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TrollTaxonomy

Page history last edited by Tantek 8 years, 1 month ago

Troll Taxonomy

Recently (research and documentation begun in 2007) I have had sufficient experience with a variety of different types of trolls on the internet (in communities, email lists, wikis, and news stories) that it seemed useful to document, categorize, classify, and provide methods for dealing with each type, towards the goal of identifying and defeating trolls as quickly as possible in the interest of creating and maintaining PositiveCommunities.

 

I have not found any good up to date, thorough, troll taxonomies on the web (though I remember reading somewhere about a taxonomy of trolls on Slashdot but have not been able to find that taxonomy again - if others can find it, please add it to the "Previous research and documentation" section), thus I've created this page to classify the trolls I have seen and experienced.

 

 

WARNING: This page contains documentation about unpleasant behaviors on the internet. Prepare yourself and your emotions accordingly before proceeding.

 

 

Previous research and documentation

As any good scientist I am first providing a list of previous work and efforts to classify and categorize trolls that I've found.

  • Wikipedia: Troll (Internet) article
  • 2002-11-10 ChessBase News: Flame warriors – a full taxonomy by Mike Reed. See also Mike Reed's illustrated Flame Warrior Roster which includes a number of troll types.
    • Compost has few weapons at his disposal and must resort to expletives and gross vulgarities.
    • Godzilla
    • Big Dog may be smart, articulate or just plain mean, but in any case he is a remorseless fighter, brutally ripping into even the weakest of combatants.
    • Profundus Maximus eagerly holds forth on all subjects, but his thin knowledge will not support a sustained assault and therefore his attacks quickly peter out. Profundus Maximus often uses big words, obscure terms and...ahem...even Latin to bluff his way through battle.
    • Deacon Be he a Baptist, Scientologist or Zoroastrian, in the heat of battle Deacon will call down Divine retribution on all net sinners, and will never miss an opportunity to tell everyone about his personal savior. Deacon is fervent and earnest, but never has anything of interest or substance to contribute.
    • Jerk is sarcastic, mean, unforgiving and never misses an opportunity to make a cutting remark. Jerk is very happy to participate in electronic forums because in cyberspace he is free to be his repulsive self.
    • Grunter always reponds to discussion forum messages with a single word or a short phrase: "Yeah!". "Get a life.", "Whatever", "I agree." "Wrong.", etc.
    • Lonely Guy doesn't get out much, his social isolation drives him to do battle just for the human contact. Compassion dictates that we shouldn't get too upset with his antics. But he can be very fierce. Remember, he has nothing better to do than stew over real or imagined insults.
    • Propeller Head knows just about everything there is to know about computers and the internet, and is indignant (which is what makes him or her a troll) that you don't.
    • Rebel Leader has an uncanny ability to upset the settled order of a discussion forum.
    • Filibuster attempts to influence the forum simply by holding the floor with monotonous hectoring and prodigious output of verbiage.
    • see other troll types at illustrated Flame Warrior Roster, which, notably, includes more than just trolls, but the "good guys" that help fight them off and defend communities from them, such as "Admin", "Diplomat", "Eagle Scout", etc.
  • 2003-03-26 LGF blog comments: Peace Troll Taxonomy 101 by LGF user "Caton". Excerpted:
    • "Jihadi" troll
    • anti-Semitic troll
    • "control" troll
    • "bolchevik" troll
    • 'mongrel' trolls
  • 2006-12-16 Time Magazine: Making Mischief on the Web by ANA MARIE COX
    • Concern troll is more subtle than your standard troll, and posts comments that appear to be sympathetic to the topic being discussed but who, in reality, wishes to sow doubt in the minds of readers.

 

Taxonomy

From my experience with trolls in communities on the internet:

Luddite troll

The luddite troll posts denigrating or negative comments about some form of technology, often the internet or the Web in deference to simpler or better times of the past or "good old days". This technique is one of the more trivial trolling techniques, given that those who use technology and its systems are "so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it", and thus can't help but react to such trolls. Responses often include doubt, disbelief or mockery, that nonetheless give the troll attention (AKA publicity) which is likely to be the only real goal of the troll.

Elitist troll

The elitist troll laments noobs, amateurs, amateur content (often with those labels), and often references the past when the quality of individuals or content in a forum or medium was much better. This technique trivially evokes responses from populists.

Paranoid troll

Paranoid troll asserts that anyone who opposes them or any of their ideas must be against them personally and possibly even "out to get them" for whatever reason.

  • Example: withheld due to current community action against a live example.

Aspergers troll

Aspergers troll lacks common social nuances/abilities and is thus unable to detect irony, sarcasm from others, and is also unable to help from being rude, insensitive, or just generally harsh in their writings. As such trolls may be clinically so (as opposed to deliberately consciously so), some amount of compassion is warranted when dealing with them.

  • Example: withheld due to current community action against a live example.

Bureaucracy troll

The bureaucracy troll insists on more process, more legal standing, more official structure in all things to do with the community. It is not clear whether bureaucracy trolls have a love of bureaucracy over all other goals, or whether they are actually against productivity. Regardless, the end result is often an effective DOP (DenialOfProductivityAttack) on the community and its active participants. These types of trolls often write well, use proper language, and can appear quite diplomatic. They also often take on attributes of a concern troll as documented above, pretending (perhaps even believing) to have the best interests of the community in mind, but in reality, such concerns are purely theoretical, as are most of the fears they are trying to allay with additional bureaucracy.

  • Example: withheld due to current community action against a live example.
  • Defense: The best ways to defend against attacks by bureaucracy trolls is to point out the following:
    1. Productivity confrontation. The troll's insistence on bureaucracy is actually harming the community by hurting productivity (often easily demonstrable by having a prioritized list of community tasks etc. with process/procedure near the bottom, and then noting that the troll is subverting the community's priorities).
    2. Legal liability The troll's public discussions of legal concerns may actually make actual legal concerns worse for the community, and thus to request and then demand that they take their legal discussions offline to a designated admin.
    3. Establish community guidelines/rules per 1 and 2. Finally (or perhaps as a result of 1 and 2), developing community guidelines/rules (yes, bureaucracy) that make community priority inversion, and open legal discussions bannable offenses. This is about as close to checkmate as you can get for this troll. Either the bureaucracy troll continues emotionally by continuing their bureaucratic attack, in which case they get banned for violating community guidelines/rules (ironically). Or the bureaucracy troll acts rationally and actually follows the newly established rules which essentially forbids their original behavior in the first place. A declawing/defanging of a sort after the minor concession of a little additional bureaucracy. The troll may give up, count itself victorious for having forced some additional bureaucracy on the community, or may stay and attempt to be productive.

 

Anti-corporate troll

Anti-corporate troll is generally opposed to all things done, run by, led by, or affected by corporations. The opposition is typically proportional to the size (economic, employees) and/or influence of the corporation. Some trolls even limit their opposition to corporations that are greater than a certain size or influence, often having a influence on the troll's life personally (thus a variant of "axe to grind"). Synonym: anti-business troll. Closely related trolls: anti-capitalist troll, anti-freemarket troll.

 

The goal of anti-corporate troll is to get you to also oppose corporations (preferably the same that they oppose), and thus is an anti-evangelistic goal of sorts. As with many (most?) trolls, their comments are almost always off-topic or tangentially applicable at best. Thus calling "off-topic" quickly can often quiet most trolls of this nature, or at a minimum deprive them of any kind of audience support or sympathy.

Anti-microsoft troll

Anti-microsoft troll is a particular subspecies of anti-corporate troll that narrows their opposition to corporations specifically to that of Microsoft Corporation (and/or developers/OEMs for Microsoft products), and thus may actually support other corporations (sometimes even similar or larger in size/influence, such as Google or IBM) as a means to supporting their cause.

 

As with many (most?) trolls, their comments are not only off-topic, but based on exaggeration, conjecture, and often paranoia. Thus both calling "off-topic", and confrontation with either facts, or a questioning of their conjectures (or both) is often an effective way to defeat such trolls, and worse yet (for them) educates others that not only are the troll's statements false (or inflammatory at best), but the opposite may often be the case, thus having the effect of immunizing folks against the same attack (or at least reducing its effectiveness) for the future.

 

Defeating the specific messages from anti-microsoft trolls thus has the effect of forcing them to mutate their message and/or often find a completely different line of attack, and such trolls have done so over the years. However, note that even rational defeats of their messages won't stop them from citing their earlier troll messages as "evidence" in a "pattern" of behavior in order to support a current message. Even if they admit to the earlier messages as being false, they may still persist with the meta-message of "regardless, there's a pattern" in order to further bolster or raise the apparent significance of a current message.

 

Anti-microsoft trolls, while not necessarily organized per se (very few trolls are), certainly naturally flock together around their common hatred-cause, and cite each others' statements, arguments etc., especially across forums/lists, and especially so when they are able to socially engineer the media into being a vehicle for their messages, which is not very difficult given that exaggeration, and the "evil big guy" archetype are two templates very commonly used by journalists because they know they get more attention (views, reads etc.) by doing so. If there is a specific victim (even theoretical) then journalists readily use the "innocent little guy(s) vs. evil big guy" archetype for the same reasons.

 

A long standing area of such troll messages is the assertion that Microsoft is doing something to "divide", "fracture", "drive a wedge into", or otherwise "harm" open source communities, companies, developers etc.

 

A recent (2007) example of this is citing Microsoft's apparent effort to get "patent indemnity agreements", including such examples as a "patent agreement and covenant not to sue" that appears to have originated with the inflammatorily titled Fortune Magazine Article from May 28th, 2007 that states that "Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith and licensing chief Horacio Gutierrez stated that FOSS [Free and Open Source Software] infringes on no fewer than 235 Microsoft patents." Thus anti-microsoft trolls are crafting messages around this issue.

 

 

In addition, Brad Smith's assertion (if we take Fortune at its word) itself could be categorized as low-grade "patent troll" behavior (low-grade because no actual lawsuit was/is being brought).

 

In fact some even hypothesize that this action may be a deliberate "troll" on the part of Microsoft, not necessarily to get income/indemnity from patent agreements (whose actual value does not seem commensurate with the cost of negative publicity around this event), but rather to prompt the expected (and certainly emotionally enhanced) response from anti-microsoft trolls in order to raise a general awareness and criticism of software patents overall, in the hopes that increasing such awareness (and outright anger) may increase the chance for patent reform, which could remove a very significant source of potential liability to Microsoft (which would be worth the cost of negative publicity incurred, certainly if "in the end" positive publicity resulted, thus being a kind of publicity gambit of sorts).

 

Since such patent reform would nearly certainly also help the very same open source etc. interests that that anti-microsoft trolls act as if they are "defending", yet would never (or would be highly unlikely to) overtly join any effort that could actually help Microsoft (since the anti-microsoft troll is more about being anti-microsoft than pro something else, hence a troll), this tactic may simply be Microsoft emotionally manipulating (emotional manipulability is a common attribute of most trolls) entire legions of anti-microsoft trolls into a highly motivated distributed patent reform army to help Microsoft's theorized actual cause. Were this to be true (and there is sufficient intelligence/smarts at Microsoft for it to be within the realm of reasonable possibility), and if patent reform does actually result from these events, it would perhaps be the single biggest successful manipulation of trolls to a particular desired ends in history.

 

Note that despite the fact that as stated "emotional manipulability is a common attribute of most trolls", the method of directly using that line of attack to defeat (or otherwise manipulate) trolls is not necessarily ethical itself. It has an "ends justifies the means" feel to it, and in spite of how good the end result may be, it's definitely at best questionable as to whether it is right to treat people in that way, and at worst very much a "dark side" method. The point of this note is not to deny that people and companies use such methods daily, because they do (e.g. advertising, marketing, sales), but rather, to alert and caution the reader before they are seduced too quickly by such a method, make a habit of it, and thus have it forever dominate their behavior and identity.

 

Ad hominem troll

Ad hominem troll at its simplest, will attack people personally, rather than the merits of their statements or methodologies.

 

The ad hominem troll often has already lost a rational argument about a topic, and thus its goal is to change the argument from being about a topic, to being about the people opposed to the troll (which could mean any/all rational person(s) in the discussion), in the hopes of both discrediting people's ideas indirectly by discrediting the people, and engendering an emotional reaction from the people by attacking their egos / self-image. The "getting a reaction out of" goal is common to most troll types.

 

The simple ad hominem troll is easily detected and dealt with by calling them on their ad hominem attacks.

 

However, often ad hominem troll will start its discourse with seemingly reasonable commentary, perhaps an analogy etc. Using rational tone, they may lull you into thinking that they are rational in general and thus their entire message should be considered rational. Once they have established such an impression, then they will then descend into personal attacks which may even sound reasonably worded, until you recognize them for what they are, nothing more than personal attacks.

 

Example: thacker. thacker starts by ignoring the previous comment (which itself was a rational challenge to thacker's earlier statements), repeating himself (see the section below on Repeating themselves), then moves onto an analogy. Afterwards he continues with personal attacks, starting subtly worded, then increasingly harsh:

  • "some here, yourself included, will not see nor understand the parallels"
  • "Your noses are simply buried too deeply into the proverbial bark."
  • "Or you lack the courage, will, ability to step away and ask the truly difficult questions. That is a shame."

 

The best tactic to take with such a troll is as stated. Quote and point out the ad hominem attacks and the fact that they are inappropriate.

 

If you have already done so, then you have a few options:

  1. If this is a moderated forum, point out the abusive behavior to the forum moderator and get them to ban the troll. Congratulations, you've won.
  2. Ignore the troll. And no longer respond to them. You are depriving the troll of their goal of "getting a reaction out" of you and thus again, you've won. Others in the forum will recognize the troll's insults, your restraint, and you'll be afforded respect for being cognizant enough to ignore the troll.
  3. Offhandedly point it out when responding to a separate topic in the discourse. If you have already pointed out how it is inefficient to respond to trolls in previous discourse, you may, while following up on another issue, just briefly point out that per your previous statement(s), you're not following up to other commentary due to them being of a trollish nature. You may even link "trollish nature" to the specific type of troll here in the TrollTaxonomy and people will put two and two together as far as the specific troll type characterization you linked to, and the trolls in the discourse whom you are ignoring.

 

Sexist troll

Perhaps related or a subspecies of the "jerk" with maybe a little "lonely guy" thrown in (see Previous Research section), the sexist troll is almost always male (or at least maintains a stereotypically male/masculine persona) and makes sexist/misogynist remarks in order to get attention, especially womens' attention.

 

The ends that the sexist troll seeks for that attention can vary from just trying to get women to pay *any* attention to him (by inflaming them into responding), or their goal might also be a form of PR trolling (any press is good press). If the troll persona in question happens to use their company/product name/logo as their personal identity then it's likely that their trolling is an attempt to get more awareness/PR (brandname recognition, familiarity, exposure, clicks, leads) for their company/product rather than anything to do with the sexist statements they're making.

 

The simple sexist troll can be detected by their obviously sexist statements that may take the form of sexist statements about intelligence, professionalism, careers, power, family, etc. Most (including/especially women) learn to ignore the simple sexist troll and just write them off, so they're not really that interesting, unless they're somewhat intelligent, and then adapt/evolve into the stealth sexist troll.

 

The stealth sexist troll typically makes intelligent-seeming statements which either contain sexist implications, or, they start with reasonable sounding statements, apply faulty logic, and draw lightweight (but seemingly reasonable) sexist conclusions, statements, soundbites, often couched in more abstract language or variants of familiar sayings to make it sound more academic/trustworthy.

 

The casual (but intelligent) reader will thus get suckered into trusting the stealth sexist troll when first reading their posts, but then eventually sense, wait, something is wrong here, and then notice that they (the reader) are able to figure out that the troll is being sexist, though maybe not overtly/obviously so!  The end result is that the reader thinks they themselves have found their own insight (that is the seed of inception that the stealth sexist troll has successfully planted), can easily refute the reasonable sounding statements by pointing out the veiled sexism, and then do so, as a response (post, tweet etc.). Bingo, the stealth sexist troll has succeeded in getting attention (and likely traffic).

 

Example: (name and alias removed due to request). Note: (alias) is itself a-yet-to-be-launched software/service, and thus awareness about it (which I realize I too am inadvertently raising) is likely a goal.  Example's post on 2010-363 is a stealth sexist troll (thanks to Mary for pointing this one out). Not very stealthy, but sufficiently so to solicit responses and tweets (and thus traffic) from intelligent folks on Twitter.

 

The best tactic to take with such a troll is just the usual: ignore, with possibly the addition of, vent privately to friends (gives less attention benefit to the troll). If you still feel compelled to correct the troll (per 386) then figure out how to write an original post that refutes the troll's post and topics without linking to them or mentioning them by name (basically, you have to be making your own self-standing points). Then if/when someone *else* links to the sexist troll, you can reply to that someone else and merely point out your refutation, thus at no point sending more traffic to the troll, and hopefully enlisting others in sending traffic to your reasonable points instead.

 

 

Defeating trolls

Defeating trolls can be very difficult, and often different approaches are required for different trolls, which are described in the specific taxonomy above.

 

Common troll goals

To defeat (or at least defend against) trolls, you must first understand both their implicit goals (implicit as in logically deducible from their actions, rather than their explicitly stated goals). No matter what trolls say their goals are (explicitly), in general they usually share the following goals (implicitly):

  1. get attention, be read/heard
  2. provoke a negative emotional response
  3. undercut the reputation of people, efforts, or the community as a whole

Common troll impacts

Trolls are problematic because they are a net negative on the community. The above troll goals cause the following respective negative impacts:

  1. time cost. they waste your and the community's time.
  2. emotional cost. they upset you and the community, perhaps even causing some people to leave the community.
  3. reputation damage they hurt your reputation, your efforts', and/or your community's.

 

For maximum efficiency, you must focus your defense on preventing, minimizing, or reversing these impacts. If you can neutralize or otherwise mitigate the a troll's negative impacts, it doesn't matter what else the troll does or says, or whether they leave or return. You have won.

 

Common troll goal defenses

Keep in mind:

  • Pouring time into dealing with trolls is like putting more money into a bad investment.
  • Do the minimum necessary to minimize future damage and time suckage from trolls.

Specifically:

  • Don't feed the troll. This general rule, essentially ignoring or dismissing communications from trolls, is often quite effective because it avoids the time cost and emotional cost impacts, as well as reducing reputation attacks (i.e. by not deeming their taunts/insults as worthy of a response).
  • Extract real issues. and ignore the rest of their statements. This is a make lemonade from lemons approach. Buried inside nearly every reputation damage attempt is potentially a rational critique. If you can process the troll's communications into a distilled set of rational critiques, you can document them as issues, and resolve them calmly. This turns a net negative into a net positive, in that you have used what the troll said to identify potential or actual problems, document them publicly, and resolve them, thus providing a quick way for anyone in the community to respond should the issue be raised again. By acting more mature and polite than the troll, others in the community, or neutral observers, will be more likely to respect you *more* as a result of your professional and respectful behavior, in contrast to that of the troll. Net result, your reputation is actually *improved*.
    • Though this defense can address, neutralize and possibly even reverse the emotional cost and reputation damage impacts, it is still vulnerable to being a time cost. To address or at least minimize the time cost impact, simply *collect* the distilled rational critiques into a queue for later processing. Then, later, asynchronously with any troll communications, process the issues later, when doing so is of highest priority to the effort/project. Even just collecting such issues alone enables you to respond to others reraising the issue by noting their reraised issues as duplicates.

 

Handling common attacks

There are some common attacks employed by many types of trolls however, especially when cornered, and thus it helps to look out for them.

 

Repeating themselves

Often when you defeat a troll with one or more of the above techniques, the troll may simply repeat themselves with a statement like "Yeah, but you missed my point..." etc.

 

At this point you have two options.

 

  1. Stop. You've won. You've driven the troll to repeat themselves which essentially means that they actually have no response to the previous blow you have dealt. Declare victory and move on.
  2. Point out that the troll is repeating themselves, and that you'll take that as evidence that they have nothing substantial to add to the argument. This method both takes more time however, often points out the obvious (thus adding noise to the community), and could be interpreted as being a bit mean, rubbing the troll's nose in their defeat that is. It is likely that the troll will simply repeat themselves again, and thus cause more noise. Only employ this method if you actually think the troll may be a rational person who will stop in response (i.e. won't repeat themselves yet again).

 

Somewhat respectable influential trolls

Trolls that are somewhat respectable or influential tend to be a special case, since the majority of trolls are anonymous or pseudonymous. This special case can be handled by essentially publicly calling the trolls out on their behavior.

 

Unlike the anonymous trolls, those who are respectable or influential tend to place some amount of importance on their public profile. Thus by publicly highlighting their negative behaviors, it may be possible to influence such trolls to behave in a more positive manner. The positive thinking hope here is that publicly shining a light, and calmly, rationally describing *why* their behavior is negative may actually result in understanding, sympathy, and a change in behavior.

 

Alternatively if such trolls continue their negative behaviors, the presence of calm and rational documentation of their negative behavior will serve to hold them accountable for their negativity, and thus reduce their influence and how much they are respected. We can only hope that such public pressure directs them to choose more positive and productive paths, but that's a choice that only the trolls can make for themselves.

 

Thus a reasonable approach is to document a list of such otherwise respectable or influential trolls on a personal wiki page, with sub-pages for each troll using their full name. On the page for a troll, document each public instance (with URL, most recent first) of such trolling, with a list of everyone that is attacked, optionally quoting/excerpting the attacks and refuting them. When doing so, be sure to list those furthest from you or general groups first, then people you know mentioned by name, and finally the personal attacks on yourself. Putting yourself last (and those you know second to last) and thus humbly de-emphasizing yourself, will help communicate that this is not something personal about you, but rather about the troll's negative behaviors in general.

 

  • Trolls - list of my current respectable and/or influential trolls, and projects for minimizing the impacts of trolls.

 

If one of these trolls contacts you privately attempting to argue with your characterization of their behavior as trolling, take their arguments and make constructive statements refuting them on the aforementioned public wiki page for that troll. Block any private communication channels that they use so they do not privately harm your emotional state (or continue their DenialOfProductivityAttack on you) in that way any further (if they take it public, see above).

 

Do not waste time responding to private communication from trolls until the they have publicly stopped trolling, and publicly retracted and apologized for their past trolling. At which point, update the pages accordingly, recognizing them for their magnamity and humility for admitting their mistakes, and thanking them for their public apology.

 

Finally, the last thing you can do about trolls is to document their actual patterns of behavior, perhaps in a taxonomy of such patterns, so that you help educate others about troll behavior and thus reduce the impact of not just the specific troll(s) that you're dealing with, but whole categories of trolls, inevitably contributing to the evolution of a more troll-resistant culture.

 

 

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