Amy Dhala, 1999
University of Texas School of Sociology, Post-Graduate Studies
Internet trolling has been around since the earliest days of Usenet, although the art of Polemic discourse from which it arose can of course be traced back to the ancient Greeks. General social consensus at the time of this writing is that in a medium free from simple repressive censorship such as the Internet, trolling is an unwelcome yet unavoidable aspect of modern communications. The application of collective behavioral research techniques, however, show a possibly emerging social movement, complete with the substantial controversy that ironically mirrors that surrounding Ptolemy's own work. This paper shall make inquiry into the anthropological forces at work in this changing medium and evaluate the possibility of current trends to develop into a fully realized social movement based on unwelcome discourse and the possible effects of repression from the conservative majority.
a. Aggregate Group Data
b. Survey Results
1 - Definitions
A reasonably thorough understanding of the Internet, Usenet, the World Wide Web, Instant Messengers, and other popular forms of computer-based communications is assumed. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an adequate tutorial on these subjects. Definitions for unfamiliar terms may be found in the New Hacker's Dictionary Jargon File.
2 - Methodology and Research
Far from being neutral artifacts and physical practices from which one can "float free", technologies are constructed in social contexts. Technologies are developed within specific historical and cultural contexts and are interpreted and experienced within the context of specific power relations.
Research for this paper began in the Spring of 1998 and continued for approximately 9 months. The author spent much of this time reading newsgroups and web-based discussion forums and engaging in conversations with trolls in these mediums, along with real-time communication via AIM and ICQ. The predominant newsgroups explored were alt.syntax.tactical and alt.fan.karl-malden.nose. Other newsgroups and several IRC channels were also utilized, although at the request of the interview subjects this paper will refrain from mentioning which ones.
Due to the nature of the inquiries it was often quite difficult to obtain reliable information from voluntary sources. Many people were very forthcoming and seemed to genuinely enjoy the interaction, however, as the topic itself is inherently mischievous and involves intentional deception, many responses to questions had to be discarded due to dubious truthfulness. Every effort has been made to verify all results and data, but it is hoped that further study can be done in a more controlled environment. Many decisions regarding the validity of responses were entirely subjective.
A total of 58 individuals were interviewed during the course of the research. Of these, 7 were determined to be completely fictitious people, and another 4 were revealed to be people previously interviewed under different handles (the subjects revealed this themselves). Of the 7 fictitious subjects, 3 were also discovered to have already been interviewed under an alias. A total of 14 subjects became hostile prior to satisfactory completion of the interview process. As a result, the author had to change email accounts 3 times, a personal web page of hers was defaced, and she has been impersonated countless times on Usenet, IRC, and various web-based chat rooms during the research phase.
A total sample size of 33 individuals was used to generate the dataset. The number of "active" trolls (defined as someone who starts or contributes to a troll more than 5 times a week, and engages in trolling not less than 3 hours per week) at any one time is estimated to be between 3000 and 5000 people, with the statistical sample size being representative of approximately 0.88% of the group. The number of people who engage in sporadic trolling is estimated at approximately 100 times the number of "active" trolls.
In addition to typical demographic profiling, subjects were asked to complete online versions of the Meyer's-Briggs Temperament Indicator and the full MMPI-2.
3 - Troll Subtypes
troll v.,n. 1. To utter a posting on Usenet designed to attract predictable responses or flames; or, the post itself. Derives from the phrase "trolling for newbies" which in turn comes from mainstream "trolling", a style of fishing in which one trails bait through a likely spot hoping for a bite. The well-constructed troll is a post that induces lots of newbies and flamers to make themselves look even more clueless than they already do, while subtly conveying to the more savvy and experienced that it is in fact a deliberate troll. If you don't fall for the joke, you get to be in on it. See also YHBT. 2. An individual who chronically trolls in sense 1; regularly posts specious arguments, flames or personal attacks to a newsgroup, discussion list, or in email for no other purpose than to annoy someone or disrupt a discussion. Trolls are recognizable by the fact that the have no real interest in learning about the topic at hand - they simply want to utter flame bait. Like the ugly creatures they are named after, they exhibit no redeeming characteristics, and as such, they are recognized as a lower form of life on the net, as in, "Oh, ignore him, he's just a troll."
The Jargon File definition is widely accepted as the official one for Internet trolls. It also contains information on other related topics like Troll-O-Meter (used to measure the quality of a troll), and troglodyte (a malicious troll). For the purposes of this paper it will be necessary to further refine definitions into 4 unique sub-sets of trolls, although there is much overlap and very few trolls fall squarely into one particular category only.
3.1 - The Classic
The "Classic" type troll is the most polemic, in that the primary purpose is to engage others in a heated discussion about a topic. Classicists tend to have above average intelligence, and the predominant Meyers-Briggs temperament was eNFp.
Their disorders tend towards the cyclothymic type, with many becoming excessively involved in pleasurable activities with lack of concern for the high potential of painful consequences alternating with restriction of involvement in pleasurable activities and guilt over past activities.
Interestingly, all subjects who fit the Classic profile were either British or Canadian with the exception of one woman from S. Florida. Analyses revealed the British participants generated more contextual causes for events, but also had a stronger self-serving bias than the Canada participants. Further, each cultural group viewed achievement events as more controllable than interpersonal events, but the Canada sample differentiated between achievement and interpersonal events more strongly than did the British sample. This closely matches the findings demonstrated by N.C. Higgins and G. Bhatt in Culture moderates the self-serving bias: Etic and emic features of causal attributions, in that causal explanations for life events in the two cultures do possess both etic (i.e., universal) and emic (i.e., culture-specific) features.
3.2 - The Obsessive
The "Obsessive" type troll's personality disorders obviously tend towards obsessive-compulsive, yet the predominant PType was actually found to be that of Artistic. Kiersey's note that in them "may be found an instinctive longing for the natural, the pastoral, the bucolic. They are quite at home in the wilds, and nature seems to welcome them" held true in most cases. Sixty-four percent of the study group closely fit the eStP type.
The Obsessives tend to fixate on one particular topic, basing all their trolls from a common theme. The mental models underlying adult attachment styles were conceptualized from a social cognitive perspective. Results showed that whereas most people reported experience with multiple styles of relating, the general attachment style they endorsed was related to: a) the proportion of their significant relationships in which their feelings corresponded to the different attachment style descriptions, b) the ease with which they could generate exemplar relationships to match these descriptions, and c) their interpersonal expectations in these relationships. Overall, the findings suggest that most people process relational knowledge corresponding to all three attachment styles and that the relative availability and accessibility of this knowledge determines which style people report to characterize their thinking about relationships.
It is important to differentiate between the Obsessive and the spamming activities of the Malicious, as the compulsive influences in the former are contingent upon an inherent creative need whereby the troll is compelled to adulate the object of his obsession with ever more elaborate tributes.
3.3 - The Abstract
Perhaps one of the most interesting types of trolls is what shall be referred to here as "Abstract". They are known to produce long, stream of conscious rants that frequently appear to devolve into utter nonsense. Close inspection of 42 unique Abstract trolls, however, revealed a stunning degree of complexity and duplicitous meaning hidden within the words, calling to mind Dadaist works by Joyce and Lucas. One particularly lengthy rant was actually a fairly insightful deconstruction of Hasidic numerology as compared to Pagan cabalistic works.
Meyers-Briggs results were 23% iStP, with another 15% being yHBt, and all showing a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations, which is strongly indicative of a narcissistic personality. This narcissism was further shown to tend towards an authority complex.
Interviews demonstrate that an actor who performs likable behaviors towards superiors (persons on whom the actor depends), and dislikable behaviors towards subordinates (persons the actor does not depend on), is judged as extremely dislikable and slimy. Subsequent experiments address several theoretical accounts of this Slime effect . Likable behaviors towards superiors induce suspicion of ulterior motivation; this suspicion is gradually confirmed as more dislikable behaviors towards subordinates are encountered (Exp. 3). The operation of a Slime schema is indicated by the emergence of an illusory correlation between an actor's behavior and the power of the behavioral target, such that the actor is erroneously perceived as more likable towards superiors (Exp. 4). Further, perceivers spontaneously discern the behavioral pattern of licking upward, kicking downwardly, regardless of processing time (Exp 5). The discussion addresses the implications of these results with respect to impression formation and inconsistency resolution, trait inferences and correspondence bias, and lay theories of self-presentational behavior.
3.4 - The Malicious
"Malicious" trolls tended towards strong destructive actions such as spamming and excessive profanity. They showed no tendencies towards any of the Meyers-Briggs known types, instead only indicating significant personality defect PTypes such as histrionics and compensatory narcissism. Other issues were raised with such surprising regularity that one must conclude that virtually all Malicious trolls have both erectile dysfunction and suffer frequent enuresis The average IQ of this group was 83.
Another thing unique to this group was a concentration of ages not apparent in the others. The youngest of these was 12, the oldest 16, and the average being 15.27 years of age. As is to be expected of this age group, they continued to show a markedly absent sense of maturity and a significantly diminished grasp of rudimentary social skills.
The author also had the opportunity to interview a former Malicious, who chose to go by the moniker "Vlad" in our ICQ discussions. Vlad had stopped trolling some 10 years ago, yet according to the MMPI-2, all of the previously mentioned personality disorders were still present, and IQ had actually decreased.
4 - Causative Influences
The causative influences leading to trolling were similar for all groups and are as follows:
4.1 - Preadolescent Conditions
Pre-adolescent conditions were strongly marked by cases of Munchausen syndrome, characterized by the feigning of the symptoms of a disease or injury in order to undergo diagnostic tests, hospitalization, or medical or surgical treatment. They frequently found reason to stay home from school and watch Captain Kangaroo.
The first three troll types also were preoccupied with members of the opposite sex at a young age, often finding themselves being punished for playing "doctor". The malicious type, on the other hand, maintained a firm belief in girls having "cooties" until well into their late teens.
4.2 Adolescent Conditions
Adolescent conditions were identical for all groups, proving to hold quite true to Shaw & McKay's study of Juvenile Delinquency
In their Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas (1942), Shaw & McKay applied the Concentric Zone Model developed by Park & Burgess to the study of juvenile delinquency. They examined arrest rates of juveniles throughout the city of Chicago during the years 1900-06, 1917-23, and 1927-33. These were years of high immigration, meaning that immigrant groups rapidly "migrated" from the inner city towards the suburbs, as the older and more established immigrant groups were pushed along by the arrival of poorer immigrant groups, who took their place in the center of the city. By comparing the rates from three different time periods, Shaw & McKay believed they could show whether delinquency was caused by particular immigrant groups or by the environment in which immigrants lived. That is:
Dividing three maps of Chicago into even grids, Shaw & McKay shaded each square darker or lighter to indicate its average arrest rate over the three time periods: 1900-06, 1917-23, and 1927-33.
Comparing the maps, Shaw & McKay recognized that the pattern of delinquency rates not only remained constant over time, but also corresponded to the "natural urban areas" of Park & Burgess’ Concentric Zone Model. They came to the important conclusion that delinquency rates always remained high for a certain region of the city (ecological zone 2), no matter what immigrant group lived there. Therefore, delinquency was not "constitutional"—as Lombroso and his followers had argued —but must somehow be correlated with the particular ecological environment in which it occurs! Shaw & McKay’s eventual explanation of this correlation is their "social disorganization theory."
4.3 - Post-Adolescent Conditions
Post-adolescent conditions for all remaining groups (none of the Malicious had reached this stage in their development) were characterized mostly by heavy ingestion of hard drugs.
4.4 - Adult/Workplace Conditions
Upon entering the workforce almost all subjects reported an intense boredom with mundane activities, and trolling was known to increase for many. Implications for self-peer agreement in personality judgment resulted in a high level of cognitive resonance among most.
We examined the relationship between trait ambiguity and self-peer agreement in personality judgment. In Group 1, self-peer agreement was lower on ambiguous traits (those with many behavioral referents) than on unambiguous ones (those with few behavioral referents). This finding was partially moderated by the level of friendship between peers. These results suggest that people disagree in their judgments because they use idiosyncratic trait definitions when making judgments on ambiguous traits. Group 2 tested this explanation by exploring self-peer agreement when participant pairs were forced to use the same trait definition versus different ones when judging themselves and each other. Forcing participants to use the same trait definition increased the degree to which their judgments covaried with one another. Discussion centers on the cognitive and motivational forces that can influence the degree to which personality judgments differ.
5 - Subject Interviews
Several excepts of the interviews with various subjects have been reprinted here, as they further understanding into the methodologies and techniques utilized by several of the groups.
5.1 - h_celine
h_celine is a perfect fit for the sub-type known as the obsessive. His posts are always tied, usually directly, to the writings of Robert Anton Wilson.
"I read Illuminatus when I was, like, 17, and it totally blew me away. Then I read Schroedinger's Cat and some of RAW's other stuff, and that was it. I knew that reality could be forged to my liking if I decided to do it."
"I think that it's necessary, I mean, so many people haven't read any of his stuff, y'know?"
"[The] Atlantis series of trolls were my masterpiece! I mean, some people were totally into this world I created in my head. This is why I troll, man, and I know people appreciate it. I get a lot of fan mail."
5.2 - qed
QED is a classic troll. He has started many a long, and to be honest, interesting, flame war on Usenet.
"I remember going to some alt.women.little newsgroup and, after reading the FAQ, I discovered how these people were completely opposed to being treated as sexual objects. So of course I promptly posted something along the lines of 'Why are little women so sexy?'.
"I got hit with flame hard and fast, but most of it died out in a few days. This one woman, though, just wouldn't let it drop. As this thing progressed I became more and more rational, while she kept getting more and more irrational.
"It's a fascinating thing to watch. You hit some people in just the right spot and they become raving lunatics. People act like I'm the bad guy, but my arguments make sense, while theirs are total nonsense."
5.3 - sH4ggy d0g
sH4ggy d0g is a classic case of a Malicious troll. At the time of these comments he was 14 years old.
"p30p73 f34r m3 c4u53 0f my 733t ski11z"
"dude i once did an ascii art of like this big tit and cross-postd it to fuckin 80 groups for a week! it totally rocked!!!"
"fuck you and your interview bullshit!"
"im not taking a fuckin mental retard test!!!"
"fuck you bitch! end of mutha fuckin interview!"
5.4 - scafandra
scafandra's sad tale is that of a young girl abused. She takes out her repressed hostility on AIM doing something referred to as baiting. With her permission, we reprint some of her logs here. [note: "Jenny" is the alias used by scafandra in this exchange in which a woman pretends to be a guy pretending to be an underage girl]
[ UPDATE - 2001-02-21 Log removed at Jenny's request. ]
5.5 - jarX2
jarX2 was by far one of the strangest individuals interviewed, frequently displaying long streams of apparent nonsense. What's most amazing about the below quote is that it is actually an anagram containing the first verse of The Beatle's I am the Walrus.
"I've never had a psych profile done before. What's it like? Will it hurt? I once filled out the census form for our household. Will it be like that? We didn't have many people living at the house at the time, mainly just me and my dog Rex. They don't ask you about pets on the census, which is a shame, really, because Rex is one hell of a dog. He could whip the shit out of Lassie any day. Now don't get me wrong about Lassie. It was a cool show and all. My favorite show is Lost in Space, probably because that's what my girlfriend is always saying I am. She's a bitch, really. I'll probably dump her."
6 - Sociological Subset Development
Consider, as an example, the two dominant theoretical perspectives regarding social movements and collective behavior: Resource mobilization, the dominant paradigm guiding social movement research throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, and the more recently developed "new social movement" theory. Resource mobilization abandoned earlier psychological approaches to collective action and introduced resources, organizing, and rationality as the key variables explaining the emergence of social movements and collective action.
Despite the attractiveness of resource mobilization and its proven utility to social movement scholars, important aspects of social movements remain unexplained by resource mobilization theory. The result has been the rise of new social movement theory, which emphasizes social psychological processes, collective identity, and continuity as complements to the manipulation of resources described in resource mobilization theory.
6.1 - Collective Behavior
The collective behavior aspects of these trolls show strong Marxist tendencies towards the development of a sociological subset. Engels' writings on the working class in England are particularly relevant:
A town, such as London, where a man may wander for hours together without reaching the beginning of the end, without meeting the slightest hint which could lead to the interference that there is open country within reach, is a strange thing. This colossal centralization, this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one point, has multiplied the power of this two and a half millions a hundred-fold; has raised London to the commercial capital of the world, created the giant docks and assembled the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames. I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers during the ascent from the sea to London Bridge. The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England's greatness before he sets foot upon English soil.
Indeed, after months of analysis it becomes plainly apparent that this collectivism in the troll community has become that of a politically socialist group. Sharing of common themes is encouraged amongst them, and quite a few are adherents of the Open Source philosophy which dictates that the products of a man's labor do not belong to that person, but are in fact a gift to the collective whole. Commerce is scoffed at, profit is disdained, ownership of property is considered useless.
A new socialism is indeed developing in the online communities, mainly in the fringe elements. Thus, the question becomes whether or not these tendencies have the force of social movement or are merely to be relegated to an idle pastime that amounts to little.
6.2 - Social Movement
In contrast to the elite theorists, pluralists argued that power was actually becoming less centralized. Pluralists saw advances in technology as providing the potential for greater democratization and increased participation in political processes. Some scholars have begun to observe growing attempts to utilize new communication technology, especially computer technology, in the interests of the less privileged. In particular, as social movement activists have become more sophisticated computer users, some of the resources once monopolized by the "establishment" are being used to improve communication among activists. Activists throughout the world now use their access to established networks, via the Internet and Usenet, as well as specialized networks such as Peacenet and Econet, to communicate about social movement activities and to form collective action agendas.
The number of trolls is undoubtedly growing along with the internet, yet the dominance of these groups over those that they troll is what will undoubtedly create the social movement. Their inherent superiority in intelligence, their greater wit, firmer grasp of technological issues, and of course sizable gun collections, will lead their socialist group from fringe element to dominant controller of society.
Needless to say, there will be a great deal of resistance from many of those who stand to lose the most from such a change in regime.
6.3 - Reactive Repression
An example of reactive repression occurred in late 1992 when Mattel released a new Barbie doll called "Teen Talk Barbie." These dolls were programmed to say different things that were supposed to be related to being a teenage young woman. One sentence the teen Barbie spouted was "Math class is tough." Recognizing that this message reinforced the prevailing socialization of young women to fear math and to feel unable to perform mathematical tasks, an association of women scholars mounted a campaign to get Barbie to stop saying "Math class is tough."
Part of this attempt was an electronic mail message sent to women academics explaining the situation, urging action, and providing names and addresses at the Mattel headquarters. By the time this message reached me, it had been forwarded three times and I was a member of a list of 90 people who received the message. If the message had reached me through a similar pattern of forwarding, it could have reached a maximum of more than 65 million computer sites from just three forwards!
Although it is unlikely that each person who received the message forwarded it to 90 people, the point is still clear: The ease of forwarding messages and sending the same message to multiple sites can result in a tremendous diffusion of information in an extremely short period of time. The advantages of speed and ease are, however, inextricably connected with the disadvantages of information overload. Although information reaches thousands of nodes, the question remains whether the information is digested by the audience or passed over like so much junk mail.
What the above quote represents, more than anything else, is that people are complete morons who will descend to levels of incredible knee-jerk stupidity at the slightest suggestion. They will bite at anything if given 1/2 a chance. Why is this the case? Well, I've got my own theories on that one.
Here's the deal: People are bored. Yes, bored. Bored bored bored bored bored. Most of us have plenty to eat, roof over our heads, etc. There's no challenge in life, and as a result we search for something important because we need to have our causes.
Real causes, of course, are damn hard to find in this day and age, and when they do present themselves (like starving children) most people ignore them because, hey, that shit's depressing. We want a cause that doesn't hurt to bad, but we're still going to blow it way out of proportion and try to base our lives around it, even if it is really meaningless. This is why people react the way they do to things that absolutely do not mean shit in a larger sense of how the world functions.
The study examined the development of stereotypes about troll groups and their detractors. Results showed that, at low levels of experience, stereotypic group knowledge is derived from information about particular group exemplars. However, as experience increases, an abstract group stereotype is formed that is stored and retrieved independently of the exemplars upon which it was based. Results of the study suggested that pre-existing stereotypes about well-known groups are represented as abstract structures in memory. These results indicate that stereotypical knowledge is most likely to be exemplar-based in the absence of abstract stereotypes. The implications of these findings for other aspects of stereotyping and social perception are discussed.
7 - Conclusion
The diffusion models of cycles of protest as a theory of social movements do apply to Internet trolling, and the reactive repression only further strengthens the causes. Marxist/Loschian Central Place Theory predicts a cumulative effect in further densifying the nodal points and their relative cascading influence on downstream medium. As a predicator of all current discussion forums, Usenet social trends can be used to accurately model long-term anthropological movements towards a unique, largely anarchic paradigm.
Laskey, Klein & Wyer's recent work explores how these changes may come about in a disparate, networked environment:
Two experiments examined the role of memory for behavioral episodes in judgments about in-groups and out-groups. Using a minimal group paradigm, participants read either positive or negative trait-relevant behaviors performed by group members. They then were asked to make judgments about the group's trait characteristics. Results demonstrated that, for groups described positively, judgments about the out-group but not the in-group were accomplished by retrieving from memory specific behaviors performed by group members. By contrast, for groups described negatively, judgments about the in-group but not the out-group were accomplished by retrieving specific behaviors performed by group members. These results suggest that basic differences in the way judgments about in-groups and out-groups are made contribute to the establishment and perpetuation of intergroup bias by decreasing the stability of negative in-group and positive out-group impressions and increasing the stability of positive in-group and negative out-group impressions.
and later, in another publication:
Social identity theory and related viewpoints hold that an individual's social group memberships become part of the psychological self, with diverse and powerful effects on thoughts, feelings, and behavior. However, the successful tests of this hypothesis to date have mainly involved evaluative judgments or reward allocations as dependent measures. Adapting a method developed by Aron et al. (1991), based on the same logic as Stroop interference, we provide more direct evidence that an in-group can be represented as part of the self. Subjects made speeded self-descriptiveness judgments for a variety of traits. Analyses showed that responses were slower and involved more errors for traits on which the individual believed he or she differed from an in-group, compared to traits on which the individual and the in-group were perceived as similar. Matches or mismatches between the self and a salient out-group had no effect. This evidence suggests that cognitive representations of the self and an in-group are directly linked, to the point where reports about the self are facilitated for traits on which the self and in-group are similar, and inhibited for traits involving dissimilarity.
Fundamentally, this is classic class conflict. Current conventional wisdom has it that the solution to stopping trolling from degrading civil discourse is to ignore it, yet our studies strongly suggest that not only will this be ineffectual, it may exacerbate the problem. Subjects displayed a degree of hubris usually unseen outside of clinical environments, yet the work of Skinner provides for the alleviation of such excessive egoism. Applying his work to the present day issues involves not ignoring, but challenging the assertions of trolls, forcing them into a situation whereby the only possible outcome is their concession to being of inferior intellect to those targeted by the initial attack. This constant negative reinforcement can only lead to a significant reduction in the periodicity of attempted trolling.
a. Aggregate Group Data
b. Survey Results
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