Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wills, Bernard. “Notes on the Rhetoric of Trolling.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 1-10.
The following notes are from my personal observations on the internet phenomenon of trolling. I don’t know what a troll is and is not any more than other people do but I’ve dealt with them enough to see some common patterns. I cannot remember when exactly I started encountering breathtakingly insolent people on the internet but I now feel I have known them forever. At one point I went from being gob smacked to being curious.
Seriously, Who Are These People?
Who are these people? Do they have mothers? Kids? Are they bitter, lonely singletons? Abusive partners? Are they drunk or insane? Unfortunately, the internet gives little opportunity to investigate the matter. In very few instances have I been able to peer behind the trolling mask and glimpse an actual person. My comments then are confined to what I can observe of the troll mask and how that mask functions.
Of course, they represent only the section of the trolling community that I myself have been exposed to. There are many styles of trolling (like in fashion, pop culture and gaming) that I have no significant exposure to simply because of my age, gender and professional interests. I do, though, have an interest in argumentative and rhetorical styles this is the area on which I can comment most usefully (as opposed to motivation which I can only speculate on).
If I am correct about trolling a good deal of what I say will be familiar to the reader though some of it will not: we have probably constructed our own individual, hopefully overlapping, portraits. I invite readers from different disciplines to compile their own notes as many snapshots of the troll may add up to a more coherent picture.
Certainly I have more questions than answers and hope others at SERRC can instruct me. Whether philosophers or literary critics, political or social scientists we have all encountered this figure at some point and no doubt have our own disciplinary ‘takes’ on the problem.
Before I begin though let me note one important thing. Women experience far more vicious trolling than men. I have at worst been insulted. No one has threatened me with rape or death as in the case of Australian journalist Ginger Gorman or Anita Sarkeesian. These women (and many others) have encountered trolls who go to the edge of psychopathy and beyond and I must say I have never had an encounter of that kind.
Some might (perhaps) reserve the word troll for such extreme cases (I am open to that argument) but for now I will leave it as a family resemblance term covering a continuum of behaviors from mildly annoying to genuinely terrifying. As a philosopher I no doubt encounter ‘opinion based’ trolls more than others and, as I like arguments, I probably interact with them far longer than I would with any other kind. As ideological or ‘opinion based trolls’ are probably not the worst of the worst I thus have to make the proviso that I am most concerned here with what may be only the middle range of the trolling spectrum.
Fortunately for the utility of my inquiry this may be the range in which, to adapt a phrase from Plato, the ‘curables’ rather than the ‘pure tyrants’ lie. Thus, I will focus my attention on how the troll presents, and particularly the argumentative and rhetorical tricks he uses rather than trying to compete with psychological approaches which are more concerned with underlying personality traits. Thus I will keep my comments on the latter to what I hope is a decent minimum.
The Most Powerful Forces of Irony
My friends in social science no doubt have a good deal to say about the internet phenomenon of trolling. As a philosopher I have a few observations on it myself and in this paper I will follow Plato in hunting the troll. I refer of course to Plato’s dialogue The Sophist (218-30) in which Plato goes hunting the sophist, seeking by the method of division to smoke him from his hiding place and fix his nature.
Alas I am not sure I can follow Plato fully here. I have, if you like, a sketchy phenomenology of the troll but no sure grasp of his nature. I use the masculine pronoun here partly because it is male trolling I find most interesting (it seems part of the broader phenomenon of ‘toxic masculinity’) and because I have no exposure to female troll cultures such as TERFS.
I simply have encountered too few female trolls to say much about them (the ones I have encountered don’t differ appreciably from their male counterparts). A consideration of trolling of course will consider, at some point, the relation of contemporary trolling to what Plato called sophistry. My emphasis at the moment though is on the thing I find most interesting which is the rhetoric and style of trolling.
Trolls, I have observed, have a very small rhetorical arsenal though they can employ this arsenal in a surprising variety of ways. Of course they rely on the ad hominem fallacy and sometimes the fallacy ad baculam. This is not what interests me however as these techniques are well known already and fairly crude. I am much more engaged by two techniques (among several I identify) that I think are much more revealing and these are the techniques of hyperbole and irony, the latter usually used in a self-protective mode.
I point them out because I think they reveal something at the heart of trolling that has not been much commented on: which is that trolling is a failure of rhetoric and part of the solution to trolling may be the teaching of rhetoric. People not only need argumentative skills but rhetorical and persuasive skills. Trolling is something people who have to make decisions on the fly about how to express themselves may fall into (and it may then harden into a habit).
In other words, key elements of trolling may be (as a colleague suggested to me) jury rigged (at least in the milder, less nakedly sadistic cases). The immediacy of the web no doubt plays some role here. Social media conversations, even with the edit function (which by the way the troll never employs, perhaps because it could never occur to him to correct himself) are always in the now and in the ‘hotness’ of the moment trolling may be an easy crutch to fall back on.
This is especially the case as the lamentable features of trolling, the invective and ad hominem attacks, may be a natural consequence of the hyperbolic reflex in the troll’s discourse. To be blunt: having pitched his language at 11 (ignoring all the rhetorical registers below it!) the troll may simply have no place to go but insult and abuse. Rhetorically, he has no technique for intensifying his expression and as the discussion heats up so does he.
Venator de Troglodytara / Hunter of Trolls
First off though we need a rough taxonomy. Trolls I have observed come in a fairly small number of shades almost invariably related to some cultural or political stance. I don’t think I have ever encountered a troll who was not staking out an ideological position though the troll’s actual relationship to ideology is somewhat vexed (it is not clear to me if the troll actually has any real beliefs).
Male trolls (the kind I know best) fall readily in the following categories: conservative/libertarian, conservative evangelical, alt- right, new atheist alt-right, new atheist/secularist and campus leftist (whether so-called ‘SJW’ or unreconstructed Stalinist). These are wildly opposed ideological stances but part of my thesis is that these differences are superficial.
Beneath all these ideological masks there is a set of common patterns; a gestalt if you will. It would not surprise me in fact if ideological conversions between these groups happen easily and swiftly for all these people use the same rhetorical techniques and even the same insults. That people with such diverse points of view fall into near identical behaviors may indicate that there is indeed something ‘jury rigged’ about troll discourse as persons facing common problems tend to converge on common solutions (though of course, by an iron law of dialectic, people also come to resemble their opponents).
Here, though, I must confront an issue that has come up again and again. Progressive friends often get upset at me if I suggest trolls are denizens of the political left as well as the political right. Ironically, left wing trolls troll me ferociously when this issue comes up. This is because they think I am asserting moral equivalence between themselves and Fascists which I am absolutely not.
Let me clarify then: right wing trolls are dangerous to others (even physically) where left wing trolls are (with some exceptions) merely exasperating. It is, I must add, a feature of ideological trolling that my ‘side’ (however defined) never trolls: trolling is what the other side does. This is what I tell progressives who deny to me (in spite of the direct evidence of my senses!) the existence of a left leaning troll culture: you don’t see the trolling on your own side in the exact same sense that a fish does not see water.
This raises the vexing question of whether and to what degree the troll sees himself as a troll or self-describes as ‘passionate and committed to truth and justice’. The troll may be systematically deceiving himself about this and genuinely believe he is a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ in which case a heuristic for trolls (if we could find one) might help some people to self-knowledge.
Contact details: email@example.com
Ahmad, Asam. “A Note on Call-out Culture.” Briar Patch Magazine. 2 March 2015. Retreieved from: https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/a-note-on-call-out-culture
Buckels, Erin E.; Paul D. Trapnall, Delroy L. Paulhaus “Trolls Just Want to have Fun.” Personality and Individual Differences 67 (September 2014), 97-102. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886914000324.
Grey Ellis, Emma. “Nobody Knows What ‘Troll’ Means Anymore, Least of All Mueller.” Wired. 26 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/story/nobody-knows-what-troll-means-anymore-mueller/.
Gorman, Ginger. Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout. Richmond, Australia: Hardie Grant Books, 2019.
Kerr, Euan; Jeffrey Bissoy. “Inside the World of an Internet Troll: How Users Can Protect Themselves Online.” MPR News. 24 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/04/24/miller-inside-the-world-of-an-internet-troll.
Plato, The Sophist in Collected Dialogues ed. Hamilton and Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.
 On some of the confusion on this question see: https://www.wired.com/story/nobody-knows-what-troll-means-anymore-mueller/.
 On Gorman’s story see her eloquent TED talk ( https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/04/24/miller-inside-the-world-of-an-internet-troll?fbclid=IwAR0GwNbdwqgpxSOqsB90uQeGUREUz1Lhb5rCEqFioAVi-HHP_yKJqXoGtX8. Gorman has actually encountered some trolls in person and attributes to them a so called ‘dark tetrad’ of narcissism, psychopathy, ‘Machiavellianism’ and sadism. As I say I don’t think I have encountered anyone this bad but were I to go online under a female persona or as a person of color I would likely access layers of depravity I cannot as a middle aged white male. Most of the trolls I encounter are, as far as I can tell, putting on a display for another male and not trying to victimize me. This darker end of trolling has been studied by Buckels, Trapnell and Paulhaus in “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886914000324 These authors have been able to peer behind the mask more than I have though trolls who respond to surveys about trolling may be select group only. Plus, questionnaires may be, to a surprising degree, a medium in which people construct alternate pictures of themselves rather than deliver unvarnished, direct ones. It is their view (101) that anti-social individuals seek out the internet to troll on though they admit the causality may go the other way: the internet may make us more troll-like. One issue I have with this study is that the authors’ operating definition of trolling “Online trolling is the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.” (97) designates only a subset of troll behaviors: some trolls seem to me to have an instrumental purpose or at least to be furthering an instrumental purpose whatever their actual motivations and that is the furtherance of a political or social aim.
 On the general problem of toxicity among progressives see Asam Ahmad: https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/a-note-on-call-out-culture. Mr. Ahmad has the virtue (rare in our day) virtue of being brutally honest with his own side.