This article covers: What is a troll, History of Trollling and How Social Media can Fix Trolling (how can society fix trolling, actually). For individual responses to a troll/bullying situation, try 8 Ways to Deal with Negative Criticism Online.

It takes a Village to raise a Monster. What is it about our society that creates trolls? Is it our adversarial political system? Our attention seeking shock jocks? Our women’s magazines that think it’s fine to photoshop young celebrities in damaging positions? Our evening News as Entertainment TV shows that track a camera chasing somone down the street? The Village has to Fix the Monster – trolls – and use social media and social tools to do that.

What is Trolling?

For me, trolling is the act of breaking the social contract (political correctness or even just nicety) for the sake of a reaction. It’s that simple. Someone criticising you is not trolling. Someone criticising you publicly, using terminology that is aimed at creating drama, rather get you to change your mind, and focuses on responses from the crowd is trolling. Systemic ongoing repeated trolling is bullying but sometimes a troll can make one-off comments just to see if they get a rise. Bullying can be a contributing factor in suicide and damages whole communities not just the bullied. Trolling takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to think: why do I hate that so much?

Social Media Spotlights Trolls

Trolling and bullying has always existed but it’s been hidden in each social network, away from prying eyes. The toxic boss that makes snippy comments when you come to work, the (hopefully soon ex-) boyfriend that trashes your fashion sense and opinions on current affairs with “jokes”, the kids at school that call you lardarse or dumbarse. Social Media doesn’t cause trolling it puts a spotlight on it. And some trolls (most!) revel in exposure and attention and drama. Step up to the microphone please, Mr/Ms Troll!

History of Trolling

Social media didn’t create trolling, we’ve always had it. Trolls  are the court jesters of today. In ancient times, court jesters would do or say something and the court would ooh and aah in shock, wait with baited breath to see what the King would do – laugh or “off with his head”. Why were jesters put up with? Because they reflect back the community values with a twist. They made the Court think, and reflect. Comedians are trolls. So are shock jocks. So is the guy who calls you an idiot or worse and tells you exactly why. 

In Renaissance times, the King was considered to be a ‘God on Earth’ and it was only his Court Jester (or Fool) appointed both to amuse him and remind him of his humanity, who was allowed to speak plainly. In King Lear, it is up to the Fool to remind the King of the consequences of his actions.

Queen Victoria used to tell her Jester off for not speaking harshly enough!

The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good. Lear, insisting on his fictitious majesty, seems ridiculous to him. All the more ridiculous because he does not see how ridiculous he is. But the Fool does not desert his ridiculous, degraded king, and accompanies him on his way to madness. The Fool knows that the only true madness is to recognize this world as rational. (Shakespearian Fool)

I’m pretty sure it’s in King Lear that the trolls (Jester and Kent) start to attack and call others “Whoresons“. I’m also pretty sure that whoreson means the same thing today it did then, and can clearly be filed under “nasty troll”!.

Trolls are important to society. They remind us we can be wrong and in no uncertain terms. By not pulling punches they can break through social rituals that block us from other points of view. By causing conflict we are forced to look to our values, to our ethics, to the eternal struggle between “nice” and “truth”.

But we don’t want to live in a world over run by trolls. One Jester per court, per society, per social network please!

Social Media can Help Trolling

Society can pull together to fix the troll problem.  How? Well in a variety of ways, but you might not like some of them:

Voice of Choice vs Trolls

Been abused at an abortion clinic lately? No? Probably you are in Australia then:

For too long, the abortion discussion has been dominated by angry, nasty protests fueled by individuals and organizations that thrive on sensationalism and extremism.
Now it is our turn. 

“Voice of Choice” was established as a calm, measured response to anti-abortion activists who engage in misguided, raging protest tactics that are often ill-informed and only serve to victimize women, pro-choice professionals, law-abiding businesses and unaligned bystanders.

We use email, telephone and social media in peaceful, person-to-person counter-protests against groups that target abortion facilities, providers and patients, as well as their families and communities. We don’t question anyone’s right to express opinions and ideals; we challenge their bullying tactics and their contempt. (Voice of Choice)

Basically if you stand outside primary schools with signposts with photos of dead foetuses on them, expect a polite phone call thanking you for your support and prayers. From 5,000+ people.

Internet Vigilantism vs Trolls.

Wow there are SOOO many examples of the community taking issue with a troll. Consider the Cook’s Source editor that disrespected a writer and the ensuing backlash. How about the troll on Wife Swap?

When he did talk to her, he managed to insult, among dozens of groups, fat people-the fat people who pay his wife money to make them not fat.

“Agenda, that’s a big word for you,” Fowler said as Gayla stumbled through a set of rules she sought to impose on his family. “The most boorish and abusive of husbands ever,” concluded a blogger on Reality Roll Call.

The fallout: Internet message-board commenters went even crazier than usual, posting Fowler’s home address, which in turn prompted him to threaten to sue the website where it had appeared. Someone launched On Friday, Fowler finally apologized publicly (on his wife’s weight-loss blog) and resigned from the boards of two environmental nonprofits on which he served. And his wife apologized, too, stating that he needed “professional help.” We want to know who’s apologizing to the kids. (Gawker with videos)

If you want the “foam” of moral outrage you had better be sure you can handle it: Go onto YouTube and create a 4 minute video trolling victims of an earthquake. Ok, maybe don’t.

Zhang Ya & Sichuan Earthquake
In 2008, a girl called Zhang Ya (张雅) from Liaoning province, Northeast China, posted a 4 minute video of herself complaining about the amount of attention the Sichuan earthquake victims were receiving on television. An intense response from Internet vigilantes resulted in the girl’s personal details (even including her blood type) being made available online, as well as dozens of abusive video responses on Chinese websites and blogs. The girl was taken into police custody for three days as protection from vigilante death threats.

Director of Prosecution Community Consultation

If peaceful Voice of Choice or the more agressive Internet Vigilantism aren’t your cup of tea, how about education and consultation?

As a result, the director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer confirmed today that he planned to hold consultation with Brit citizens on social media cases involving trolls who take to sites populated by celebrities and openly attack them with abusive messages. (The Register)

If New Zealand put their Police Act up on a wiki, why can’t we have one for a Social Media Troll act?

Individual voices in a community count

Ok I admit this is real world trolling not online. But can we maybe crowdsource a support site for helping those that are victimised for being gay or whatever?

After having his car vandalized four times, Jordan Addison said it would cost $2,500 to fix the damage. And Addison says he believes he was targeted for being gay.

But the manager of a local auto shop stepped in and not only repaired Addison’s car for free but also enlisted the help of several other auto specialists to give the car a substantial upgrade. Yahoo

What are other ways that society using social technologies could fix trolling? Is vigilantism constructive or could we put other solutions in place, that do more than shut a troll up? Do we really want Twitter handing over our details to the Australian Federal Police without a court order so they can show up on your doorstep and drag your 17 year old son away in handcuffs for saying shitty things on Twitter? Or can we as a community address issues around education, collaboration, support and peaceful resistance to effect change. Do we have the social will (or mature social technologies) to even start to work on this challenge?


Trolls are ousted from the community – in this case violently. And along the way they leave many discussions on our community values such as :

  • what is free speech?
  • what is a joke?
  • what is appropriate political or shock jock discourse?
  • what constitutes fair play?

Worthwhile discussions created in an atmosphere of high drama and dissent. Welcome to a troll’s world.