Trolling, cyberbullying and constructive debate

There has been much discussion recently regarding the phenomenon known as internet "trolling", following the conviction of Sean Duffy for posting offensive messages on Facebook about young people who had died. The BBC's article on trolling to my mind confused it with cyberbullying, but I agree there is a considerable overlap: both cyberbullying and trolling involve deliberate, malicious attacks on an individual, and it is not clear at what point trolling metamorphoses into its far nastier and possibly illegal cousin.

Wikipedia defines "troll" thus:

"...someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion"

Urban Dictionary is subtly different:

"one who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument"

And a pretty comprehensive definition of "trolling" comes from Know Your Meme:

"....refers to any behavior that is meant to intentionally anger or frustrate someone else. It is often associated with online discussions where users are subjected to offensive or superfluous posts and messages in order to provoke a response."

All these sources agree on one thing. It is not so much what is said but the INTENTION that defines whether someone is trolling. Online debates can become quite heated, tempers flare and language can become unprintable, but that doesn't necessarily mean that anyone is trolling. It is the deliberate DISRUPTION of debate that constitutes trolling.

This is in my view a very important distinction. In the comments on my recent post in Liberal Conspiracy, I was called a moron, an idiot and various other names by people who felt very strongly about what I had said and chose to show this by means of personal abuse rather than addressing the points they disagreed with. For me, anyone who resorts to personal abuse has already lost the argument. But that didn't mean these people were trolling. They simply felt strongly about something and expressed it in personal terms. As someone said to me recently, this could be seen as a good thing - at least they recognised me as a person!

But if someone maliciously attacks what another person has written with the intention of discrediting them, is that trolling, if the points they make are valid? This to my mind is a bit of a grey area, and I'd value comments from others on this. The definitions above are unclear: the Wiki definition suggests that this is not trolling, since the attacks are on-topic, but the other definitions do suggest that offensive posting IS trolling even if on-topic, because it is intended to anger and provoke rather than engage and debate.  Deliberate attacks which seek to prevent reasoned discussion of the writing and aim to undermine the writer are hurtful and disruptive. But on the other hand it must be possible to disembowel a silly argument without being accused of trolling. The problem is, though, that what one person regards as reasonable fisking, another may regard as an unjustified and vitriolic attack.

To me the best strategy is to remain factual, address the points in a logical manner and refrain from emotive language or personal abuse - even if someone is using abusive language themselves. And don't attack just for the sake of it, for a laugh, or because you don't like the person: only take a post apart if you genuinely disagree with it. Stick to the topic, provide reliable evidence to support your points, and be polite to the writer while you are demolishing their arguments. They may still call you a troll, but the evidence will be against them.

Sometimes a particular individual is systematically targeted for abuse by others on social media. This is often called trolling, especially when it is associated with completely opposed political views.  But in my view a sustained campaign of abuse of an individual on social media is not trolling, it is cyberbullying - even if the person concerned has been blocked so they cannot see what is being said about them. No block can completely prevent information reaching the target. I have been the target of such a campaign recently, and found it exceedingly distressing to discover that someone was deliberately spreading lies and misinformation about me in order to discredit me. However much you may disagree with someone, or believe they are a fraud and a sham, if you deliberately spread lies about them, misrepresent what they have said, or abuse them personally, you are a bully.  You should engage them in constructive debate, not stab them in the back.

Sometimes the target of abuse - trolling or cyberbullying - exposes the abuse by writing about it, broadcasting it on social media, or confronting the abuser. I've done this myself and am in two minds as to whether or not this is a good idea. The advice from Twitter is to ignore abuse unless it involves threats of personal violence, in which case you should inform the police, of course. In many cases studiously ignoring abuse is sensible: "don't feed trolls" is generally good advice. It certainly stopped the abuse I was receiving. But cyberbullies may not be as easily put off as a troll who is getting off on your distress, and sustained hate campaigns involving personal abuse may therefore be better exposed. No-one should have to put up with this stuff, and exposure can be a powerful weapon. But if you do decide to expose abuse, be careful - make sure you release EXACTLY what the abuser has said and done, and keep copies of their postings as evidence. If you alter what they have said or done you may be guilty of trolling or cyberbullying yourself. 

And finally, a warning about nasty jokes. Not all trolling is malicious attacks on serious posts or deliberate campaigns to discredit. Urban Dictionary gives a good example of "lighthearted" trolling:

Guy: "I just found the coolest ninja pencil in existence."
Other Guy: "I just found the most retarded thread in existence."

The "other guy" may well have meant this as a joke. But it was unpleasant, unnecessary and unrelated to the topic of the first remark, and therefore it was trolling.  There is far too much of this stuff around on the internet and it would be a much nicer place if people would refrain from issuing gratuitous insults, even as "jokes". They aren't funny.

So in summary, play nice - even if the other person really is a prat!


  1. Trolling comes in many forums, it can be deception, a spoiler to a new movie, being a grammar Nazi, it can even be destroying an argument made by a person with little knowledge on the subject. The fact is Trolling is NOT Cyber bullying, A troll can not follow you around poking fun at you in an Anonymous environment on the internet. If you say something stupid and someone trolls your post that is your fault for not thinking about what you say. This is an example of political correctness going too far, it is almost as idiotic as changing the name of Fairy penguins or Baa Baa Black sheep.

  2. Thank you very much, Anonymous. You've just given a fine demonstration of trolling.

  3. These days it seems that with the internet it is so easy for people to anonymously hurt others with nasty words. My daughter went through this in high school. I found offers great advice about ways to deal with cyberbullying. Thank you for your great insight and I hope this is a helpful link for others out there.


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