Of Trolls and the History of the Internet

In recent days several of my friends have urged me to block a contributor to my Facebook page arguing that he is a troll. That was a catalyst to my thinking about the meaning of the term troll. The phenomenon of trolls is as old as the earliest posts on the Internet, in fact they go back to a period before the Internet as we now know it did existed. I owe my first exposure to social media to my dear friend Ari Davidow who urged me to participate in conversations on a network called The Well which I believed was a computer housed in Sausalito. At the time I was the Associate Director of Berkeley Hillel Foundation and I had recently purchased my first personal computer, a Kaypro “lunchbox.”To reach The Well I needed to use something called a “dial-up modem” which younger folks might only know by watching now ancient movies about the dawn of the computer age. But using this device, I could connect to the computer owned by the Well community and converse with folks about all sorts of things. Truly revolutionary!

A few years later we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the cradles of the Internet and I was soon using much larger social networks and in particular something that was called in the style of the Unix computer community simply “News.” These “news” groups are still around today, but they have been subsumed by Google. When you search or contribute to a group on Google News, you are actually interacting with these old Usenet group conversations.

Usenet news groups, like The Well, struggled to cope with the specific issue of what had become known as “trolls” from the earliest days of these communication media. So what exactly is a troll?

Since there are no guardians of the English language empowered to enforce definitions, I can’t claim to have the authoritative control of terminology. I can only speak to the way we used (and still use) the term in the context of social media groups.

At the core, a Troll is a person who obtains self-gratification by introducing chaos into group discussions. The Troll is a disruptor, an instigator whose mission is not to contribute to the discussion, but rather to stop it. Trolls get pleasure from the discomfort of others in the group. One important characteristic of a Troll is that they don’t really care what the issue at hand might be. They might personally favor or oppose a given political stance or some opinion, but they will write whatever they feel will most divert the conversation. Again, their purpose is disruption rather than  convincing anyone of a particular case.

To accomplish their goals, Trolls must preserve their anonymity. They register for the group under pseudonyms (which can be part of an elaborate charade creating a fake persona) or just outright false IDs invented for the current moment. In the oldest period of UseNet there was no effective way to limit or ban Trolls, but eventually UseNet introduced the concept of a moderated group. If a Troll managed to infiltrate the group, a moderator could delete their posts and revoke their permission to add comments. In current Social Media such as Facebook, Trolls will often steal someone’s identity and post under the name of someone who has died or left Facebook until someone reports them to moderators.

Trolls often amass large libraries of Internet links to materials which they insert into their posts. Then they watch as participants waste time going through the links. They are especially delighted when those participants start side-arguments based on some issue raised in these links. There are, of course, reasonable people who also collect links and materials which they can use to support their arguments, but the difference is that they will post materials that are precisely on point. Trolls aim to disrupt, not to clarify.

To summarize, an Internet Troll is a fictional character invented for the purpose of creating emotional, angry conversation which minimizes the ability of a group to have productive conversation. The Troll is entertained by the chaos they create, and when identified as a Troll, they will move on to some other group to continue their behavior.

Returning to my opening paragraph, the person who engendered this conversation fails to conform to the definition in several critical ways. First, he contributes under some form of his genuine identity. Anyone can click on his Facebook name and see that he has been posting for years and has a known community of his own. Second, he has a single consistent agenda in the offending posts: supporting Donald Trump. In almost every other way he is a reasonable and often jovial person. He posts videos of himself, for example, blasting the Shofar at the Jerusalem Wall on the holidays. No Troll would sacrifice his anonymity this way.

The very specific message he conveys about Trump leads me to guess a different cause of his behavior. I think he may be a paid or perhaps even volunteer operative for some sort of Trump-supporting group. A Republican local group chairman or a representative of a Trump business would operate in precisely this fashion.

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