May 14, 2013

Before You Accuse Someone of Being a Troll

Internet troll
Internet troll (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know what an Internet troll is, right? Of course you do! You might not be able to define the term, but you know it when you see it. If you visit atheist blogs regularly, you are probably used to seeing Christian trolls from time-to-time. They tend to be easy to spot because they seem to appear from nowhere, spout nonsense, and disappear before anyone realizes what happened.

Just one little problem - without any sort of definition, we may be labeling different people as trolls for very different reasons. And yes, some of those we are calling trolls may not in fact be trolls.

Before you accuse someone of being a troll, you may be interested to know that there is a reasonable definition of the term available. From the Wikipedia page:
In Internet slang, a troll…is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
There are two important parts of this definition to highlight if we want to make sure we are being accurate in who we label as trolls:
  1. The behavior itself (i.e., a troll "posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages"), and
  2. The intent behind the behavior (i.e., "with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion").
Note that #1 refers to a particular kind of behavior and not simply to any behavior that you might find objectionable. Disagreeing with you is not necessarily trolling. The disagreement would need to be off-topic, extraneous, or inflammatory.

Now take a look at #2. This component of the definition requires us to consider the intent of the person making the comment. A troll is not merely someone who engages in the behavior described above; he or she is someone who does so with a particular intent. The troll says what he or she says primarily to provoke you or disrupt the discussion.

There are two things that can make it challenging to accurately identify a troll. First, individuals differ in what they find inflammatory or extraneous. With this in mind, it can be helpful to note the opinions of others. If I think someone is a troll but nobody else seems to, I may need to consider the possibility that I am wrong. Second, intent must be inferred, and we do not always do a good job of inferring it. When we are upset with someone, we tend to attribute ill intent to them. This may or may not be the case. Again, it can be helpful to examine the opinions of others before labeling someone a troll.

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