Trolling is a set of activities engaged by a person with the intention of sowing discord in a community, provoking an emotional response, or starting a fight. What separates trolling from other forms of harassment, bullying, or even mockery is the element of performance it has: it depends on others reacting to a fabricated set of behaviors to take advantage of its victims rather than directly targeting them. However, more toxic forms of trolling may not wait for a response before transitioning into direct harassment, or may lead with harmful imagery or personal attacks: leaving provoked and chaotic reactions as collateral damage.
Trolling works on a principle similar to Poe's law: it's very difficult to discern a bad argument given in good faith or a clueless person, from someone who's come to deliberately disrupt normal conversation and interaction.
- Bringing up irrelevant topics (see also: derailing).
- Various forms of silencing to aggravate a target into getting angry.
- Harassment and abuse, demanding a reaction from a target.
- Triggering images, videos, or text.
- Pretending to be a newbie or "confused," ignoring Frequently Asked Questions, demanding personal attention and a community's energy.
- Pretending to agree but have an emotional or ethical concern, while really just trying to bother people (concern trolling).
- Deliberately untrue arguments.
- Fishing, or tailoring posts to hit as many points of controversy in an online community as possible.
- Intellectual dishonesty/purposefully fallacious or ill-cited arguments.
The troll defense
A form of rhetorical defence often found online is the troll defence, or a plea to not be taken seriously due to being "just trolling." This may be to take scorn or pressure off the instigator, or to try and lord a position of intellectual superiority, feigning that they had control of the situation all along.
Trolling, by definition, is deliberate use of sensitive topics, irritating positions for the purpose of causing discord. If the chaos was not intentional, or not the result of a manipulative motive, it is not trolling. Nor does framing it as roguish mischief absolve the person from responsibility for their actions; the opposite, because trolling implies that they wrote with harmful intent rather than just mistakenly or with garden-variety problematic viewpoints.
Trolling also has elements of control, manipulation, and deceit to it. The person presenting the position is not doing so necessarily because they actually believe in what they're putting forward, but instead to manipulate others into reacting to it. If the position is one's own beliefs and one seeks out spaces where it's harmful to plaster them everywhere, that's not trolling. You're not a master manipulator, you're an egocentric conflict-seeking jerk that people have reacted understandably negatively to.
Online harassers may use the concept of "trolling" to frame their mischief as harmless, legitimate, fun, or against "deserving" targets. This form of the troll defence frames cyber-stalking, harassment, or even rape threats or encouragement to commit suicide as a form of play or dominance-establishment rather than attempts to do harm with serious consequences.
Anonymity and trolling
Often but not always, trolls will be anonymous or psuedoanonymous as to not link their trolling with their real names. This can be done through sock puppets, internet proxy services, fake emails, etc.