The traits of a troll

« previous post | next post »

Troll watch

WATCHWORD:  When one goes fishing for trolls, the trolls are almost always certain to bite.

We've recently had a succession of posts on trolls (see "Readings" below).  We all know that there are lots of trolls lurking out there all over the internet, and they are up to no good.  They cause much mischief and disrupt otherwise interesting, productive discussions.  They are especially destructive when they are the first to jump in after a post goes up and reflexively say something nasty and negative, without really having read the post and thought about what it's trying to communicate.  Yet, it is clear that different people have different ideas about what exactly a troll is.  So let us see if we can get some idea of or consensus on what constitutes trollishness in today's world.

I'll start by listing a few salient characteristics of what I consider to be the typical, obnoxious troll:

1. contrariness and contradictoriness — if somebody says X, the troll will reflexively say Y, not because he believes in Y or because he disbelieves in X, but just to contradict the person who proposed X

2. piling on — if somebody jumps on a statement by another person, the troll will also jump on the person who made the statement, without regard to the veracity of the original statement or the counterstatement which he simply repeats, embellishes, or exaggerates

3. lack of an aim or goal other than purely to disrupt the flow of a discussion and to make others unhappy

4. the anguish of others is the troll's favorite diet

5. the troll often pretends to be disinterested, and that's pretty easy for them, because they don't really have opinions of their own to which they are committed

6. it is not the aim of a troll to convince others of a point or a position; the goal of a troll is to disavow the points and positions of others, no matter what they may be

7. the manner of an ordinary troll is to be snarly, snarky, and snide — the three "sn-"s, i.e., the troll is like a snake

8. the troll exudes arrogance and haughtiness

9. the troll wants to give the impression that he knows everything and no one else knows anything, even in fields where the troll is completely ignorant

10. the troll speaks haughtily, authoritatively, and ex cathedra, despite the shallowness or complete absence of his expertise

11. a troll is not a gnome, since the very essence of gnomehood is to be possessed of thoughts and opinions || < γνώμη (gnṓmē, "thought"), from the base of γιγνώσκειν (gignṓskein, "to know"); indeed, a gnome is an ideal target of a troll

12. the troll is relentless — like a pit bull or a piranha

…and so forth and so on

Others may suggest additional features and behavioral patterns of trolls.

When all is said and done, people may ask themselves, do I sometimes act like a troll?  If so, why?  What's the motivating impulse?  What do I hope to accomplish by acting like a loathsome troll?  Do I behave like a troll simply because I like to see other people squirm or suffer?  Or is it because I'm essentially a miserable creature who wants to take out his grief and gloom on non-trolls?


"Trolling" (5/12/19)

"The Notion of 'Trolling' in Ancient Sanskrit" (5/12/19)

"The toll of the trolls" (5/25/19)

"Eristic argument" (4/6/19)

"Rhetoric in Troll-land" (2/19/18)

"'Concern troll' passives" (1/24/14)

"More meta-commentary" (12/24/08) — here and here

"Voynich code cracked?" (5/16/19)

"The life cycle of unicorns" (5/20/19) — these last two items started out on other subjects, but then veered off into discussions of contemporary trolldom.


  1. Thaomas said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 7:32 am

    What is the abstract noun referring to this phenomenon? trollishness? trolldom? trollhood? trollery? trollism?

  2. Thaomas said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 7:48 am

    Is not too much emphasis in the list given to insincerity? I think most trolls do genuinely dislike the opinion they troll; they would not troll the opposite opinion.

  3. Cervantes said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 8:04 am

    I agree with Thaomas, it isn't necessarily (or even commonly) the case that they don't have real opinions of their own. On the contrary, the motivation for their disruptive behavior is that they don't like your opinions. They are trying to interfere with legitimate discussion and damage your community. True, they aren't really trying to convince you, but they are trying to make it more difficult for you to convince others.

  4. Serge said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 8:05 am

    You just describes Socrates

  5. Amy de Buitléir said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 9:57 am

    To me, the most clear-cut trollish behaviour is go to a forum where people tend to favour X, and post anti-X messages designed to aggravate people rather than to persuade. As Cervantes said, trolls "are trying to interfere with legitimate discussion and damage your community".

  6. Robert Coren said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 10:06 am

    The tagline on #7 is unfair to actual snakes.

  7. Carol said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 2:12 pm

    I would add that I think trolls often intentionally mix in a bit of misinformation even when their posts are factual (if obnoxious) in the main.

  8. BZ said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 3:45 pm

    Re 11: what's a gnome? Is there a relevant definition similar to that of troll?

  9. Sergey said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 4:12 pm

    I would say that the only true sign, and essentially a definition, of a troll is that a troll doesn't believe in what he says, but is essentially like a participant of a discussion club with a randomly assigned (or assumed) position. The rest are parts of any normal discussion, especially a public one. Note that in a public discussion you don't have the goal to convert the opponent, this is generally impossible. Instead you want to convert the onlookers, the watching public, to your opinion. The list above mostly represent the oratorical devices for doing that.

    On the other hand, as I think some Russian poet said, "a thought expressed is a lie". As we express a thought, we can't really express all the associations and connections that it has in our brain, so we're forced to simplify. Even more so if the thought is aimed to become a "sound-bite". This simplification leads to creation of the different associations in the brains of the listeners. So even the people who agree in principle (and maybe even would agree 100% if the thought could be transferred with all its associations brain-to-brain), find the disagreeable elements in the simplified expression, and start arguing about it. This is normal. It doesn't mean that their position is not genuine.

    We can also think about the discussion clubs. If their participants' position is not genuine, does it truly detract from the quality of the discussion? To some degree, certainly, but there is also a compensation of the participants gaining a better understanding of their assumed position. And for the onlookers, it probably doesn't matter so much if the positions of the participants are true or assumed. This is very much the point of the explanation in the form of a dialogue, since Plato. If your opponent's position is not genuine, hey, you should have a pretty easy time beating them in an argument. It's really a strawman provided for your convenience. Beating a true troll in an argument is easy (and amusing too).

    What I see more often in reality, is that people declare the opponents they CAN'T beat in an argument as "trolls". These people can't lead a discussion and defend (or even consistently state) their position, so they see any disagreement as an act of evil. Seeing this always makes me cringe, especially if done by the people with whose position I do agree. I think this is extremely shameful, and especially so if done by the people on "my" side. This actually makes one wonder, if someone can't even consistently state their position, can this position be considered genuine? For this reason, whenever I see someone crying "troll", I mark them as the loser of the discussion. The only exception is if they catch the other side in the act of flip-flopping of their position, then crying "troll" is justified, and then the caught side is the loser (but in reality more likely just having an inconsistent position taken on faith than being a true troll).

    Another "discussion device" that I think is very wrong is the personal attacks on the opponent, i.e. not criticising the ideas or position expressed by the opponent but the person of the opponent. Whenever I see it, I also mark the attacker mentally as the loser of the discussion. Borrowing from a famous cartoon, suppose the opponent is a dog. What does it have to do with the position expressed, other than with the anti-dog bigotry? If the position is dumb, that would be easy to demonstrate without dragging the opponent's identity into it. And if you can't do it, then well, you've been beaten in a discussion by a dog, and perhaps you should take a second look at your bigotry.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 7:07 pm

    I don't think I've seen any trolls on Language Log, thank goodness. I've seen people who disagree with the poster or with other commenters, but their views appear to be honestly held, which disqualifies them from the label troll.

  11. Scott P. said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 11:59 pm

    Some other traits:

    1) Slipperiness — when a point made is refuted or a professed fact shown to be incorrect, the troll will not alter their opinion, but simply retreat to a different position, often attempting to shift the discussion to unrelated ground. "Okay, maybe immigrants really aren't diseased, but it doesn't matter, because they're taking our jobs!"

    2) Dishonesty — changing or ignoring an earlier opinion they posted that is unhelpful to their current position.

    3) Uncuriosity — they don't actually engage with the ideas and arguments of their interlocutors, preferring to use rhetorical tricks. When they pretend to engage with opponent's arguments, they will misstate those arguments in ways that make their job easier. When challenged on this, they will ignore the challenge or claim 'this is obviously what you _really_ believe."

  12. B.Ma said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 6:42 am

    @Thaomas, it's just "trolling", isn't it?

  13. Carol F Saller said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 9:19 am

    Anonymity seems to be a prevailing characteristic of trolls.

  14. Robert Coren said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 10:11 am

    @Bathrobe: I believe LL is moderated, so the trolls get weeded out, as it were.

  15. Alyssa said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 3:31 pm

    In my mind, the defining feature of a troll is that they aim to draw an emotional reaction out of people. Their primary goal is to make people mad, because they get a thrill of power from manipulating other people's emotions. Or maybe they just hate the people they are trolling and want them to be unhappy.

    An "honorable"/honest opponent is interested in the truth, but trolls don't care. They may or may not believe the things they are saying. They aren't trying to convince anybody, they just want to piss people off.

  16. bgermain said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 2:04 am

    Trolls attack. That is their whole agenda. They do not browse in good faith, out of genuine benign interest.Their prime mandate is to find a target or
    entry point. Then they express aggression. Once, it may be, the troll was less assaultive and more of a generic troublemaker or attention seeker, lurking and loitering around hoping to distract and distress peopld by being contrary. Now there's more anger in it.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 10:53 am

    Trolls are sociopaths. They genuinely find it amusing to make people upset. Often a power trip is involved, too: I've seen (not on LLog) several trolls cheerfully admit that they're trolls for this very purpose (i.e. "even though you know I'm a troll, you still can't help get upset by what I say – I have complete power over your emotions!").

    I haven't encountered trolls on LLog that I can remember, but I'm not here often enough that I'd necessarily spot any.

  18. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 10, 2019 @ 11:31 am

    Thread-derailment apology in advance: I'm going to post this question here, just because DM is here, and might know the answer, and the comments for the thread in which the question initially arose are now closed, I think. But Antonio Banderas asked it again at the end of that thread, so, there are at least 2 people, now, who are interested in hearing from the actual linguists in the crowd. To wit:

    "What is the sine qua non of a "writing system", as distinguished from ideographic or mnemonic "proto-writing?"

    Wikipedia gives the following explanation, which seems to be a bit of a tautology:

    "Proto-writing consists of visible marks communicating limited information.[2] Such systems emerged from earlier traditions of symbol systems in the early Neolithic, as early as the 7th millennium BCE. They used ideographic or early mnemonic symbols or both to represent a limited number of concepts, in contrast to true writing systems, which record the language of the writer.[3]
    [1.] Helen R. Pilcher 'Earliest handwriting found? Chinese relics hint at Neolithic rituals', Nature (30 April 2003), doi:10.1038/news030428-7 "Symbols carved into tortoise shells more than 8,000 years ago … unearthed at a mass-burial site at Jiahu in the Henan Province of western China". Li, X., Harbottle, G., Zhang, J. & Wang, C. 'The earliest writing? Sign use in the seventh millennium BCE at Jiahu, Henan Province, China'. Antiquity, 77, 31–44, (2003).

    [2.] Robinson, Andrew (2009). Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-19-956778-2.

    [3.] Gross, Michael (4 December 2012). "The evolution of writing". Current Biology. 22 (23): R981–R984. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.032. ISSN 0960-9822. Retrieved 15 January 2018."

    Seems as though there's gotta be a more methodologically rigorous explanation out there, beyond, say, Judge Potter's definition of pornography ("I know it when I see it").

RSS feed for comments on this post