Lee (striver) wrote in blog_sociology,
'Trolls" are one of the most stifling things in a community like this if they are not handled well. Now the first question is, what is a troll. A troll is a person who is looking to cause trouble. In the strictest psychological terms they are exhibiting psychopathic behavior. But that isn't always clear black or white but more a matter of degree. I have never met anyone who didn't break some rules or cause some trouble now and then. So I tend to be slow to label someone as a troll. I give them the benefit of the doubt.

And, to be perfectly honest, I do not necessarily see this behavior as willful. Some people are just like this. But some people are just child molesters and serial killers too. Personal responsibility or punishment doesn't enter into it. There are just certain behaviors that need to be removed from any community for the general health of the community.

The primary thing to watch for is fallacious arguments. Especially the straw man fallacy. The idea is that, instead of beating up your opponent, you set up a "straw man", beat that up, and claim to have beaten you opponent. In debate it generally takes the form of falsely attributing an argument to your opponent that they never made. Like I might say, "I really don't agree with your contention that we should kill babies."

Your automatic response is to say, "hey, wait a minute, I didn't say we should kill babies." and you are instantly on the defense. Suddenly you are spending all your time defending yourself against false accusations, usually worded just close enough to what you are actually saying to sound almost plausible. This is actually a very subtle form of ad hominem attack, meaning attacking the person instead of the point.

This is a verbal dirty fist fight. The object isn't to get to the truth but to wear down your opponent with trickery and emotional and mental traps until they either give up or melt down in frustration. Some people are extremely good at it and very subtle. You find yourself fighting against pretty much nothing, like boxing with a ghost. There was a community here years ago I used to watch where the whole point was to debate using fallacy. It was very educational.

Another is arguing without substance. Things like, "There are many fundamental flaws in what you are saying" without naming what those flaws are. You have been challenged and told you are wrong, but not how you are wrong. Or something like "statistics lie" to refute some statistical evidence without saying specifically how or why the specific statistics in question are wrong. Again, when they present a negative argument with no real substance that you can actually get hold of to debate against, then that is fallacious.

You just waste your time arguing with empty air because as soon as you answer one fallacious point they just present another. The advantage of fallacy over legitimate points is that there is an infinite supply of fallacious arguments in any debate. It becomes a never ending debate where you are always on the defense and no one can stand up to that.

The moderators of a community are particularly vulnerable to such attacks because of the added argument they can throw out that "you are just banning anyone who disagrees with you." But, I think most community moderators are even more hesitant to ban when they are personally involved. And I think most trolls know that and try to take advantage of it. I tend to look very hard and give the person every opportunity to actually make a legitimate point when I am personally involved.

But in the end, I have to make a call one way or the other. And I will always make that call based on what I think is best for the overall long term health of the community. That isn't always easy. I may not always be right. None of us can guarantee that. But I have to make the call. And if I think someone is arguing just for the sake of arguing, they are out.
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  • 6 comments

neptunia67

February 18 2010, 00:54:34 UTC 4 years ago

This is a great post. I don't have anything to add at the moment, but wanted to say, Thanks. I put it in my memories.

I have had this happen a couple of times and I stopped responding to the person. Once it was in my own journal and it ended by that person dropping me from their friends list. It was incredibly emotionally difficult, because he took what I said and twisted it into making me look like a selfish, horrible person. It was awful.

I guess I did have something to say, after all. :-)

striver

February 18 2010, 00:58:07 UTC 4 years ago

yes, this really is a form of emotional abuse. It can be very hard to deal with.

siderea

February 18 2010, 03:33:32 UTC 4 years ago

Once upon a time -- about 20 years ago now -- the term "troll" meant something very specific on the Internet. Since then, it's been applied to approximately any antisocial[*] behavior they didn't like. Which is too bad; we once had a richer, more nuanced vocabulary for discussing these things because we had more specific terms.

What you describe wouldn't quite necessarily have qualified as a "troll" back in the older usage. "Flame warrior" would fit. But a troll, back then, was someone who didn't merely get in arguments -- dirty or not -- but who manipulated other people into fighting/flaming amongst themselves. A truly first order troll was one who managed to plunge an email list or usenet group into a flamewar without ever themselves arguing with anyone -- and without any of the blame for it landing on him.

A classic way a troll would do this would be by asking disingenuous questions that lead to heated answers sure to offend third parties. So, imagine a troll decides to kick the beehive at rec.sewing. He checks the FAQ and discovers that the question of "which sewing machine is best?" is highly contentious, with the two major factions being Huskvarna and Singer. So he posts a disingenuous question, "Hi, guys! I'm about to buy my first sewing machine. Why are Singers so much better than Huskvarnas?" The Singer partisans happily start praising Singers and slamming Huskvarnas, and the Huskvarna partisans reply, "NO THEY'RE NOT!" and everyone is off and running. Nobody, of course, blames the "clueless troll" for kicking the beehive, but that's exactly what he did, all premeditated, just for his entertainment.

[* "Antisocial" is I think the term you perhaps wanted, instead of "psychopathic" -- if you're interested in more about these terms, see http://siderea.livejournal.com/720811.html and dive into the comments where these are discussed in detail.]

striver

February 18 2010, 03:57:12 UTC 4 years ago

I do understand your thoughts, but no, I meant psychopathic in the strict definition and it is correct here.

striver

February 18 2010, 04:16:24 UTC 4 years ago

i should perhaps expand that comment just a bit to say that I understand your thoughts and they are valid in certain aspects but I take a different view.

striver

February 18 2010, 15:33:57 UTC 4 years ago

Now that I have a few moments I can reply to some of the other points in your post. First of all, thank you for pointing out another form of trolling. That is good information. But the origin of the word troll is still a matter of some debate. Wikipedia is a good source for such things. Here is what it says:

"The most likely derivation of the word troll can be found in the phrase "trolling for newbies," popularized in the early 1990s in the Usenet group, alt.folklore.urban (AFU).[7][8] Commonly, what is meant is a relatively gentle inside joke by veteran users, presenting questions or topics that had been so overdone that only a new user would respond to them earnestly. For example, a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster's name and know that the topic had been done to death already, but new subscribers to the group would not realize, and would thus respond. These types of trolls served as a Shibboleth to identify group insiders. This definition of trolling, considerably narrower than the modern understanding of the term, was considered a positive contribution.[7][9] One of the most notorious AFU trollers, Snopes,[7] went on to create his eponymous urban folklore website."

There are a few other interesting takes on it in the wiki discussion page. Interesting as all that is, it is pretty much irrelevant. Every word on this page has origins and history as well as changing definitions over time. The current common usage of the word troll is somewhat broader but at the same time still very accurate. It is, essentially, trolling for a response.