Trolls are everywhere on the internet. They lurk in forums from Yahoo to YouTube, ready to engage the unsuspecting in an endless series of flame wars, to their own amusement. The MIT Technology Review posted an article at the end of 2014 about a man who made an entire TV show by unmasking trolls, and highlighted the damage trolls can do. At the same time, certain trolls (like Ken M) are seen as harmless and even venerated as talented humorists.
There is no doubt that our modern world is widely influenced by trolls, in both positive and negative (although mostly negative) ways. But trolls and the inflammatory dialog they spew have been with us for far longer than since the inception of the internet, and have in fact haunted the bridge of human communication since as long as such a thing has existed. Using the perspective gained by an examination of historical trolling, we can see that although trolls are often unpleasant and, if unchecked, dangerous, they are an inescapable consequence of free thought.
To begin, I will say that I have seen firsthand the damage that trolls can do. Some years ago, a good friend of mine's little brother was tormented incessantly online by a group of trolls (who I also happened to know). To the shock of all those involved (including the trolls), this tormenting culminated in his making an attempt to end his own life. Luckily, he was unsuccessful, but it is a lesson in how dangerous trolling can actually be. Most of this post focuses on why trolling can or should not be done away with, but the consequences of extreme trolling and abuse can not be overstated.
So, what exactly is a troll? In modern parlance, it generally refers to someone who posts on a forum a deliberately stupid or offensive opinion in an attempt to incite angry responses from others. Usually, this is done at someone else's expense, and purely for the enjoyment of the troll. Some consider this the only true form of trolling, but in common usage I have found the term to be much broader (see this reddit thread for examples of historical figures who are considered trolls, even though they often had a goal in mind). Therefore, I consider as trolls even those who have some sort of productive agenda they are trying to support. Based on this definition of trolling, I have gathered three examples of troll-like behavior from history (for other examples, including some from more modern times, see this pintrest board):
Galileo Trolled on the Catholic Church
Galileo is a noble figure from history, venerated for his discoveries and support of such discoveries even in the face of extreme opposition. It should be noted however, that much of that opposition came about because of a book he wrote to circulate his ideas: Dialogue on the Great World Systems. In this book, he creates a dialog between three people- A wise advocate of the Copernican system of heliocentrism (Salviatus), an intelligent layperson (Sagredus), and a staunch advocate of tradition known as Simplicius, ostensibly after the philosopher of the same name, but, more likely, intended to mean "simple" (as in simple-minded). Salviatus advocates Galileo's views on the issue, and Simplicius, who espouses the views of the Catholic church, is consistently made to look the fool. Though more subtle than many modern trolls, Galileo's intent was not lost to the Inquisition, and he was sentenced to house arrest.
Jonathan Swift Was a Troll
Jonathan Swift was an Irish author, perhaps best known for his book Gulliver's Travels. Swift is in true trollish form, however, in a lesser-known (and in my mind far more entertaining) essay known as "A Modest Proposal". Here he espouses, in a completely deadpan, "reasonable" manner, that in order to ease the burden of the poor in Ireland, they ought to sell their young children as food for the rich.
Kierkegaard Fed the Troll
Many of you may be familiar with a simple rule on internet forums- don't feed the trolls. Trolls do what they do to make people angry, so, if no one actually gets angry, they are unfulfilled and will probably go elsewhere. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, however, was apparently not familiar with this rule. In response to an article in The Corsair (a trollish periodical) lampooning Kierkegaard and his ideas, he wrote several impassioned pieces where he even challenged them to lampoon him more. As you can imagine, it did not go well, and Kierkegaard suffered in the public image for the rest of his life, a fact which many of his contemporaries considered at least part of the reason for his early death.
These three examples are of a very different nature. When The Corsair published articles criticizing Kierkegaard, they were using popular opinion to ridicule his ideas. When Galileo published his book, it was to criticize popular opinion. And when Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal", it was intended to raise awareness of the plight of the poor in Ireland. Few would disagree with Swift's desire to see the poor helped in Ireland, and with modern knowledge it is easy to side with Galileo in his altercations with the Catholic Church. Kierkegaard, though, is a victim of abuse. These examples, then, are a spectrum of trollish behavior, from productive and thought-provoking in the case of swift, to mean-spirited and harmful for Kierkegaard.
What Makes Trolls Good or Bad?
To begin, let us examine the middle of the spectrum- Galileo's book. In modern times, we know that the earth does in fact orbit the Sun, and have ample evidence to prove it. In Galileo's times, it was a much more controversial statement, true though it may be. It should be noted that the Copernican system that Galileo endorsed, hampered as it was by a lack of understanding that the orbits of the planets are actually ellipses, and not circles, was not really any simpler than the Ptolemaic geocentric model officially endorsed by the Catholic Church at the time. In a way, the ideas that Galileo espoused were as flawed as the ones he fought against. Leaving aside, then, the truth or error in his work, was Galileo justified in taunting the Catholic Church the way he did? And was the Catholic Church justified in opposing it so vehemently?
Some enlightenment can be found by comparing Galileo's work to those we can more easily classify. Like Swift, Galileo intended to help the public in some way- to alleviate what he saw as ignorance. Like The Corsair, and in contrast to Swift, he did so at someone else's expense, though, unfortunately for Galileo, a much more powerful someone than Kierkegaard.
It appears, then, that a troll's intent is what distinguishes him as a hero or a scoundrel. Those motivated to make society a better place are justified in poking a little fun at their opposition. When the motivation is simply entertainment, either for the troll or his friends, it is not so easily justifiable.
Can We End Trolling?
Now let's look at the actions of the Catholic Church. Angry at Galileo for publishing a book espousing heresy (after he promised not to), and lampooning the dogma of the church, they blacklisted the book and sentenced Galileo to house arrest. Perhaps Galileo was, in fact, a troll, and the book he wrote more offensive than it needed to be. But does that justify attempting to get rid of it? Ultimately, the motivation of the Catholic Church was to suppress ideas that offended them- in a word, censorship.
Judging the intent of an author, especially in media such as a forum, is not always possible. In fact, some of the most thought-provoking arguments are made when the intent is not immediately apparent. So, the only method we have for judging this content is by how offensive it appears. There are times and places where offensive rhetoric should be avoided, but to eliminate it entirely would necessitate eliminating all ideas that disagreed with ours. Thus:
There Will Always be Trolls
In order for ideas to flourish, for society and the individuals it contains to grow, we must open ourselves up to the possibility of trolling. Certainly, moderators and administrators of websites are justified in removing content that is excessively offensive, nor do I wish to justify racist or hateful speech simply because it is controversial and offensive. I know as well as anyone what can happen if such offenses go unchecked. However, we need to have thicker skin than the Catholic Church did when it condemned Galileo, or we will end up stifling or ignoring ideas that we thought were not productive simply because they made us uncomfortable. In the end, trolls, be they more benign or maleficent, are here to stay.
1. Fear And Trembling, Søren Kierkegaard, trans. Alastair Hannay. Penguin Books, 1985
2. Dialog On the Great World Systems, Galileo Galilei, University of Chicago Press, 1953
3. "The Troll Hunters", Adrian Chen, MIT Technology Review