The Evolution of a Troll

Rarely does online jargon become offline slang, but like meme and viral, trolling has entered the broader language. (It’s even made the OED.) As with other robust Internet terms, trolling lends itself to more general meanings far removed from its origins. “To hear people talk about trolls in April 2013 is so different than people talked about it even in 2011,” says Whitney Phillips, an NYU lecturer in media studies who wrote her dissertation on Internet trolls. “You now encounter the word all day long.” Below, a guide to trolling’s increasingly elastic definition.

Angry TrollPhoto: Illustrations by Joe McKendry

Troll, n. 1. An online user who posts provocative items on an Internet forum in the hope of inciting a hostile, naïve, or corrective response. Originally a term of derision directed at disruptive users, it was appropriated by members of 4chan’s /b/ message board as a mark of pride.

February 1999:
J. Donath, Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”: “The troll attempts to pass as a legitimate participant, sharing the group’s common interests and concerns; the newsgroup members, if they are cognizant of trolls and other identity deceptions, attempt to both distinguish real from trolling postings and, upon judging a poster to be a troll, make the offending poster leave the group.”

Donald Trump

2. A pundit, activist, or politician who makes inflammatory statements with the intention of eliciting condemnation from the mainstream media and galvanizing his or her supporters.

Ted Nugent

January 2013:
R. Maddow, The Rachel Maddow Show: “Ted Nugent is a troll. Donald Trump is a troll. When you see the conservative lady who used to be on Saturday Night Live now doing the YouTube song about the communists in the White House … Look, look, it’s a troll … when a politician says something deliberately provocative in front of an audience that they know will be provoked, because they’re banking on firing up a smaller group of people who enjoy the way that speaker can make that other audience mad—Congressman Steve King is kind of a permanent troll.”

Trolling Nation

3. An individual or group that taunts its opponents.

March 2013:
A. Pasternak, Pol­icyMic:“Has North Korea been reading too many Internet forums? I only ask because if one looks at North Korea’s recent actions, it seems as if the country has become the world’s geopolitical troll.

Meghan McCain

4. An individual or a group that gets angry at things that aren’t its business.

March 2013:
M. McCain, Twitter: “Every move of my life is followed by conservative trolls on the Internet having class five meltdowns about my very existence.”

Troll, v. 1. To publish a contrarian editorial that elicits an angry response.

January 2013:
P. Clarke, BetaBeat: Globe and Mail Trolls Internet With Editorial Supporting Aaron Swartz Prosecution.”

President Obama

2. To deliberately stick it to one’s adversaries.

February 2013:
A. M. Cox, the Guardian: “It wouldn’t be real Obama trolling if they left out social issues entirely, either. In his references to climate change, gun law, immigration and marriage equality, he’ll either highlight GOP exceptions and compromisers—their ‘bravery’ or some such—or he’ll talk about putting the people, justice, planet, safety or children ‘first.’ ”

Western Media TrollingPhoto: KCNA KCNA/Reuters

3. To undermine the threat of a bellicose leader by picturing him operating antiquated machinery.

March 2013: Huffington Post: “North Korea Computer Photo: Western Media Trolls Pyongyang.”

Martin Sheen

Concern-troll, v. To feign sympathy for an individual while sabotaging his or her goals.

Kathryn Bigelow

March 2013:
S. Bunch, Commentary: “Martin Sheen and Ed Asner have attached their names to a letter circulating among Academy Award voters, begging them to shut Zero Dark Thirty out of the Oscar race. In a masterpiece of concern-trolling … Sheen and his fellow signatories hope to keep the film from taking home Oscar gold because ‘one of the brightest female directors in the business is in danger of becoming part of the system.’ ”

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The Evolution of a Troll