The term “troll” has, like a great many descriptors of the modern online lexicon, has changed from its original meaning. Popular media from NBC to South Park has co-opted this moniker for a certain online presence. There is quite a bit of history behind this word which is interesting in its own right. The troll and their comments might be inane, but how this online persona gave rise is not.
Originally, dating back to the 80’s, trolling described a a disparate knowledge of in-group activity between veteran internet users and “newbies”. This mean that “trolling for newbies” was a way to identify whether a user was knowledgeable to an in-group knowledge base. Newbies would out themselves by not understanding or not commenting appropriately on a commonly understood subject among veteran users. In this case, trolling was used in the fishing sense, to lure unsuspecting prey by placing bait in the form of experiential knowledge in hopes that a newbie would take the bait and post something which exposed their ignorance. The fishing analogy is important; remember it.
Once the internet took on a popular presence in national and international life, the smaller subset of internet veterans, and their knowledge base, gave way to myspace users and first time internet spelunkers. I have to necessarily hit the fast forward button here, because there is a book’s worth of information that transpired between the early 2000’s and the “modern” use of the term troll.
To truncate our study of the troll, let’s begin around 2012. The chat rooms of yore gave way to facebook comment threads, twitter, and traditional news media providing online message boards for the first time. Thus, the modern iteration of the troll was born.
At first, the online troll was a person who sought only to cause controversy, inflame emotions, and generally enrage anyone who would cross their path. South Park parodied this(though the episode portrayed the troll extremely close to many real people) to highlight this cultural phenomenon. Ultimately, in its early stages, the troll had no further objective than to vex or annoy anyone and everyone that they possibly could. There is another book here about why this particular phenomena arose, based primarily around why humans communicate differently when not in the physical presence of the receiver, but I’ll leave that for the the hopefully future me that writes that book.
In any case, the troll continued to pursue this singular purpose for a few years before, like everything around 2015-2016, became politicized. Trolls became much more political, and subsequently gained much more publicity in mainstream media. It seems that around this time too that trolls evolved into different types, depending on the forum they were trolling.
One particularly insidious type of troll is called Schrödinger’s troll. You may have heard of Schrödinger’s cat before: it is a though experiment posed by Erwin Schrödinger, a quantum physicist, which states that a cat inside of a box may exist in either a quantum superposition state of life or death, and that its true state cannot be determined until the cat is observed. Similarly, Schrödingers troll is someone who posts an offensive, racist, or hateful comment, and will decide whether he is joking or not based on the reaction of those around him.
This form of trolling is used often by white supremacist and extremist groups to recruit new members online. Someone will post a racist remark, and absent any backlash, will make other feel comfortable with the topic of discussion, knowing that at any time they can claim that they were merely joking. This tactic incidentally was used often by Trump and other in his administration when the backlash for comments or tweets became too great.
Honest public discourse is thwarted anywhere a troll of this type shows up. In these scenarios, the position of each commenter are fluid, ever changing. Those who argue using this bad-faith method typically hold positions which are unacceptable in broader society. They vent their frustrations by obscuring their real intentions behind half-jokes and amorphous positions. They neither have valid critiques, nor construction additions to public discourse.
Concurrently, the term troll has been misapplied in cases where a person simply doesn’t agree with someone else. In other words, a person isn’t a troll simply because they hold a different view or belief, so long as their argument is made in good faith.
Online discussion rarely results in anything productive or useful. That said, it provides a non-violent medium for people to voice their opinions. Trolls have been aided by media platforms in that media outlets profit enormously from controversial topics. Topics such as race, policing, and immigration necessarily bring strong opinions from both sides, and drive traffic to websites who host the material. From an economic standpoint, media has an interest only in keeping the “debate” going, and keeping people clicking, rather than to take a moral stance on a particular subject. This also means that these media sites are disincentivized from cracking down on trolls since the trolls keep the flame going. As bipartisanship and honest public discourse crumble around us, we will ask years later in hindsight, “was it worth it?”