Word of the month: Trolling

A term with surprisingly innocent beginnings
May 12, 2022

We usually think of trolling as an individual abusing another individual on social media, but it’s now big business. From Nicaragua to Russia, there are organised troll farms and troll factories where humans are paid to work 12-hour shifts to create fake accounts and to post vitriolic abuse and misinformation on social media platforms. Combined with bots, these paid trolls are able to reach millions of targets within seconds. Nuanced types of trolling have spawned a new lexicon: flaming, roasting, threadjacking, dogpiling, shitlording, baiting, doxing, hate raiding and mobbing. There are even trolls with specialisms, such as patent trolls who attack vulnerable companies for patent infringements, and concern trolls who infiltrate online communities, pretending to be sympathetic to their cause, in order to sabotage and undermine them with offensive and inflammatory content. 

When the identity of the owner of a conservative Twitter account called Libs of TikTok was recently revealed to be a Brooklyn real estate agent called Chaya Raichik, she was described on many media sites as a “troll.” Her account immediately gained 250,000 followers in two days, and she monetised her publicity by joining Substack and offering her one million followers the opportunity to subscribe for $50 per year or to be a “founding member” for $500 per year.

All of this is a far cry from trolling when it first started 30 years ago. Back then it was a light-hearted game among academics and students with no signs whatsoever that it would end up as a vehicle for vile abuse and a way of manipulating politics and business.

It was in 1992, in the very early days of the internet before the World Wide Web was born, that a small group of nerds started a Usenet discussion forum called alt.folklore.urban (AFU). They wanted a fun forum for discussing different theories on the provenances of urban myths.

Older members of the discussion group, mainly academics from major American universities, decided to start a secret game, a kind of in-joke, to trick new members. The game was called “trolling for newbies.” It went like this: an older member of the group deliberately posted a slightly wrong version of a very familiar urban legend, in the hope that an innocent newbie would “take the bait” by making a well-meaning correction to the story. 

On 8th October 1992, a mathematician from Rutgers University posted the following message: Churchill’s first words were “In the morning I’ll be sober, but you’ll still be overdone.”

An unsuspecting new member replied in all earnestness: The way I heard this one was: a lady MP (Member of Parliament) indignantly confronts Winston Churchill in the lobby of the Houses of Parliament with the words: ‘Sir, you are drunk!’ To which he replies: ‘Madam. You are ugly. But in the morning I’ll be sober.’ The newbie had taken the bait! 

Continuing to use the language of fishing (trolling is a technique in which bait is dragged on a line behind a boat, or on the bottom of a lake, in order to catch fish), the mathematician replied in the same thread: Whaddya think? I think I caught this one cold. Other members responded with several light-hearted jokes at the newbie’s expense: this is my nomination for the new afu motto, typed an academic from the University of Chicago. I second the motion, with a grin and a chuckle! responded someone else.

The bemused newbie replied: excuse me. Can someone tell me what’s going on here? The mathematician kindly explained to the newbie that he had been “trolled”: Well, seeing as how you ended up on my hook, I suppose it’s my responsibility to explain the situation to you… people put these rather warped and garbled versions of old familiar tales on the end as a sort of insider’s joke. Every now and again, someone who is unfamiliar with the game will bite and post a well-meaning correction to the story, and end up reposting a story that has been told many times on afu… some people call this game “trolling for newbies,” especially at the beginning of each new school year.

Reading through the archived group messages today, I am struck by the good-natured naivety of the academics. Not only are they poking wholesome fun at the newbie, but they are trolling with their full names from their official university accounts. It is difficult to imagine a worse ending to such innocent beginnings.