particularly newbies, into wasting time arguing about it. According to net scholar Susan Herring and colleagues at Indiana University it derives from a fishing term whereby a baited line is dragged behind a boat (see an example paper here).

The behaviours described in the newspapers are more accurately described as ‘flaming’, or more succinctly, just abuse.


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