Online Trolling: Definitions matter

Just about everybody with a bit of negative behaviour is being called a troll these days. It is leading to a very annoying watering down of the definition, making past research quite useless. I urge my readers not to do so.

So what is a classic “Troll according to Tanja” ? A troll is a person who makes a deliberate choice to provoke others with inflammatory remarks out of a distorted sense of fun. It might, or might not reflect their true opinion, but that is not the point. The agitated, negative reaction they get is. The bigger the flare up, the better. In the past such rants were also known as flames, sometimes ending in full flame wars. Research shows these classic trolls to be of a sadistic, narcissistic nature. They really are into this for their special brand of fun. Earning a bit of money on the side sometimes is a nice extra. The best way to deal with a troll is not to feed it with negative energy as that is what they are after. So dealing with them privately, while ignoring them publicly is the most effective. Hence the saying “Don’t Feed the Trolls“.

The rest? I have a few categories for you:

Hater – extremists on all side of the political spectrum will take their deeply held convictions to such a level that you can hardly distinguish them from trolls (they do suffer from similar misogny and biogtry) , but the difference is the intent. This also means you need to treat them differently from classic trolls. Ignoring them will not make the problem go away. Sometimes a deliberate journalistic reveal of the intent coupled with more private legal action might be effective. Some well known academics have been able to confront their haters and come to a resolution. One has to admire Mary Beard for instance.

Agent Provocateur – All (!) governments have them, and they serve their national goals in a covert manner. Disinformation, confusing the enemy, causing discord, splitting them into different groups, making them lose respect in the international forum. Quite frequently they work in groups, often controlling a whole herd of fake accounts or bots, or sometimes simply a few “sock puppets”. Their deliberate intent shows in their coordination, the same messages they are spreading etc. Well known example: the Russion Troll Farms. A sad word that hides what they truly are: state funded agents. How to deal with them? Bring their origins to light.

Money schemers – just your regular criminal trying to make a buck, sometimes by providing a seemingly innocent story that gets you all rilled up. Exposing them often solves the problem, until they show up under a new guise.

Literature – I don’t intend to leave literature in every blog, but let me do it here, because it is about definitions. Yes, I am also using wikipedia. They know a thing or two about trolls.  with particular interest for the references given, including some examples.


Shachaf, P., & Hara, N. (2010). Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science, 36 (3), 357‐370.

Erin E. Buckles, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhuys  “Trolls just want to have fun” in Personality and Individual Differences (september 2014)

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