The Logic and Evolution of Trolling

by Joseph Graff, Paul Graff, and Thomas Veatch


An apparently new speech act schema known as trolling has become increasingly important in public dialog in the new, deeply-connected, on-line world. For example, right-wing trolling likely made the difference in the 2016 election. While anarchists are celebrating the breakdown of rational public dialog, those who wish to solve important shared problems through rational dialog are increasingly disempowered. Trolling is an important puzzle to understand.

Trolling, according to this account, has undergone rapid evolution in recent years. We will set some context, trace that evolution, and outline possibilities for a better world.

Speech acts generally involve two parties, a speaker and an audience, where a two-way conversation may be considered a sequence of speech acts where speaker/audience roles swap at each turn. A richer scene may include three parties, speaker, target, and audience, where for example in a humiliating joke or poking-fun situation the speaker connects with audience by attacking, by making fun of, a third party target, who may or may not be present physically, but is represented in the situational logic of the attack or joke. (Inoffensive humor often results when the third party attacked is the speaker him or herself.)

Three or four parties are required in the analysis of satire, where the speaker enacts a position constituting a moral violation seen by a shocked audience and unseen by an implied straight audience. For example, when Jonathan Swift modestly proposes to solve the Irish famine by feeding human infants to the starving, there is an implied "straight" audience to whom the proposal is rational, sensible, and appropriate, given that cannibalism will indeed both feed the hungry today and reduce the population of hungry people tomorrow. The enacted speaker, oblivious to the violation, would seem to have an audience in mind, that agrees or has an open mind. This oblivious speaker enacting the violation, is a role played by the satirical author or speaker, who at a deeper level is actually communicating to a shocked, true audience, which sees the portrayal, the idea, and the straight audience, each and all as moral violations.

[ insert drawing here: true speaker, speaker's violative role, speaker's "straight" audience not detecting the violation, true audience that sees the violation ]

This already-rich analytic schema, of multiple and enacted speakers and audiences must be further enriched to capture trolling.

In trolling there is a speaker/author with (1) true underlying as well as (2) portrayed-but-false roles, (3) a true audience, (4) a straight audience, and (5) a shocked/reactive audience. Let us have a look.

Trolling depends on variation in moral perspective, and when a speaker (1) pretends (2) to shock as a way of drawing a reaction from the shocked audience (5) which will induce the righteous hostility of the straight audience (4) and the smugness/superiority of the true audience (3), all parties have different ideas of what is right and wrong as well as different levels of commitment to their views.

Generally the troll (true speaker) and true audience are cynical disbelievers in public morality; at their most intellectual they espouse anarchist philosophy (e.g. Michael Malice, The New Right), or nihilistically reject the values of the shocked audience, and may or may not reject the values of the straight audience or the portrayed speaker role.

Examples could be multiplied, please offer some for comment in the feedback box below.

Evolution in Trolling.

When the modern wave of trolling began as internet and social media took off, the first generation troll was a person taking an outrageous social or moral position as an affiliation or identity marker, to signal to his or her in-group that they can stand together. Thus Trump saying Charlotte rioters are good people, etc. Affiliating and ingratiating himself with sympathizers, on the one hand, and as it were, tickling or poking the shocked audience in the press and wider society, whose subsequent reactivity, elaborating and extending the speech act by their outraged responses, is itself a matter of enjoyment and contempt by the true and the straight audiences.

F them for having values that we don't share, F them for trying to impose them on us, F them for their sense of moral superiority which we don't accept, hurray for us who receive social validation by our participation in the shared true or straight audiences, and hurray for our leader whose speech act has provided social validation to us.

At the same time, the deniability implied by a speaker falsely taking an outrageous position and asserted by the phrase "I was just kidding", provides cover for the straight audience whose moral position is not accepted in wider society. They were just kidding too, laughing at the racist joke, for example.

Worse, to express and objection to any of it is to be entrapped into the role of shocked/reactive audience member; only a calm objection, acknowledging all the layers and roles involved, and without evidence of contempt or emotional reactivity, can keep one from becoming the butt of the show. It may be hoped that real-time analysis, understanding, and suitable and effective response will be achieveable for those who don't wish their own audiences to be taken over by this corrupting gamesmanship.

Further generations of trolling sophistication have developed since this initial affiliation- and identity-signalling phase. For that, we will write more another day.

The second generation of trolling moved beyond the assertion of identity and affiliation to .... Please fill this in!

Recently, another generation of trolling has emerged, in which .... Please fill this in!

In short, to combat the pernicious effects of trolling we must certainly know this history and this conversational logic. For if you don't know who is the turkey on the table, it's you.

The false dilemma poses a similar trap for audiences. For example:

There are only two kinds of people, those who admit they like the smell of their own farts, and those who don't admit it. Which are you?

An unsophisticated audience may be trapped by the structure of the false dilemma which on the surface seems to obey ironclad logic. A thoughtful audience will see that "admitting" something presupposes (does not prove) the truth of what is admitted. Similarly belief does not, while knowledge does, presuppose that the proposition is actually true which is believed or known. Admitting something presupposes it is true; not admitting it still presupposes it is true; neither proves it is true. So the person who poses the false dilemma entraps the logically unsophisticated audience.

Similarly trolling puts the innocent audience into a trap, which only a sophisticated audience member might escape. I hope this exposition will enable a reader to be a sophisticated audience member when trolling occurs, to understand the layers of implied and presupposed participants and beliefs, and to walk your own path rather than be forced to follow the path the troller has laid down for you.

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Copyright © 2020-2022 Thomas C. Veatch, Joseph Graff, and Paul Graff. All rights reserved.
Modified: January 6, 2022; May 25, 2022.